Mats Sundin will go into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday night for his deeds as a player – 1,349 points in 1,349 NHL regular-season games, most with the Toronto Maple Leafs; 12 consecutive seasons, 1995-96 through 2007-08, with 25 goals or more; 15 seasons with 75 or more points, and a gold medal with Sweden at the 2006 Olympics.
But his former teammates, friends and coaches remember him most fondly as a person.
“He was a great guy,” said Pat Quinn, co-chairman of the Hall of Fame’s selection committee and Sundin’s coach with the Maple Leafs from 1998 to 2006. “He never considered himself more important than the group. I’ve been around star players who were that way, but not him.
“He wanted everybody to succeed and was happy when they did.”
A lingering memory of Sundin is his high-definition smile, which would light up the scoreboard video screen whenever the Leafs scored and he was on the ice. It did not matter if it was his goal or someone else’s, Sundin’s joy was evident.
“It was that leadership ability he had where it was always inclusive where everybody was together,” said CBC broadcaster Glenn Healy, a former teammate of Sundin’s with the Maple Leafs. “There was nobody higher than anyone else. If we won, he was the first guy to hug the trainer. That’s totally the way he was in every respect.”
Healy and Quinn, who didn’t agree on much when they were with the Leafs, both say Sundin was one of the greatest captains in Leaf history. Both of them say it was evident that Sundin’s parents, Tommy and Gunilla, did an excellent job raising him in Bromma, a suburb of Stockholm. But, Healy added, Sundin “didn’t have to be taught to be genuine, he just was.”
Sundin honestly took more joy in the success of his teammates and the team than he did in his own accomplishments. It was all part of his belief in the team above all. Unfortunately, those Leaf teams always fell short of lasting success, but Sundin does have that Olympic gold medal, and Sweden also won three world championships with Sundin on the team.
“There’s all these great statisticians who want players to play by the minute,” Quinn said. “If someone doesn’t get 22 minutes [of ice time per game], it’s terrible. But Mats didn’t care about that. If the team was doing well, he was happy with whatever minutes he had. It was his concept of a team, to get everybody involved.”
As captain of the Maple Leafs from 1997 through 2008, Sundin had the highest-profile job in Toronto, but no Leaf captain before or since kept a lower profile. He guarded his private life from the media that circled him constantly. This, too, was part of his unassuming nature, one that always made him quickly answer “an electrician” when he was asked what occupation he would have taken up if he could not have been a hockey player.
“For years, he lived in an apartment on Bay Street that was less than a thousand bucks a month,” Healy said. “You’d look at the furniture inside and swear someone handed it down to him. There were pieces of art on the wall and even Van Gogh couldn’t tell you what they were. They were hideous. But it didn’t matter to him.”
It also didn’t matter (at least, he never uttered a word of complaint to anyone) whom he played with, a constant source of angst for the fans and media. From the time Sundin arrived in the blockbuster trade in which beloved icon Wendel Clark went to the Quebec Nordiques in 1994 right through his messy departure in 2008, the Leafs were never able to find a star winger to play beside the big centre.
Sundin ran up all those points and goals despite playing with a series of journeymen. That, too, is a testament to his greatness as a player. Some superstars would have complained to management about playing with lesser players, but not Sundin.
He summed up his philosophy of the team above all several months ago when his selection for the Hall of Fame was announced and he looked back on the most painful period of his career. The fans and much of the media wanted Sundin to waive his no-trade clause in 2007-08 so the rebuilding Leafs could trade him for prospects and draft picks. Sundin refused and endured much criticism until he left as a free agent, putting in a final 41 games with the Vancouver Canucks before retiring in 2009.
“When you’re 22 or 23, it’s kind of just about winning the championship,” Sundin said. “And as you grow older, it’s a cliché, but you’re enjoying the journey, the travel and the grind of getting together as a group in the fall and just build up for a goal in the spring. It was kind of the thing that was great, the long-term commitment.”
Fourth in a series about the Hockey Hall of Fame’s class of 2012.
Monday: Joe Sakic