The look on Mats Sundin’s face said it all.
While listening to Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee chairman Jim Gregory read off a statistical section on Joe Sakic’s newly minted plaque, Sundin turned to his fellow inductee with amazement.
“Geez,” whispered Sundin, who was part the 2012 class, along with Sakic, Pavel Bure and Adam Oates accepting their Hall of Fame rings ahead of Monday night’s official induction ceremony in Toronto.
A sheepish Sakic smiled, knowing his former teammate joins him in hockey’s famed palace with similarly impressive credentials.
Sakic finished his career as the eighth highest scorer in NHL history with 1,641 points, won a pair of Stanley Cup rings, and was MVP of the 2002 Olympics after leading Canada to a gold medal for the first time in 50 years.
Sundin scored 564 career goals and piled up 1,349 points. He also captained Sweden to its first Olympic gold medal in 2006.
Together in Quebec
Both recognized the greatness in the other early on when their careers began with the Quebec Nordiques in the late 1980s. Sakic, selected 15th overall in 1987, arrived two years ahead of Sundin, the No. 1 overall pick in 1989.
The two played four difficult seasons together with the young Nordiques, a team going through an enormous rebuilding phase at the time.
“As a 19-year-old, Joe Sakic just established himself as one of the best players in the league,” said Sundin. “And just to watch the way he performed on the ice, how he carried himself off the ice, how he was with the media. He was a perfect role model for myself. Joe was one of the guys that I looked up to when I broke in and really set the tone.”
Sundin’s talent was obvious from the moment he stepped in an NHL arena. What struck Sakic more were Sundin’s leadership abilities, even as a teenager.
“What a tremendous captain,” echoed Sakic. “I’m very proud to have [had] a chance [to play with him]. We were two guys that basically grew up together in Quebec City. To both be here in the same weekend, it’s pretty special to me.”
Their paths to the Hall of Fame took different turns.
Although Sakic remained with the Nordiques, Sundin was traded to Toronto in 1994 when he couldn’t reach a contract agreement with Quebec.
By the time the Nordiques moved to Colorado at the start of 1995-96 season, the pieces were already in place for a Stanley Cup run. The famous Eric Lindros deal with Philadelphia in 1992 netted the franchise the rights to Peter Forsberg, among others. Then in the first year of the team’s move to Denver, general manager Pierre Lacroix pulled off a coup after getting goaltending legend Patrick Roy in 1995.
With the silky smooth Sakic as Colorado’s playoff master, the franchise became a perennial power, winning Stanley Cups in 1996, and again in 2001. He still holds the NHL post-season record with eight career overtime goals.
“We had a really good team the year before in Quebec City and we just fell short in the first round,” said Sakic, Colorado’s executive adviser and alternate governor. “Obviously when you make a trade for Patrick Roy, it was Pierre’s way of showing: ‘OK ,you’ve got the best ever so go out there and get it done.’ We had some really good teams there, obviously.”
Sundin face of the Leafs
Sundin wasn’t as fortunate with his supporting cast, yet wouldn’t trade his place in history. For 13 seasons — 11 as captain — Sundin was the face of the Leafs. He is Toronto's all-time leader in goals (420) and points (987).
The team’s undisputed leader often deflected credit when the Leafs had any measure of playoff success, like the two occasions they advanced to the conference finals, but he was always the first to take responsibility in failure.
Sundin adored his time in Toronto, one that hasn’t wavered despite an almost half-a-century Stanley Cup drought.
“Winning the Stanley Cup in Toronto, I don’t think anyone can envision,” he said in a self-deprecating tone. “I’ve got so much out of my career over these 18 years, [it’s] way too much that I could ever ask for. I’ve got too much from hockey that I’ve got no regrets.”
Sundin and Sakic do share similar Olympic experiences.
After enduring a disastrous 1998 Nagano Games, the expectations for Canada soared four years later in Salt Lake City, Utah. Canada didn’t start off well, enduring an embarrassing 5-2 defeat to Swedish behind Sundin’s two goals.
The Canadians did rebound, reaching the gold-medal final against the hometown U.S., where Sakic sealed the win with a late goal.
“I just remember it was the best game I’ve ever been a part of,” said Sakic, who led the tournament in points. “The speed of the game, what it meant, it was unbelievable to be there for that. We really wanted to win a gold medal.”
In those same Olympics, Sundin and the rest of his teammates suffered more humiliation as Sweden was shocked in the quarter-finals to qualifier Belarus. The loss prompted a Swedish newspaper to publish the exorbitant NHL salaries of each player the following day.
However, redemption was found four years later in Turin, Italy.
Sweden reached the top of the mountain, defeating Finland in the gold-medal game with a team that also featured Forsberg, former Red Wings defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom, Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, Vancouver’s Henrik and Daniel Sedin twins, and Detroit wizard Henrik Zetterberg.
It was the crowning achievement for Sundin and his nation, which finally become kings at a time when all hockey countries were represented by their best players.
“It was kind of our last chance to [win] in our prime,” said Sundin, now an adviser to the Swedish national team. “So it was very special, especially [after] the failure of '02 and '98 where we had similar teams and we couldn’t get the job done. For Swedish hockey it was a big recognition and a certification that we’re a great nation in the game of hockey.”