Toronto was a place Mats Sundin called home for 13 seasons. But his place in Toronto hockey lore is tougher to pinpoint and open to debate.
Sundin, 41, received a spirited standing ovation and was interrupted by rousing cheer after rousing cheer as he tried to stickhandle through a speech prior to the Toronto Maple Leafs raising his No. 13 to the rafters of the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night.
"There are no fans more loyal, passionate or committed about their team than you Leaf fans," he said, eliciting a tremendous roar of approval from the raucous crowd of 19,685.
Pundits speak passionately about Sundin's career contributions -- how he is the Leafs' all-time leader in goals (420) and points (987) and how he ranks among the best ever to wear the blue and white. But truth be told, Leafs Nation never truly embraced the big Swede in the same heartfelt way it did Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour during their playing days.
Fans were riveted by Clark and Gilmour because they were explosive, indeed inspirational, sparkplugs. Sundin by comparison, though admired, was the epitome of consistency, a steady contributor with a quiet resolve -- more respected than revered.
"The first two or three years were tough," Sundin said in trying to explain his perceived stoicism.
"In all honesty, there is no tougher place -- no better place, but no tougher place -- for a young man in his 20's to be a professional hockey player than in Toronto. When you're at that age, you kind of want to protect yourself."
Sundin was never one for fiery speeches or emotional outbursts. He was the strong and silent type, preferring to lead by example and let his talent do the talking.
And boy, did he have talent.
A strapping 6-foot-5 with a wide-legged, choppy stride, Sundin was near impossible to knock off his pins, much less the puck, and an absolute bulldozer along the boards, in the corners and around the net. Deft hands, a hard shot and the best backhand in the business made him a constant threat throughout his banner career.
Sundin was also as durable as he was productive, never missing more than 12 games in any one season with Toronto and never earning fewer than 72 points in a full season.
More importantly, he never put himself ahead of the team.
"He was a leader, cared about his teammates, was very dependable and responsible and also was tremendously humble," said Pat Quinn, who coached him in Toronto.
"Mats was not high maintenance," noted former Leafs president and GM Cliff Fletcher, who brought Sundin to Toronto in a 1994 trade with the Quebec Nordiques.
Sundin preferred to keep things low key, especially for someone with the high profile of team captain. Behind the boyish smile and stylish signature was a giant of a gentleman -- a team player and loyal leader not the least bit consumed by personal acclaim.
Sundin understood the modern-day role of captain as team spokesman and took it seriously. He never abused the power or the privilege, ever careful not to overstep boundaries or create undue controversy.
Nor did he toy with the media. Most every question was met with a big grin and a sheepish chuckle that bought him time to think of how best to respond. Yet he always answered honestly, even critically were it warranted.
There was nothing not to like about Mats Sundin. Everyone in Toronto had nice things to say about him. Heck, even Roy Pelley, Sundin's arborist (and mine), said he was "nothing but pure class."
'He came to play'
No doubt, Toronto fans have fond memories of Sundin. Yet he never did -- and likely never will -- receive the adoration accorded a Clark or a Gilmour. Perhaps it is simply that Clark and Gilmour exceeded expectations with the Leafs while Sundin remained the point-per-game player he already was and, in so doing, merely met expectations.
With No. 13, there were no surprises. What you saw was what you got. And what Toronto got was 13 solid seasons of reliable productivity. It is the strength of that performance, not the strength of his personality, that makes him the worthy recipient of a banner hanging from the roof of the ACC.
"Game in, game out, he came to play," Fletcher said.
The Leafs rarely retire numbers (only Ace Bailey's No. 6 and Bill Barilko's No. 5). The Leafs prefer to honour the players wearing them. And with room for just two on the back of a hockey player's sweater, I have no qualms about them wanting to keep single and double-digit numbers in circulation. However, that is a discussion for another day.
Sundin is the 16th player so "honoured" by Toronto.
Deserving? Absolutely. Respected? Certainly. Beloved? Let the debate begin.
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