They put him where they should have, sandwiched between Borje Salming, the gold standard for Swedes and George Armstrong, the tireless plugger pulled from the nickel belt.
Mats Sundin is now the subject of a covert understanding among newly-minted Maple Leafs. Henry Ford said the Model T came in any color you would want –as long as it was black. New players, and there may be a few more after last night’s one-sided loss to Montreal, can have any Leaf number they want save for the catastrophic ones, the six worn by Ace Bailey and Bill Barilko’s five.
That said, the new players will want to be staying away from 21 (Salming), 17 (Wendel Clark), 27 (Darryl Sittler and Frank Mahovlich) 93 (Guess who?) and now 13.
The raising of Sundin’s banner bearing his number 13 after 13 banner seasons was, like the man himself, understated and dignified.
Sundin wobbled only once in his speech, when he recognized teammates taken too soon: Wade Belak, Igor Korolev, and Alexander Karpovtsev.
“That’s one of the tough things,” Sundin said later. “I thought it was important to mention them.”
To listen to Mats Sundin is to hear the finished product, to find out how it turned out.
There are scars, none that he picked at but they bore mentioning. When he came to Toronto he had no idea of the popularity of Wendel Clark, the man who he was traded for. Sundin would be compared to Clark for the first half of his Leaf career.
Sundin arrived in North America thinking he should be able to play at least three seasons. By lasting 18 he stayed around long enough to find out how little he knew as a kid.
Those first few years were tough. Clark was an icon. Sundin was a giant who looked like a superhero even in street clothes. Clark hit, scored and fought. Sundin’s game was dynamic but he brought none of Clark’s loveable malice.
Salming advised Sundin to love Toronto but at first, behind Sundin’s Nordic countenance, a boy lived inside the man.
“You want to protect yourself and be tough, and be a man,” he said, Saturday.
It was only after he stopped protecting himself, after he decided who he wanted to be not how it would be seen, that Sundin learned how to embrace the fish bowl.
That decision, that evolution, set up all that was to come, the phenomenal durability and consistency, the effortless way Mats Sundin became Mats Sundin.
When he succeeded Gilmour in 1997, he was stepping into the wake of another Leaf legend . This time, at 26, he was ready.
The best player in Leafs history, the team’s all-time leading scorer and a 12-time Leaf scoring leader, Sundin finally has had time to digest what he has done. Looking up at the scoreboard, his career, literally and figuratively, flashed before his eyes.
“You don’t have time to reflect until it’s over but to be up there with Salming, Armstrong, Gilmour, it’s great.”
Maybe the best way to appreciate Mats Sundin is to scan the horizon for his successor. Dion Phaneuf has managed the captaincy well but the case for a spot in the rafters will be made over years if at all. You can say the same thing about the Canadiens who might, at best, someday accord Carey Price a place in their own pantheon.
But the league’s two most storied franchises have no new Beliveaus, Roys, Armstrong or Sundins. Greatness it seems visits more rarely than ever.