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Vancouver Canucks' Mats Sundin, of Sweden, stretches during team practice in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday April 14, 2009. (DARRYL DYCK)
Vancouver Canucks' Mats Sundin, of Sweden, stretches during team practice in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday April 14, 2009. (DARRYL DYCK)

David Shoalts

Sundin steps away in typical low-key fashion Add to ...

Mats Sundin held the highest-profile sports job in Toronto for 13 seasons but somehow managed to keep most of his life private, no small feat in today's world of newspapers, websites, talk radio, sports television networks and cell-phone cameras and the blogosphere.

But Sundin, 38, who announced his retirement from hockey yesterday in typical low-key fashion, met his public obligations as captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs with stolid regularity. He hardly ever said anything interesting but he was there to say it when required, as long as he didn't have to talk about his private life.

This is not a criticism, though. He conducted himself with a dignity that is increasingly rare in a sporting society that thinks every banal, self-reverential utterance from someone like Terrell Owens is worthy of blanket coverage.

An NHL general manager once paid tribute to Sundin by saying he was "a low-maintenance guy." What the executive meant was that he never had to worry about seeing pictures of the captain in handcuffs splashed across the newspapers or watching him ripping management in a television interview.

Sundin had plenty of reasons over the years to lay into management, from the never-ending search for a scoring winger to play with him to the many expensive trades that always fell short of producing a Stanley Cup in Toronto.

If he had any complaints, be it about building a contender or the reluctance of some fans to embrace him, Sundin kept them to himself and a few trusted friends. The only time his feelings came to the surface was during his protracted and awkward leave-taking from the Maple Leafs and even then it was more a matter of conjecture.

Many of the fans and more than a few of us in the media thought the best thing Sundin could have done for his failing team as the NHL trading deadline approached in February 2008 was to agree to waive his no-trade clause to allow interim general manager Cliff Fletcher to deal him for some draft picks and prospects. Sundin refused, saying he did not want to be a rental player, a remark that would come back to haunt him last season when he spent an unhappy half-season with the Vancouver Canucks. Thus he was branded as one of the Muskoka Five, the Leafs players who hurt the team's chances to rebuild by refusing trades.

It became clear Sundin was genuinely hurt by the fans' attitude and by the way he left the team. He became a free agent and agonized over his future throughout the summer of 2008. The new regime quietly let it be known there would be no offer to rejoin the Leafs and Sundin became a Canuck in December.

Leafs defenceman Tomas Kaberle, a close friend of Sundin, said yesterday he was stung by the criticism for not accepting a trade. But he typically did not complain, even to his friends.

"He doesn't say it much, he keeps a lot of things to himself," Kaberle said. "It's nice to see. Sometimes you want to keep things to yourself and not talk on the outside. That is Mats.

"He does not want to talk much to the media. Some things have to stay with yourself and that's Mats."

The relationship between Sundin and the fans was uneasy to begin with, partly because he was a Swede who displaced the beloved Wendel Clark, the quintessential Canadian hockey player. Clark was shipped out as part of the trade that brought Sundin to Toronto in June, 1994.

Over the years the fans' affection grew, as Sundin proved his early reputation as someone whose heart wasn't in every game was false. But it never matched the adoration they had for his predecessors Clark and Doug Gilmour.

What was clear was the regard other players had for him. Whenever the Leafs would encounter former teammates or coaches on the road the warmest greetings were for Sundin.

"The one thing I admired most about Mats was that he would get out there in every practice and pick up the tempo," said Fletcher, who made that 1994 trade. "Everybody else would see that and say, 'If he's going like that, then I had better, too.'"

"I learned so much from Mats," said Leafs centre Matt Stajan, who came to the team in 2002 as a 19-year-old tongue-tied rookie. "I don't think any of us could ask for a better guy to be your leader. What he did for this organization is second to none."

He was never able to win a Stanley Cup but it is not as if he did not experience any team success. Sundin was a major reason Sweden won the men's hockey gold medal at the 2006 Olympics and he was part of three world championship teams.

And when he comes to the Air Canada Centre this season, or maybe next, to have his No. 13 raised to the rafters, there is no doubt the fans will finally show him their unabashed love.

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