Up close or in private the chasm between the good and the great is not a theory.
It is a daily fact and it thrived in Toronto over 13 seasons.
Mats Sundin’s greatness, evident to all, was felt most keenly up close. His presence, titanic to those closest to him, sometimes dissipated by the time it reached the fan.
The less you know of Mats Sundin, the more you may be prone to doubt him and the underlying arguments against his standing as the greatest Leaf ever are by now familiar enough. The first overall pick in 1989, he never won a scoring title nor lifted the Leafs into the Stanley Cup final. He never won a major trophy.
“I think he was highly underrated,” counters broadcaster Harry Neale. “He’s one of the best Leafs ever and had he been with players of comparable talent his career would have been even greater. “
When he took the opening face-off for the first game at Air Canada Centre in February of 1999, Mats Sundin looked to his left and found Ladislav Kohn, the owner of 14 goals in 186 NHL games.
A motley parade often began beside Mats Sundin. It included Jonas Hoglund, Mike Johnson and Fred Modin; some better than average, all short of great.
On the other wing that night stood Steve Thomas, a solid goalscorer who returned to Toronto in his mid-thirties. The prodigiously gifted Alexander Mogilny was 32 and just beginning to suffer the effects of a crumbling hip when he hit town. When repatriated to Toronto, Gary Roberts was 34 with a resurrected neck.
Doug Gilmour was 31 when he began playing with Sundin. Wendel Clark was 29 and managed two more productive seasons but the premature wear on his body meant Clark’s prime was mostly in the rearview.
Peter Forsberg flanked Joe Sakic. Wayne Gretzky had Jari Kurri. Marcel Dionne thrived with Dave Taylor. Bryan Trottier had Mike Bossy. Mario Lemieux could find Kevin Stevens. Gilbert Perreault was the heart of the French Connection but Rick Martin and Rene Robert were bona fide talents.
Gilmour had Dave Andreychuk. Lanny MacDonald flanked Darryl Sittler. Keon skated beside Frank Mahovlich.
That Sundin was so rarely paired with comparable talents wasn’t an accident. It was a management decision based on his on-ice mastery and off-ice humility.
“When you had a player like Mats, you could put the better players on other lines to get more balance,” said Pat Quinn, Sundin’s longtime coach. “The thing about Mats was it was never about Mats. All that mattered was that he wanted to win at the end of the night.”
Said Darcy Tucker: “Year after year he was the best player on a team that was regularly fighting for the conference final. What does that tell you? “
More than his staggering skill set, more than his finely tuned sense of the occasion (who else’s 500th career goal was an overtime, shorthanded, game-winning hat trick ), Sundin’s unflagging integrity is central to who he was –and this is rare- to who he still is.
It is that reluctance to which his critics have always clung, that the inability of the club to team him with a comparable winger was somehow his fault.
Maybe it was. Sundin refused to lobby for a better calibre of help.
“A lot of players are in the coach’s office complaining about who they have to play with,” Tucker said. “Mats would look to see who he was with and then he would go out there and roll. It didn’t matter if it was me or Alex Mogilny or whoever. His game didn’t change from day to day.”
There may be more great players in the NHL today but it is an open question whether there are more noble men.
Players willing to endure constant upgrades such as Columbus Blue Jacket Rick Nash are in short supply. Even the admirable Nash is said to have lost patience.
Today’s NHLers observe the marketing sages urging them to build their own brand. They manage their identities through Twitter. They demand, as Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are doing, complementary talents or they will, as LeBron said, take their talents elsewhere.
Even during his time Sundin was a curiosity: a teammate first, a commodity second.
“Mats was at his happiest when someone else scored,” said Clark. “He wanted to do well but he wanted everyone to do well.”
“A lot of those teams had some very powerful factions,” Quinn said “and each player had his guy in the media who he would leak stuff to. It would never be Mats but when we hit the ice there would be no division. He was the only person who all the factions could identify as being the team’s true leader. He had so much empathy for every teammate and every man in the room knew that.”
“Mats made everyone matter, from the guy who picked up the towels to the best players on the team,” said longtime teammate Glenn Healy.
Sundin only served one logo.
“His brand was the Toronto Maple Leafs,” Neale said. “He wore the Maple Leaf whether he was in uniform or not. I can’t imagine any Leaf fan not being thrilled with seeing his number lifted to the rafters.”
The case for raising Sundin’s banner is built on his overwhelming authorship of the Leafs 85-year-old record book: most regular season goals (420), assists, points (987), game-winning goals (79), and power play goals (124).
Sundin’s post-season prowess is second only to that of Doug Gilmour who managed an astonishing 77 points in 52 games. Sundin garnered 70 points in 77 games, a clip bettered only by Darryl Sittler and superior to that compiled by Keon, Clark, Ted Kennedy, George Armstrong, Gary Roberts and Dave Andreychuk.
He earned his standing not a point at a time, but a day at a time.
“I learned a lot from him on ice and off the ice,” said Winnipeg’s Nik Antropov whose career began on Sundin’s wing. “The way he takes care of people, I haven’t seen so many guys do that.”
For the media, Sundin handed out even-tempered and often tepid quotes. He never called out a teammate, never hinted about a rift with the coaching staff, never questioned his role or tried to leverage his standing.
Over the span of a thousand inquisitions, Sundin took questions that contained the word ‘you’ and gave answers built on the word ‘we.’
“He didn’t say a lot but I was always impressed with how he carried himself,” said the Toronto Star’s Paul Hunter. “He reminded me of Jean Beliveau. He had that statesmanlike quality. I haven’t a bad thing to say about the guy.”
Late in his career, Sundin would not waive his no-trade clause so he could be shuttled elsewhere for a handsome return in talent and prospects.
“If you put in the time to earn a no-trade clause it’s your right to decide what you are going to do,” said Hunter. “I was always baffled by the criticism of him as a person because he refused to be pushed out of town.”
Of Mats Sundin there are only two possible indictments.
First, he wasn’t willing to leave on anything but his own timetable. Many construed that decision as selfish. Sundin who eschewed self-defence, let the notion that he should forfeit his no-trade clause so that he could be reinvested in some other jurisdiction, slide off him. Like Clark, Sundin lived a maxim that he never expressed but always observed: never complain, never explain.
The other criticism says nothing about the player and a lot about us.
Sundin’s beliefs, unimpeachable in a Canadian, were unfathomable in a foreigner.
“I think there’s an underbelly there because he wasn’t from Kingston or Kelvington or whatever place
people want their hockey players to come from,” Hunter said.
“You’d like to not believe that,” Quinn said, “because as Canadians we are proud of who we are and we respect others. But the fact that he replaced one of the most popular players was tough enough. That he wasn’t from Saskatchewan or Hamilton probably was a factor.”
That’s tough gruel for a city that adored Borje Salming. Still there is traction in the notion that if Sundin were the pride of the prairies you would, en route to Will Call, pass the statue of a giant Leaf with arms outstretched toward a teammate and a delighted smile etched in ore.
For Mats Sundin, a banner raised Saturday, one last ovation, and the everlasting loyalty of those who knew him best will do just fine.