FanPost

We've Always Been at War with Mats Sundin

PPP just posted the title in another thread, and he's right.    This is a great article from a Toronto magazine in mid-2004 talking about Mats' often-strained relationship with Toronto fans.   It's a little bit sad, actually.

IN FEBRUARY, I MET MATS SUNDIN FOR breakfast at Sizzling Jaks, a workmanlike restaurant he favours on the Queensway. The Maple Leafs were scheduled to practise in a couple of hours at the Lakeshore Lions arena in Etobicoke, and Sundin, two-thirds of the way through his 10th season as a Leaf, had 50 minutes to share with me and a ham and cheese omelette.

He got out of his black Porsche Cayenne and walked a little sheepishly through the door, the way you'd expect of a big, quiet man who, on the ice, reacts to scoring as if he's seeing an old friend, with a smile and arms held out for a hug. What struck me was that he was wearing nothing but beige--beige pants, beige sweater, even a beige tuque he kept on his head. He looked for all the world like a man trying to disappear.

It's not hard to imagine why that might be: throughout his professional life, Mats Sundin has received the kind of attention most of us could do without. A tiny sampling of headlines: April 1999, "A prime-time player? Leaf captain Sundin under gun to prove himself in playoffs." January 2001, "Sundin miscast as Maple Leafs' leader: the Maple Leafs' captain may be a franchise player in name only." October 2003, "Leafs' Sundin under the gun; critics slam captain's lack of output."

Each year, as he has gradually surpassed the points totals of a dozen Leaf greats before him and became the first player in club history to accrue 10 straight seasons of 20 or more goals, it has at some point been decided that Mats Sundin is the reason the Maple Leafs have failed to win. We have blamed him for his team's disappointments, accused him of not measuring up to our ideals, and questioned his leadership, his tenacity, his heart.

Of course, every year, just as reliably, we have at some point come to the conclusion that Sundin is a sensational hockey player on whom our dreams of glory depend. November 1999, "Sundin like fine wine: he improves with age; Leafs captain grows into role as team leader." April 2001, "Sundin answers critics; beleaguered Leafs captain comes through in clutch. December 2003, "Sundin's star on rise; captain at best when needed most." The good, however, has generally come in response to the negative; it's the negative we've reached for first.

But then, it's the story of Mats Sundin's career that his pleasures have always come tainted with some kind of misery.

GO BACK TO THE BEGINNING. WHEN PIERRE Gauthier, director of scouting for the Quebec Nordiques, passed over a number of talented players in favour of an 18-year-old Swede in the 1989 entry draft, Sundin became the first European player ever to be selected first overall. That alone was a goad to the xenophobes of the sport who would reserve the places of honour--first selection, team captain--for North Americans (preferably Canadian) as if by birthright. Not even in the league yet, Sundin was already the focus of hostility. "It was quite a controversial decision," says Gauthier, now head of professional scouting for the Canadiens. "But the upside in terms of what he would be for the length of his career was too much to pass over. There was such talent for a six-foot-four player that he was unique."

Move forward a year. Sundin, now a 19-year-old in the Quebec Nordiques' plans, was developing his skills as a member of Djurgarden, a club in the Swedish Elite League. The verbal understanding between Djurgarden and the Nordiques was that when Quebec's management decided Sundin was ready to play in the NHL he would be released from the Swedish team without any further obligation. When the Nordiques came to collect their player, however, Djurgarden refused to let him go without a payoff.

"The money was just outrageous," says Gauthier, recalling the amount as "seven figures." He and the Nordiques' lawyers sat with Mats at his home in Sollentuna, a middle-class suburb of Stockholm, debating their options, one of which was to simply get on a plane with their player and force the issue. Sundin wanted to play in the NHL, but he was torn by feelings of loyalty toward his Swedish teammates. After a day of discussion, Gauthier and the lawyers left the house at one o'clock in the morning. Later that night, Sundin went to meet the captain of the Djurgarden team to tell him he was leaving in the morning for Quebec, and to explain why. "His team had cheated him," says Gauthier, "and he felt he had the right to leave."

The next day, Gauthier sat beside Sundin on the plane. It should have been a day any hockey-playing kid dreams of-beading off to pursue his ambitions in the NHL. But he flew to Quebec that day knowing the front page of Stockholm's Expressen newspaper was denouncing him as "a traitor." Gauthier recalls a despondent Sundin saying, "I'll never be able to go back now."

Once he began playing in Quebec, everyone could see that, despite his shy nature and skinny physique, Sundin had skill. There was a quality to his stick handling, passing and scoring touch that his then roommate, winger Mike Hough, searching for the right words, now calls "prestige." That higher order of skill, combined with his remarkable durability, made it possible for Sundin, in the 1992-93 season, to lead his talented team in points with 114 points--and help them into the playoffs.

