Will Top-Scoring Leaf Receive Ultimate Honor?

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (June 25) – Though he’s among a marvelous cast of first-time eligible players, one of the greatest-ever Maple Leafs will raise nary an eyebrow if he enters hockey immortality on Tuesday.

Mats Sundin, nestled without challenge atop the Leafs all-time scoring list, could be a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2012 when the Selection Committee reveals its newest honorees in a media conference call at 3 p.m. EDT. The player with whom Sundin rode shot-gun early in his career at Quebec City – Joe Sakic – is considered a shoo-in, along with the NHL’s current minister of discipline, Brendan Shanahan, who fired 656 goals in the big league. Should the Committee decide to honor multiple players, Sundin and Jeremy Roenick could easily be added with Sundin’s ex-Toronto teammate – Curtis Joseph – also in the mix. 

To these eyes, the fifth-best player of European descent to skate in the NHL – behind only Peter Stastny, Nicklas Lidstrom, Jaromir Jagr and Peter Forsberg – Sundin authored a brilliant tenure in North America, spent mostly with the Blue and White, which acquired him from les Nordiques 18 years ago this week (June 28, 1994). His record-setting time as captain of the Leafs (1997-2008) is only now being fully appreciated by followers of the hockey club – a playoff spectator since 2004.

COVERS OF QUEBEC NORDIQUES MEDIA GUIDES FROM 1991-92 AND 1992-93, FEATURING “BURNABY” JOE SAKIC AND THE “BIG WEED” – MATS SUNDIN – BOTH OF WHOM COULD BE ELECTED TO THE HOCKEY HALL OF FAME ON TUESDAY.

“I knew we’d acquired a great, young player in 1994, but who could have imagined the impact Mats Sundin would have on the Maple Leafs for 13 seasons?” wondered Cliff Fletcher, the man that traded for the native of Bromma, Sweden just prior to the ’94 NHL draft in Hartford. “All I did was make the first move. It was Mats who played terrifically – year after year – long past the time I was gone from the Maple Leafs.”

The story of the multi-player trade that sent beloved Leaf Wendel Clark to Quebec is legendary, and one that Fletcher can easily recount. It began immediately after the Leafs were throttled by Vancouver in the ’94 Stanley Cup Western final – then known as the Campbell Conference championship. The late Pat Burns, coaching Toronto, implored Fletcher to make significant change to a roster he believed had maxed out after consecutive appearances in the Conference final. Never one to shy from opinion, Burns told Fletcher – unceremoniously – that he felt Leafs would miss the playoffs in 1995 if not dramatically altered.

“With that as the basis, I ran into [Quebec GM] Pierre Lacroix a few weeks before the draft and he told me his team needed additional toughness,” Fletcher recalled. “Pierre felt there was a physical dimension lacking with the Nordiques – particularly in games against arch-rival Montreal – and he wondered if Wendel Clark could be available.

“Well, at the time, you’ll remember that Wendel and Doug Gilmour were the most beloved Maple Leaf players and Wendel was coming off a season [1993-94] in which he scored 46 goals in 64 games. I told Pierre the only way I’d even consider moving Wendel is if he offered Mats Sundin in return.”

   

Most GMs would likely have burst into laughter upon such an outrageous request. Sundin was a 23-year-old – first pick of the 1989 NHL draft – and had scored 135 goals in his first four seasons, while playing in every game for Quebec. His 47 goals, 67 assists and 114 points in 1992-93 would be career highs.

“Quebec had pretty good depth at center back then with Sakic, Mike Ricci and Peter Forsberg about to come into the NHL,” Fletcher said. “I figured if Pierre wanted toughness badly enough, he would make Sundin available, even though managers almost never trade star-caliber players that are 6-foot-5, 230 pounds and durable. Negotiations continued right up to the morning of the 1994 draft in Hartford.”

THE “SILVER FOX” – CLIFF FLETCHER.

At that point, the deal began to grow. “Pierre said he also needed a defenseman if he was going to trade Sundin,” Fletcher recalled. “He asked for Sylvain Lefebvre, who had been really solid for us. I told Pierre I’d consider moving Lefebvre only if we switched first-round picks – our 21st for Quebec’s 10th. Plus, I said I needed some kind of short-term help on the blue-line if I was going to move one of our top four. Eventually, the trade saw Garth Butcher and Todd Warriner come our way, with one of our picks from the previous year – Landon Wilson – going to Quebec.”

