Hindsight, it seems, loves Mats Sundin.
The 13-year-Leaf is a first-ballot member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
He has been accorded the highest available honor in the shortest time possible.
In a season that included the raising of his number 13 to the rafters at Air Canada Centre, any lingering questions about Sundin’s place in the pantheon of the team’s finest players, and that of the NHL greatest, has evaporated, for now, forever.
Sundin will be inducted with Pavel Bure, Adam Oates and Joe Sakic, November 12 at the Hall, a slapshot away from the Air Canada Centre.
Now living an affluent retirement in Sweden, Sundin was having dinner with his wife Josephine when word came.
“We were talking about living in Canada in Toronto and my years in Toronto the hockey capital of the world,” Sundin said. “It’s unbelievable news for us.”
In a league buoyed by more and more and more gifted Swedish players, Sundin and his idol, Borje Salming, will be remembered as two of the finest Maple Leafs and the only two Hall of Fame Swedes.
Salming urged Sundin to accept the captaincy when it was tendered in 1997.
It was never easy. Acquired by Cliff Fletcher in a trade that sent Wendel Clark to Quebec, Sundin arrived as the first European chosen first overall in the NHL draft.
“I think you have to be part of the Toronto Maple Leafs to understand the importance of the team for the city of Toronto,” Sundin said. “It took a while to learn that and to understand the pressure of being part of the team.
“The longer you are there, the more you appreciate being part of something so big.”
As a player, Sundin’s greatness was always in question. Despite leading his team in scoring in 12 of his 13 seasons, blame for the inability of the Leafs to gain the Stanley Cup finals invariably landed on his doorstep. It’s a phenomenon unique to sports and alive and well in this market. In no other garden would so many lop off the head of the tallest rose.
In the shark pit of the most competitive hockey market on the planet, Sundin always held himself to a different standard. Every question to him contained the world you. Every answer was built around we.
“A lot of those teams had some very powerful factions,” Quinn said recently. “Each player had his guy in the media who he would leak stuff do. 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.”
Sakic was flanked by the great Peter Forsberg. Adam Oates set up two superb goalscorers, Brett Hull in St. Louis and Cam Neely in Boston.
The Leafs’ most recent inductee, Doug Gilmour had Dave Andreychuk. Darryl Sittler had Lanny MacDonald. Frank Mahovlich rode shotgun for Dave Keon.
Consider Sundin’s runningmates. Steve Thomas came to Toronto in his mid 30s. Alexander Mogilny was 32 and just beginning to suffer the effects of chronic hip problems. Gary Roberts was 34 with a resurrected neck. Doug Gilmour was 31. Wendel Clark was 29 but had the body of a 40-year-old.
Despite the lack of a comparable talent in his prime, Sundin leads the club in goals scored as a Leaf with 420, points (987), game winning goals (79) and power play goals 124.
He played internationally 14 times and won an Olympic Gold Medal in 2006. His most memorable goal, his 500th career marker was a shorthanded, overtime winning hat-trick.
“You circled his name whenever you played the Maple Leafs,” recalled Sakic. “He was a force.”
At 41, Sundin has become the chairman of the international cadre of Leaf fans.
“There are no fans in the league or in the world who deserve a championship more than the Toronto Maple Leafs,” he said.
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