It's in the playoffs, of course, that memorable players make their mark, giving us moments that help define their careers. Bobby Orr flies birdlike, his arms outstretched, after his goal to win the 1970 Stanley Cup, and he is forever spectacular. Doug Gilmour tucks a sudden death puck past Curtis Joseph after a crafty wraparound to beat St. Louis in 1993, and he's lodged in our minds as dogged and resourceful. So it's fitting that Sundin's most vivid and enduring playoff moment, the image that best defines him, is of a stoic 22-year-old being screamed at.

It happened in the first round of the 1993 playoffs, as the Nordiques were losing the sixth game and the series to the Montreal Canadiens. In his indelible moment, the young Sundin--having committed some unpardonable sin in the eyes of Pierre Page, the thin, temperamental Nordiques head coach--sat on the bench, staring bleakly forward, as Page leaned toward his ear and poured abuse on him.

True hockey fans watched replays of this indignity, appalled. But there was a perverse sort of irony at work in the fact that Toronto's general manager at the time, Cliff Fletcher, thought this player might be the next great hope for the Maple Leafs. It's almost as if he knew what this city would have in store for him.

COME PRACTICE TIME AT THE LAKESHORE Lions arena, Mats Sundin is one of the last players onto the ice. And after an hour of brisk skating and passing drills, he's one of the first to leave. This is a privilege of achievement, for he has done nothing in his 10 years here but be the player Cliff Fletcher expected him to be: "a big centreman who would be a dominant player for years to come."

The eight-player trade Fletcher engineered to land Sundin 15 months after the Page incident was, from the Leafs' point of view, perfect. The Nordiques, looking for more toughness on the ice, wanted Wendel Clark, prized by Leaf fans for his unique mix of barrelhouse banging and precision scoring. Though he had been in decline for several years, Clark had just managed a miraculous resurgence, doubling his points total and nearly tripling his goals, from 17 to 46, over the previous season. His value as trade fodder would never be as high again. Sundin, meanwhile, was just 23 and in his ascendancy. There were other Maple Leafs who could provide checking and grit; checking and grit came in bushels. Sundin had youth and size and skill; he was a jewel.

In his first three years in Toronto, Sundin gave the Leafs an elite scoring presence, leading the team with higher points totals every year. When Doug Gilmour was traded toward the end of the 1996-97 season, the big Swede seemed the obvious choice to replace him as captain, and he had an inkling himself he'd be asked. That summer, after the Leafs missed the playoffs, he went to fellow Swede Borje Salming for advice. A couple of decades earlier, when Salming had been the rock of an entertaining Leafs squad, he had himself been offered the captaincy and turned it down. He told Sundin he regretted the decision and that if Mats got the same chance he should grab it. On September 30, just before the start of the 1997-98 season, he did.

Sundin did everything statistically that first year that could be asked of a captain, leading the Leafs in goals, assists, points and games played. Ever since, regardless of the talent of the players around him, which only recently has complemented his, he has continued to lead the Leafs in either points or goals and has averaged, as he did in Quebec, about a point a game. He's done this even as the sport itself has evolved in ways that reduce scoring, with goalies' pads expanding in their nets like foam insulation between wall studs and ever more teams relying on "the trap," a system used to restrict offensive movement on the ice. He is, inarguably, one of the game's finest centres, and this is why he is paid some $12 million a year and why, as a man at the top of his sport, with a long-time girlfriend and a home in Forest Hill and a cottage he built on the Baltic Sea, he should conceivably be happy.

Yet, like the kid on the plane, he seems joyless. In the practices I've watched, he has performed his drills with grim resolve, not a hint of exuberance. Some of the players pair up as they wait their turn, talking or kibitzing with each other. Mats seldom says a word. Others, like Gary Roberts, execute their tasks with furious purpose. Mats works very hard. And after each drill, just as after each shift during a game, with his mouth open, his shoulders slumped and his gaze lost in the distance, he looks like a man expecting the worst.

This, then, is what our frustration has boiled down to: on the ice, as we've watched him, scrutinized him, Mats Sundin has not seemed fired up. He has not acted like the saviour we've imagined we deserve. Colorado's Peter Forsberg, we say, now there's a leader. Oh, Sundin is willing to bleed for us; he has taken devastating sticks to the face and eye, pucks to the mouth and come back, stitched and swollen, to score, sometimes in the same game. And he will be defended angrily by his teammates, players like Darcy Tucker, who told reporters during the 2000 playoffs, "You know, Mats gets a lot of criticism about his leadership, but I think you guys should start writing about how great a leader he is; he's the best I've ever played with." Yet somehow, we've thought, he is not what Clark and Gilmour, the Leafs' more favourite (if not more successful) sons, so obviously were: "the true, North American-style warriors," in Pierre Gauthier's words, "the gladiators of hockey." It's no coincidence that when opinion about Sundin briefly turned positive during the playoffs in 2001, it was because he appeared to be angry. We liked that.

