Sundin “Fluke” Still My Best Career Moment

***I WROTE THIS BLOG BACK IN FEBRUARY, ON THE EVE OF MATS SUNDIN HAVING HIS NO. 13 BANNER RAISED AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE. CORRECTION: MAKE THAT “HALL-OF-FAMER” MATS SUNDIN***

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Feb. 10) – There is no debating that the most fortunate aspect of my years covering the Toronto Maple Leafs was being in the professional company of Mats Sundin. His tenure with the Blue and White – and my 14 consecutive seasons following the team, home and away, for The Fan-590 (now Sportsnet-590) – coincided almost precisely; he left the club one year before the radio station interrupted its long string of blanket Leafs coverage.

Sundin returns to have his No. 13 banner raised at the Air Canada Centre as the finest gentleman the Leafs have deployed (among many) in my years around the club. The term “gentleman” may seem old-fashioned, but it defines Sundin. Shy and awkward when he arrived from the old Quebec Nordiques in a June 1994 trade that I’ll discuss in a moment, the native of Bromma, Sweden quickly developed into the consummate professional – on and off the ice. Through biting criticism in his early Leaf years to effusive admiration as he became the franchise scoring leader, Sundin never changed. No matter the circumstance, he stood up for the hockey club, refusing – nearly without fail – to shirk media responsibility as captain of the Leafs. He had the innate gift of saying absolutely nothing to reporters, but doing so in a manner that sounded meaningful and offended no one; his commitment to teammates and the sanctity of the dressing room foremost in any media repartee.

Though he angered a segment of the club’s enormous fan-base by refusing to surrender a no-trade clause in his final Toronto season, Sundin was quickly, and rightly, forgiven – those same admirers bringing him to tears before a face-off at the Air Canada Centre the following season, as he skated for the Vancouver Canucks. A long, rousing, clearly un-Toronto-like ovation triggered the oft-hidden emotion in Sundin, who acknowledged the praise before asking a linesman to drop the puck, lest he break down on national TV. It was a moment that any of us fortunate to witness in person will likely never forget… one that promises to recur in kind as Sundin is honored before the Toronto-Montreal game tomorrow night.

When I think of Sundin, I frequently recall the most triumphant moment of my 23-year term at Canada’s first all-sports radio station – a moment I earned by simply being in the right place at the right time. It was just prior to the 1994 NHL entry draft at the Hartford Civic Center, as the Whalers were still in the league – franchise re-location to North Carolina three years away. The now-iconic Prime Time Sports radio show was in its infancy and a young Dan Shulman had temporarily replaced Bob McCown as host – the latter briefly switching to mornings. Around 6:35 p.m., as I prepared to do a live telephone-segment with Shulman and co-host Jim (Shaky) Hunt, I loitered near the fence that separates media from team personnel on the draft floor. Bill Watters, with whom I had previously worked at the radio station, was then chief lieutenant to Maple Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher and had been summoned to the fence by another ex-colleague, agent Rick Curran.

I was extremely fortunate to overhear a conversation not meant for my ears. It meshed with a warning from Fletcher to reporters that planned on being in Hartford for the draft: “Get there early – we’re going to be busy.” As such, I wasn’t overly astounded when I heard Watters tell Curran the Leafs had just completed a mammoth trade; one that would be announced, momentarily, by commissioner Gary Bettman. Sprinting to the telephone, I called the radio station and implored producer Chris Clarke to “get me on the air.” Seconds later, as I apprised Shulman, Hunt and our listeners of the pending deal, a piece of notepad paper was shoved under my nose by Eugene McBurnie – a part-time agent; full-time lawyer and friend of a family member. On the paper were names of players from the Maple Leafs and Quebec Norquidues, with an exclamation from McBurnie – crudely underlined four or five times – that “this trade HAS BEEN MADE!!!“

Glancing at him with an expression that clearly said “my career is on the line”, Eugene smiled and motioned for me to go with his information. As such, I interrupted Shulman – said a brief, silent prayer – and rhymed off all components of the apparent swap: Wendel Clark, Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson and Toronto’s first-round draft pick that night to Quebec for Sundin, Garth Butcher, Todd Warriner and the Nordiques initial selection. Shulman’s reaction did nothing to comfort me: “Whaaaaat?!” he exclaimed, as if I’d been sniffing glue. “You’ve got to be kidding!”

“No, Dan,” I replied. “To be honest, I’ve never been more serious about anything in my life.”

Nervously considering career options I may need to pursue, we discussed parameters of the deal. I was still on the air with Dan and Shaky when Bettman ascended the draft podium and announced, “We have a trade.” To gasps and howls from the growing audience at the Civic Center, the commish relayed elements of the Toronto-Quebec deal, as I breathlessly ticked off each name from the sheet of paper McBurnie had delivered. Oh my God, did I experience a wave of utter relief… followed by the exhilaration that comes from breaking a huge story – an exploit that no person in this buisiness anticipates on a given day. 

