As many of you know, I’m a bit of a Sundin fan. In fact, he has been my hero for quite some time. However, my opinion of him is not universal within the ranks of Leaf Nation. While most can admit he was a great player, he isn’t really looked upon in the same light as Wendel, or even Dougie. It’s a shame really. In this two part series, I will tell the story of Mats, along with my views on why he is a divisive figure in Leaf fandom. Enjoy.
In 1989, the now defunct Quebec Nordiques had the first overall pick in the draft. With that pick, they selected the six-foot five centre, Mats Sundin. He was the first European born player to be selected first overall. He joined a forward lineup that included Joe Sakic and captain Peter Statsny. The team was struggling, picking up Owen Nolan first overall the following year. Things weren’t all doom and gloom however. Theoretically, the team could improve easily with Sakic, Sundin and Nolan already there. Sundin showed a lot of promise early on, scoring 58, 103, and 96 points respectively in his first three seasons. He was already a star, yet was overshadowed by his line mate, Joe Sakic.
Wendel Clark had a similar start to his career. Like Mats, he was drafted first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1985. He walked into a team that was in the gutter. Sure, the Leafs made the playoffs a few times in the 80s, but overall, it was a horrible decade for them. He had back to back 30 goal seasons in his first two years. An impressive number, considering his biggest asset was his toughness. In 1991, he was named team captain, an obvious choice, considering his playing style and leadership abilities.
During the mid 90s, Clark and Sundin’s careers would intersect. After making the conference finals twice in a row, the Leafs needed to make a change to push them over the top. According to Pat Burn’s autobiography, the coach requested some more offensive players. Cliff Fletcher proceeded to make a trade that still resonates with Leaf fans to this day. The Nordiques traded Sundin, Garth Butcher, Todd Warriner, and a 1994 first-round draft pick to Toronto for Wendel Clark, Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson, and a 1994 first-round draft pick. Fletcher went out and fixed a hole the Leafs needed to fix, bringing in a true, #1 forward to compliment Gilmour.
It came with a price, however. Clark was long thought of as the hero in Toronto. He is often considered to be the main reason they made the conference finals twice (Forgetting the fact that Gilmour came within five points of matching Gretzky’s point totals, and Felix Potvin playing out of his mind). Clark endeared himself to a fan base that often values grit and fighting over actual on-ice performance. That isn’t meant to imply that Clark could not play hockey, he could. He had talent, although that is not what made him popular.
So what do you get when your favourite team trades the captain and fan favourite for a European player who doesn’t really drop the gloves? You get a furious fan base. Toronto fans did not accept Sundin right away. In fact, the biggest knock against him wasn’t about his playing style, or point totals. It was because he wasn’t Wendel. Sundin was beginning to overcome Gilmour’s point totals, becoming the team leader in that category. Gilmour was starting to age, and it was showing. During this time, it was obvious that he was still considered the #1 guy with the fans, although the Leafs were quickly becoming Sundin’s team.
The Early Aftermath
In every measurable way, Mats was proving to be a superior replacement to Clark. Averaging a point a game during his entire tenure as a Leaf, he had a longevity that Clark never enjoyed. Later on in the decade, Wendel was traded back to the Leafs, in a trade that turned out to be one-sided against Toronto (Hindsight is 20-20 of course). However, when Wendel returned, it was not his team anymore. Gilmour was captain, and wouldn’t stick around for much longer. As I mentioned before, it was becoming Mats’ team. During this time, the Leafs were a terrible team. Potvin struggled, and the team had a bad defense core. It was a one-man show, with Sundin doing all he could to drag the team for as many wins as he could. Yet, he still wasn’t able to rise to the level of hero worship as Wendel or even Gilmour in the eyes of the fans.
By the end of the decade, Sundin would become the franchise player of a new generation. Gilmour wouldn't return until 2004, a shell of his former self. He lead the team in points and goals. In 1997, after Gilmour's departure, he would be named team captain. A title he held until 2008. Leaf fans would eventually become impressed by his ability to single-handedly take control of a game. He had talent that wasn't seen for quite some time. In short, he was the man. Unfortunately, Leaf fans wouldn't be united in their opinion of him until his Hall of Fame unduction in 2012.
Coming up in part two, will be Sundin’s later years, including a summary of how much Mats Sundin actually did for this team. I will also touch upon what I believe are the main reasons why he always comes in third, sometimes even fourth, in popularity among us Leaf fans.