In Part One of this post, I went through the beginnings of both Mats Sundin and Wendel Clark, comparing the two during the 1990s. Part two will examine Sundin’s career in the 21st century, along with an analysis of why opinions of Sundin are heavily divided.The first post can be found here; Part One. Enjoy.
Turn of the Century
By the time the 21st century began, Mats Sundin had cemented himself as the franchise centrepiece. An appearance in the conference finals in 1999 excited a fan base still reeling from the post-1994 disappointments. Mats continued to put up impressive numbers, racking up 73 points in 73 games during the 1999-2000 season. During the offseason, Toronto signed power forward Gary Roberts to play alongside Sundin. It would be the first time Sundin would have a quality line mate. During the 2000-2001 season, Mats continued to impress, putting up 74 points. He established himself as one of the most consistent players in the league. During the summer of 2001, Alexander Mogilny joined the Leafs. The addition of Mogilny created a dangerous line of Roberts, Sundin and Mogilny. That line would become the most dangerous line the team has had in quite some time, and a line that would not be matched since. The following year, Mats scored 41 goals, and managing to put up 80 points that season. An injury during the beginning of the playoffs would sideline him for much of the postseason. Gary Roberts, Alex Mogilny and Alyn McCauley dragged the team past the first round. Curtis Joseph was also playing extremely well, giving the team in front of him a chance to win every game. Sundin joined the team later on in the second round. By the time Toronto bowed out to the Carolina Hurricanes in the conference, Sundin managed to put up seven points in eight games.
The 2002 playoffs were heartbreaking for a few reasons. Number one, we lost to Arturs Irbe. Irbe, for those of you who didn’t remember anything pre-2006 was a career backup, playing a few stints as a starter for some bad teams. During that year, Carolina trotted out the tandem of Kevin Weekes and Arturs Irbe. That’s right; the Leafs could not get past a goalie who never established himself as a #1 guy. I actually remember watching that series, and my older brother being absolutely furious that Irbe was shutting us down. Even to this day, we share an inside joke about that series, "Will, Will. We lost…. To Arturs Irbe…" The second reason was that the team went without its franchise player for the first round, and part of the second. Had Sundin played the entire playoffs, we might have played fewer games, which would go a long way in saving the team some much-needed energy. A problem the Leafs have always had in their playoff experiences have been the number of games played. In 93, they played two straight seven game series. Then another seven game series to the LA Kings, which resulted in an incredibly infamous moment. In 1994, Toronto started off with a six game series, followed by another seven game series against the upstart San Jose Sharks. In the conference finals, they fell in five games to the Vancouver Canucks. They ran out of gas yet again. In 1999, they played two consecutive six game series, before falling to the Sabres in five games. If Sundin played during the first round, the team could have managed to prevent a few losses. If only..
2002 would be the last time the Leafs would come close to the Stanley Cup finals. After the visit to the third round, Sundin and the Leafs managed to make the playoffs once again. During the season, Mats racked up 72 points in 75 games. However, for the first time in eight consecutive seasons, he was not the team’s top scorer. That honour would go to his line mate, Alex Mogilny, who put up 79 points. The Leafs would only play seven games that postseason, falling to Jeremy Roenick and the Philadelphia Flyers. During the offseason, the Leafs signed Joe Nieuwendyk to give the team depth at centre behind Sundin. Nieuwendyk was getting older, but he was still a solid player, and bona fide hall of famer. The Leafs finished the year with a franchise record 103 points. The team was bolstered by deadline acquisitions Brian Leetch and Ron Francis. Sundin lead the team yet again with 75 points. By this point in time, it was becoming apparent that Mats was in the same league as any other Leaf legend.
The Beginning of the End
The 2004 playoff team was perhaps, the most talented team the Leafs have had in quite some time, just on name power alone. The lineup featured Mats Sundin, Alex Mogilny, Gary Roberts, Owen Nolan (Acquired at the trade deadline the previous season), Joe Nieuwendyk, Ron Francis, Brian Leetch and Ed Belfour. Joining them to a lesser extent were Bryan McCabe and Darcy Tucker. The team were favourites among many in the media. They were even picked as the Cup winners by a bitter, whiny journalist named Al Strachan. With this much star power and momentum, what could go wrong? Well, the first round featured the obligatory victory over the Ottawa Senators. However, in the second round, the team managed to lose yet again, to the Flyers. It would be the last playoff series the Leafs would play, at least until 2013, where it looks like the team will probably make it.
