Right off the bat I’m gonna say I always liked Mats.
I know there are many who don’t feel the same about the former Leafs’ captain but you have to respect his NHL career and being captain of the Maple Leafs for 11 years, an accomplishment honoured Saturday in Toronto.
There are those who contend he was the wrong guy as Leafs’ captain. I am not among them. He was the closest thing to hockey greatness they had during his era.
He wasn’t Dougie or Wendel but outlasted them as a leader far and away. Yes, those two had the type of grit in their game that Sundin never did though their rote words in front of a microphone were every bit as dull as his (come to think of it maybe that’s a tradition with the job because Dion Phaneuf seems equally monotone.)
He was just too damn calm — and nice — for many fans liking.
But you don’t get to be captain and hang onto that role on the NHL’s biggest franchise if you’re just another schmuck, Swedish or not.
Some choice Sundin moments: His 500th career goal in OT; he’s still tied for most regular season OT goal with 15; he holds the record for most 30-goal seasons (10) and 20-goal seasons (13) and of course the all-time Maple Leaf scoring leader with 420 goals, 567 assists and 987 points in his 13 years as a Leaf, 11 as captain.
Quite a legacy. And let’s not forget that when Mats lit it up, he did so twice on each occasion. No hockey player beamed as much as he did after scoring — often after assisting too. That smile lit up Leaf nation on many nights. Clearly, he shared his successes with other teammates and delighted in celebrating theirs.
Though for all the happy moments, Sundin could not lead the franchise out of the hockey wilderness and cement his status as a Leaf legend.
Sure, there was Dougie and company in the 1993 & 1994 runs. Sundin-led teams under Pat Quinn also got to the Eastern conference finals in 1999 & 2002. But mostly there was more drought in between and a creeping tiredness afterwards by fans and media that the same faces with a free agent added here and there, were not going to get it done. And Mats was at the helm for all of that.
Had they managed to climb the mountain and win a Stanley Cup with Sundin, we’d probably be talking about retiring number 13, not just honouring it.
Of course it all came to a head in 2008 when he wouldn’t waive his no-trade clause to be a rent-a-player for a Cup contender in exchange for a high draft pick. He seemed stubborn and resolute as pressure built, still believing the Leafs had a shot at the post-season and it would be unthinkable as captain to bail on his team in the midst of a late-season surge.
But that was Sundin in a nutshell. A loyal soldier to a fault. His decision – or lack of one – left a cloud hanging over his looming departure, tainting an otherwise impressive legacy as Leaf captain. He took a lot of heat for it. A portion of this frustrated fan base still won’t forgive him as many believe it set the Leafs’ rebuild back another season by missing out on at the very least, a top pick.
I doubt if all the hand wringing and chatter over it ever made him think twice about that decision. He did what he felt was right for him and the team and if you ask me, that’s a sign of a good leader — one who doesn’t change his standards and give in to whatever ill winds may be swirling about.
His exit from the Leafs’ stage may have been on the minds of some on Saturday but surrounded by family and friends, Sundin basked in his moment, content and happy in the knowledge that for more than a decade around here, he was the man.
No argument there.