It has been Sundin's misfortune to be the captain of the beloved team in the continent's most troubled hockey city, where losing has become personal and many fans, in valuing Tie Domi-like thuggery above the finely threaded pass, seem to be looking for revenge. But even when the Leafs were winning cups, we were still conflicted about big, talented men like Sundin, who appeared to make the game effortless. We did this to Frank Mahovlich, too, remember, or our fathers did--let him dazzle us with his slapshot and his authority on the ice, then called him a floater, booed him when he was made a game's third star and wanted to know why he wasn't giving us more. He chuckles about it now. "That went on every year that I was here," Mahovlich says when I ask him about it. "I never got that anywhere else."

And yet even the former Leaf great seems grudging in his praise of Sundin. "He's a class player. There's no doubt about it," concedes Mahovlich. "I think he's a Hall of Famer, I really do." But you should hear his voice lift in the very next sentence. "And the other guy is playing fantastically well." He's talking here about Gary Roberts, who plays with Gilmour-like spirit. "Boy, he looked good in the all-star game. I was in Minnesota, and he looked outstanding there." By the time we get to the Leafs' chances for a cup this year, Mahovlich seems to have forgotten about Sundin altogether. He says, "Roberts and these guys can do it."

OVER HIS BREAKFAST AT SIZZLING JAKS, Sundin signed autographs on the slips of paper the waitress handed him and was, at all times, unfailingly polite and a little remote, as you would expect. We talked for a while about his growing up near Stockholm, about how he developed his skills in games of bandy on a frozen soccer pitch. We talked about how his father, an engineer with the telephone company, and his mother, a district nurse, spent their free time, in the universal story of hockey families, driving him and his two smaller brothers to practices and games.

For the most part, he kept his gaze on his breakfast, occasionally pulling nervously at the corner of his eyelid and filling the silences after questions with those long, sonorous uhs common to Scandinavian men. But when I asked him whether, in Sweden, there was much emphasis on the role of team captain, his gaze became momentarily fierce. "Not as much as here, no." He half chuckled, looking hard at me. "Here it's pretty unique, I think."

Only this year does a finger in the wind of public judgment suggest we have begun to accept that Sundin can simply be what he is: a consistent, stalwart performer. A man of dignity who fights through checks and hooks rather than diving to draw penalties like so many other players. A calm, assured force on the ice, not an artist like linemate Alexander Mogilny, and not a gladiator either, but a player both deft and strong who can be relied upon to make the intelligent play. An exemplary citizen who does not look out of place in an art gallery, as he showed at Frank Gehry's AGO unveiling, and who performs the public tasks of the captaincy with fearless grace, weathering every critical storm, enduring every investigation into his character with a patience and humility that can be humbling. Only this year, as Sundin has emerged as the personification of that favourite sports descriptive "clutch," by leading the league in game-winning goals, have the doubts and questions dwindled to the point that we may even be coming to appreciate him, and to understand that the task of winning is not his alone.

But this acceptance has been hard won, and I wanted to know what he thought of our relentless demands over the years and how, if at all, he had suffered for the sins of our fragile faith. Professional athletes aren't used to dwelling on discomforts, of course, and when I asked him whether he was frustrated playing for the Leafs, he focused on the annoyances of playing against the trap. "I think that's devastating for the game," Sundin said. "Other than that, everything is good."

So I made the question more specific: "During your years in a Leaf uniform, looking at the headlines, hearing the doubts about your character, did you ever come to understand what the critics were looking for? Did you ever ask, 'What do these people want from me?'"

He focused wordlessly on his omelette for a moment, then made his way eventually to this: "I think people want success, you know, and I'm the captain. And I'm, whether I want it or not, a front figure for the team, a guy that talks about how the team is doing and represents the team." He explained that people respect winners, that players like Steve Yzerman in Detroit and Mike Modano in Dallas get respect because they've led their teams to triumph in the playoffs. "That's kind of my job, you know, and people look at that as being my job. And I think they have the right to look at it that way."

He seemed inured to the insults, the questions, the love-you-hate-you cycle, like a man either numbed or stronger than we could have hoped. "If you want to be a player for the Maple Leafs for a longer period of time," he said, slightly amused, "I think you have to be level headed. I think when things are going really well there's a tendency that the city gets so lifted up and they're saying so many good things about you, I think you have to remember it's good, but maybe it's not really that good. And when things are not going well in Toronto, you're going to hear about it. And you're going to say things are not good at all, where it's really not that bad."

And he said no, he was not drained by the burden of the Leafs' captaincy. "It's something I definitely never regretted."

As he was rising to leave for practice, I suggested that he needed a new defining playoff moment. A signature goal, maybe, something vivid and memorable to (though I didn't say this) wash away the image of a stoic man absorbing an avalanche of blame.

"I know what you're saying," he said, thinking about it. "It's gotta be something a little different, out of the ordinary, I agree." He pushed in his chair. "Hopefully, it's later in the playoffs. Stanley Cup finals--I'll take it then."

 

PensionPlanPuppets.com is a fan community that allows members to post their own thoughts and opinions on the Toronto Maple Leafs and hockey in general. These views and thoughts may not be shared by the editor of PensionPlanPuppets.com.

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