It was announced by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman just moments before the draft, sending shock-waves through the floor of the Hartford Civic Center.

File:1994NHLDraft.gif

CHRIS CREAMER/SPORTSLOGOS.NET

“When I completed the trade with Pierre, I walked over to the boards near our draft table and spotted Don Meehan [agent for Wendel Clark],” remembered Fletcher. “I’m sure I’ll never forget the look on his face when I told him I had traded Wendel. He went pale and his jaw dropped to the floor.”

From the lockout-shortened season of 1994-95 through 2007-08, Sundin worked his way to the top of the Leafs all-time scoring list, registering 987 points in 981 games.

It will be decades before a player challenges Sundin for the franchise water-mark. The most veteran active Leaf is forward Nikolai Kulemin, currently a restricted free agent with four NHL seasons under his belt. At 152 points, Kulemin stands a mere 835 behind Sundin. Phil Kessel has 201 points in three Leaf seasons. He would need to average 100 points over each of the next seven seasons to surpass Sundin.

All other players in the top 10 (Darryl Sittler, Dave Keon, Borje Salming, George Armstrong, Ron Ellis, Frank Mahovlich, Bob Pulford, Ted Kennedy and Rick Vaive) are long-since retired or deceased.

    

DARRYL SITTLER (ABOVE-LEFT) AND DAVE KEON: THEY TRAIL MATS.

Sundin departed the Leafs in a situation that was far-more contentious than warranted. With his contract expiring and the club beyond playoff salvation for a fourth consecutive year, Fletcher made an awkward pitch. “I had replaced John Ferguson as interim general manager a few months earlier [January 2008] and I knew I could get a pretty good package of young and future parts by trading Mats to a contender,” Cliff said. “But, he had a no-movement clause in his contract that was negotiated in good faith between himself and the hockey club. So, it was entirely his right to determine whether he wanted to stay in Toronto or go elsewhere.

“To this day, there’s erroneous information that he provided me a list of possible teams or that I flat-out asked him to waive his contract privilege. I don’t operate that way; I have too much respect for the game and for the provisions of a contract. And, I had way too much respect for Mats to make such a bold request. It never got to the point of other teams. I simply went up to Mats and said, ‘If you want a crack at winning the Stanley Cup this season, I think I can trade you to a club in that position.’ He thanked me and said he would mull it over for a few days.

“Eventually, he came back and said he felt uncomfortable bailing out on his teammates at the end of a difficult season – that he should stay with the group, as captain, until the end. And, that was it. There was no further prodding on my part whatsoever. He chose to exercise a contract privilege negotiated in good faith and I completely respected his decision.”

Sundin finished his career during half-a-season with the 2008-09 Vancouver Canucks. Initially peeved at the long-serving captain for failing to waive his NMC – as if re-structuring the Leafs was his responsibility – the large and loyal fan-base in this city proved it had “forgiven” Sundin on the night of Feb. 21, 2009. An overflow crowd at the Air Canada Centre reduced the big Swede to tears with a lengthy, heart-felt ovation during the Canucks’ lone visit to Toronto.

The love-affair between the parties was cemented for all time when Sundin’s No. 13 banner rose in the ACC prior to a game against Montreal on Feb. 11 of this past season (though the team lost, 5-0, that night and went on to fold like cheap luggage).

MATS SUNDIN DROPS CEREMONIAL PUCK BETWEEN DION PHANEUF AND LONG-TIME TEAMMATE TOMAS KABERLE PRIOR TO LEAFS-MONTREAL CLASH AT THE ACC ON FEB. 11, AND MOMENTS AFTER HIS NO. 13 BANNER WAS RAISED TO THE RAFTERS (BELOW).

 

One can imagine the rousing welcome Sundin would receive during the up-coming Hall of Fame Induction weekend, Nov. 9-13. In an odd twist, the Leafs are away from home – playing at Washington – on the Saturday of the Induction festivities, a night normally reserved for honoring the inductees. Leafs do play a home game the previous night – Fri. Nov. 9, against New Jersey – so the ceremony could take place then.

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