PHOTO (ABOVE) ON BACK OF A BOOK I WROTE IN 1994 – LOOKING RELIEVED THAT I HADN’T BOTCHED ANY COMPONENTS OF THE SUNDIN-TO-TORONTO TRADE. LITTLE DID PAT QUINN AND I REALIZE HOW MUCH WE’D BE INVOLVED WITH THE BIG SWEDE IN YEARS TO COME.

And, so began the Mats Sundin era in Toronto – one that would end 14 years later atop the Maple Leafs all-time scoring list with 987 points in 981 regular-season games.

It’s a mark that won’t be threatened for years, as none of the top 50 scorers in Leafs history are active with the team. Sundin finished his career 71 points ahead of second-place Darryl Sittler, though Sittler’s points-per-game average (916 in 844) was slightly higher. Mats scored 420 goals in a Toronto uniform, 31 more than Sittler and 32 better than Dave Keon. He finished second, all-time, with 567 assists, trailing only fellow-countryman Borje Salming (620) in that category. Though he routinely led the Leafs in scoring, Sundin’s best single-season output was 94 points (in 1996-97), tying him (with Vincent Damphousse) for 10th on the franchise list, behind totals accumulated by Doug Gilmour (twice); Sittler (four times); Dave Andreychuk, Wilf Paiement and Gary Leeman.

On two memorable occasions, Sundin and the Leafs advanced to the Stanley Cup semifinals – in 1999 against Buffalo and 2002 against Carolina, bowing out each time. The ovation Sundin received for his 500th career goal – scored shorthanded, in overtime, on Oct. 14, 2006 against Miikka Kiprusoff and the Calgary Flames – was raucous beyond any since the Air Canada Centre opened in February 1999.

Here’s hoping Leaf fans raise the roof for the Big Swede one more time tomorrow night.

A brief photo-history of Sundin’s time in Toronto appears below.

IT WAS AFTER THIS FIVE-GAME LOSS TO VANCOUVER IN THE 1994 STANLEY CUP SEMIFINALS THAT GM CLIFF FLETCHER AND COACH PAT BURNS CONCLUDED A MAJOR OVERHAUL WAS IN THE OFFING. IT BEGAN ON JUNE 28 OF THAT YEAR WITH THE COLOSSAL DEAL BETWEEN THE LEAFS AND QUEBEC THAT LANDED MATS SUNDIN.

MATS AS HE APPEARED IN HIS FIRST LEAFS MEDIA GUIDE BIOGRAPHY (ABOVE), AND HIS FINAL SUCH TRIBUTE (BELOW), WHICH HAD GROWN TO FIVE FULL PAGES.

 

OTHER LEAF MEDIA GUIDES (ABOVE) FEATURING SUNDIN ON THE COVER.

I WAS PRIVILEGED TO BE ON A PANEL THAT SELECTED THE TOP 100 LEAF PLAYERS OF ALL TIME FOR A BOOK THAT MIKE LEONETTI PUBLISHED (ABOVE LEFT) IN 2007. SUNDIN PLACED 12th OVERALL, BEHIND DAVE KEON, TED KENNEDY, SYL APPS, FRANK MAHOVLICH, DARRYL SITTLER, CHARLIE CONACHER, JOHNNY BOWER, TIM HORTON, TURK BRODA, BORJE SALMING AND RED KELLY.

THE LATE PAT BURNS – COACH OF THE MAPLE LEAFS – SHOWS OFF THE CLUB’S ABBREVIATED SCHEDULE (ABOVE) ON FRONT OF THE TORONTO SUN FOR THE 1994-95 NHL SEASON, REDUCED TO 48 GAMES BY AN OWNERS’ LOCK-OUT THAT ENDED IN EARLY-JANUARY. IT WOULD BE MATS SUNDIN’S FIRST YEAR WITH THE BLUE AND WHITE.

I BEGAN MY FULL-TIME COVERAGE OF THE MAPLE LEAFS DURING THE OPENER OF THE SHORTENED, 1995 SEASON – AT THE FORUM IN INGLEWOOD, CALIF. – AGAINST THE LOS ANGELES KINGS (PROGRAM ABOVE-LEFT). SUNDIN, PLAYING HIS FIRST GAME AS A LEAF, APPEARED IN A SPORTS-FRONT PHOTO IN THE TORONTO SUN THE NEXT DAY (ABOVE-RIGHT), AMONG TEAMMATES DAVE ELLETT AND DAVE ANDREYCHUK.

A NIGHT LATER – JAN. 21, 1995 – AT SAN JOSE (PROGRAM ABOVE), SUNDIN BEAT ARTURS IRBE FOR HIS FIRST OF 420 GOALS IN A LEAFS JERSEY (TORONTO STAR PHOTO BELOW).

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