The league locked out the players for the entire duration of the 2004-2005 season. Not only was there no hockey, but the Leafs looked like they would still be contenders. But with the implementation of a salary cap, general manager John Ferguson had to shed salary. He let go of Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk. Owen Nolan took the Leafs to court in response to the team not wanting to honour his sizable contract. Ed Belfour managed to age rapidly during the lockout. In response to the changing direction of hockey towards a more fast-paced game, the Leafs signed the slowest humans in the league, Jason Allison and Eric Lindros. 2005-2006 was a letdown, with the Leafs missing the playoffs. Sundin still however, put up 78 points in 70 games.
The next few years would be painful for the Leafs faithful. A near miss for the playoffs in 2007, and a rather bad season in 2008. In that time, Mats Sundin still averaged around a point a game. A very impressive feat, considering his increasing age. In the 2008 offseason, rumours were spread about the team’s desire to trade Sundin. For the majority of fans, that was a welcome decision. Even with all his accomplishments, the common Leaf fan never really liked him in the same way they liked Dougie, or Wendel. A lot of fans were screaming for a trade, accusing him of being selfish for wanting to stay. That’s right, Mats wanted to stay in Toronto, telling the media and the fan base numerous times that he loves the city, and considers it home. Sounds like a terrible human being. The greatest Leaf player of a generation, maybe even two generations, was being run out of town. As much love as Gilmour received from fans, they always seem to forget that he wanted out of town. Sundin wanted to stay, for himself and because he truly appreciated us.
End of an Era
After ending his career as a Canuck (Don’t remind me), Sundin retired averaging just over a point-per-game. He was the Leafs leader in points, goals, and assists by a forward. During his career, he managed to score over 500 goals, a feat that Dougie could not do. Sundin also managed to have a better point-per-game average than Gilmour as well. So why does he consistently rank lower in public opinion? Even lower than Clark?
In my dealings with Leaf fans who do not frequent Pension Plan Puppets, or any blog with a half decent standard, they come off as xenophobic, often repeating what Don Cherry preaches. While I can certainly understand the love for Gilmour, I cannot understand the dislike towards Mats. Part of it is most likely because he replaced Dougie as the franchise player, and he wasn’t even Canadian. Had Mats Sundin been born in Canada, he would probably be the most beloved athlete in Leafs history. What makes matters worse is that Leaf fans tend to prefer blue-collar players instead of players who have actual talent. While someone like Clark played hard, and was an important player, he was an objectively worse player than Sundin, in every measurable way. Sundin could score more goals, he could get way more assists, he played a lot more games, he managed to stave off serious injuries, and if defensive metrics were around then, Sundin would probably show that he was better defensively. So what makes Clark more popular among Leaf fans? He could punch faces and he was Canadian. Very enlightened attitude there, Leaf Nation.
The xenophobia might not be completely obvious to some, however if you listen to the "average" Leaf fan, their vocabulary is full of anti-international remarks. "Sundin never played with heart!" "Mats never hit anyone or fought, so he didn’t care about winning" are remarks I hear all the time. The dominant attitudes amongst the common Leaf fans are becoming increasingly outdated. It seems like Leaf Nation is stuck in the 1970s. Vitriol towards Burke for signing American players is a fairly current symptom of a bigger problem. The majority of Leaf fans haven’t really grown up. Team success is not measured in points, or even real wins. It is measured in hits, blocked shots, and fights, which apparently is critical. Sundin never really threw crushing body checks, and he never fought. He clearly wasn’t that good then.
In 2012, Mats Sundin managed to make it into the Hockey Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. This marked a slight turnaround in the fans’ opinion of Mats. More and more people are becoming "fans" of Sundin. There are still a lot of Leaf fans who still view him as a player who wasn’t great, but that section of fans is slowly becoming a vocal minority. It has been almost a decade since the NHL changed its direction towards skill, instead of grit and toughness. Younger generations of fans are watching highlights of Mats, and view him as one of the greatest. Also, more and more fans are joining the "smart" generation. Analyzing games using advanced stats and metrics and finding out that at the end of the day, skill will always win out.
I realize that this post comes off as extremely biased. You can call me a "pansy" "Un-Canadian (It’s happened)" or "Gay" for liking a player who wasn’t tough (Also happened at a bar). But the fact remains that Sundin is the franchise leader in categories that actually matter, and his banner hangs high above the ACC, whether you like it or not. Sundin exhibited qualities that are admirable not only for athletes, but for adults in general. He had class, he showed up to do his job and that’s it. He didn’t turn the game into a sideshow like Roenick or Avery. He never spoke ill of any teammate, and never gave any dirt to the media. His smile was always bigger when his teammate scored, rather than when he did. His celebrations were never over-the-top. He lived a quiet and private life. Most importantly, he loved our community, and he loved us. He is my favourite athlete, by far. As a player he is my hero, but more importantly, as a man he is my hero. I highly doubt this team will have a player like him in quite some time.