By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Feb. 13) – Today is Mats Sundin’s 42nd birthday.
He remains the Toronto Maple Leafs all-time scoring leader nearly five years after last donning the blue and white jersey. Though he has twice since been accorded long standing ovations when appearing at the Air Canada Centre, Sundin is disparaged by many Leaf fans for his contentious departure and his subsequent choice to sign – as an unrestricted free agent – with the Vancouver Canucks.
The story unfolded in the weeks leading up to the March 2008 NHL trade deadline. It was clear the Leafs were going nowhere and would miss the playoffs for a third season. Cliff Fletcher had taken over from John Ferguson as interim GM and he approached Sundin in late-February to determine whether the Leafs captain might welcome a move to a Stanley Cup contender. Sundin had a no-trade clause and Fletcher – as per his managerial ethic – invited him, without burden, to chew on the matter.
Ultimately, Sundin chose to exercise his contract privilege and remain with the Leafs, insisting he did not want to abandon his teammates in a difficult situation. Any person remotely familiar with the character of the Leafs captain understood his position. Emotional fans of the hockey club felt differently – and somewhat righteously. Though Sundin gave his heart to the team and never complained, there was no doubt the Leafs had mostly failed – over the span of 12 seasons – to surround him with a roster capable of vying for the Stanley Cup. Regardless, fans contended it was Sundin’s obligation to waive his no-trade clause for the betterment of the team. Fletcher later nourished the outcry by claiming he could have traded Sundin for an assortment of assets that would have put Leafs on a proper heading.
THE BIG SWEDE: MAPLE LEAFS FRANCHISE SCORING LEADER.
After fulfilling his commitment to the club, Sundin went back to Stockholm and began to evaluate whether he’d retire at 37 or pursue another NHL opportunity. More than two months had passed in the 2008-09 season before he came to a decision and signed with Vancouver – considered on the periphery of Stanley Cup contention. When Sundin returned with the Canucks to Air Canada Centre on Jan. 30, 2009, he stood in a face-off circle at the east end of the arena and cried as fans gave him a long, warm reception. He then ended the night by scoring the decisive goal in a shoot-out.
Last February, Sundin received another tumultuous ovation when his No. 13 banner was raised at the Air Canada Centre prior to a game against Montreal.
The Big Swede could not recapture the form in Vancouver that had made him such a commanding presence – the 10-month layoff between games robbing him of timing and stamina. Canucks were eliminated by Chicago in Round 2 of the playoffs and Sundin retired with 1,349 points in 1,346 career games.
My feeling on his Toronto deparure hasn’t changed. I assert now, as I did then, that Sundin owed the Maple Leafs and their fans absolutely nothing. For more than a decade, he had been the consummate team leader – undervalued, in my opinion, as the lone European-born captain in franchise history. Under no circumstance was it his responsibility to improve the Maple Leafs by waiving a negotiated contract provision.
Sundin was deprived – by the recent NHL lockout – of a third blaring reception here in town. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November but could not take a bow in the ceremony that precedes the annual Hall of Fame game at Air Canada Centre – initially scheduled for a Friday-night (Nov. 9) between the Leafs and New Jersey Devils.
To determine if fans have absolved Sundin over the past five years, I posed such a question on my Twitter page this afternoon. Here were some replies:
@angrydad1120: “Really wish the Leafs had gotten something for him. He owed them nothing but it would have made a difference in the re-build.”
@cdn_ginger: “A class act. The best Leafs player of my era. Wish we had him now. Happy birthday Mats.”
@bryanwcsmith9: “It left a bad taste in my mouth at the time. But, I’ve gotten past it. He’s still the best Leaf I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
@Darrell_Samuels: “Every player’s desire should be to win a Stanley Cup. Sundin’s stubbornness to stay put the team so far back and it’s unforgivable.”
@MrChadDriscoll: “If he hadn’t signed with Vancouver after he stood his ground to ‘go down with the ship’ I’d have no problem with it.”
@leafsnation0715: “Personally, I want players like that on my team. Players who believe they can persevere through difficult times and be victorious.”
@lordele: “He set [the Leafs] back quite far. What we could have received in return could have helped.”
@Bwoodfor: “He handled [it] poorly and put the Leafs in a tough situation in more ways than one. But, I respected his decision.”
@JoeyNarsa50: “Sundin’s departure was a failure by Leafs. They mistreated him and now Sundin bashers would kill for a 6-foot-5 centre with skill.”
@spud64: “Only [after] his departure do Leaf fans truly realize what they had – such a calm, steady influence.”
@MP191: “No way I can hold a grudge against Mats. One of the greatest Leafs of all time. How many times did he put the team on his back?”
@Imthiyaz: “His refusal to be traded hurt. But, choosing to go to the Canucks hurt more.”
@dantastic76: “One of the greatest Leafs. Within his right to refuse a trade. However, he wasn’t exactly honest about it and it hurt the team.”
@ThunderTomOlsen: “Mats had the right to remain with team he cherished and played for. He was a veteran and earned the right to call his future.”
@SkyzNest: “Mats who?”
@lloyder1971: “Wish he would have left a season [earlier], however he earned the right to choose. Not bitter then or now.”
@joemorgante: “I’ll forgive him but the bitter taste lingers. He was an unrestricted free agent [in summer of 2009]. After trade [to Vancouver] he could have returned a hero.”
@kromkar: “I still think he should have waived his no-movement clause. He set the franchise back a minimum of five years. I [understand] it was his right not to waive, but when a team says it’s time to go, it’s time to go.”
@crazyjoe82: “He wanted to stay with the Leafs. I’d say he left [because of] bad Leafs management. His loyalty to Toronto is unmatched.”
@jani7777777: “Still question his [character]. Had a chance to go to a Cup contender but preferred to stay in a comfortable yet losing situation.”
@sokocanuck: “I really wish the [Leafs] had signed him to a two or three-year deal to play with Phil Kessel. The ‘losing culture’ was everywhere except [with] Sundin.”
@axleriley9: “It would have been nice to see him retire as a Leaf. But, I can’t blame him for wanting a shot at the Cup. He earned that right.”
@nhlbrk: “I agreed with his decision not to waive but I lost respect when he came back [with] Vancouver. It was all about the money.”
@dzzoom2_dan: “It’s odd that when an athlete wants to leave Toronto, he’s an SOB. When he wants to stay, he’s an SOB. Mats never did – nor will he ever – get his due.”
@ClaytonRochon: “I think it impacted his name and [dissuaded] free agents from considering Toronto. But, loyalty goes a long way. He deserved better.”
CONCLUSION: Most Leaf fans forgive Sundin for exercising his no-movement clause but continue to resent his decision to sign with Vancouver. Those that do not forgive him still believe it was his obligation to improve the Maple Leafs. But, they are clearly – one-half decade later – among the minority.
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