He didn’t yell. He didn’t use broad gestures to galvanize his charges. There were no fire and brimstone speeches in his repertoire — at least that we know of.
But that didn’t stop Mats Sundin from being one of the best leaders in the NHL, according to his former teammates.
“The greatest thing about all leaders is they don’t talk about it, they do it,” said Glen Healy of Hockey Night in Canada, who played with Sundin from 1997-2001 in Toronto.
“You look at his game-winning goals, his overtime goals, he’s the guy who, if the game was on his stick he did it. He got it done.”
Healy echoed the comments of several former Leafs, who were reminiscing on Wednesday after the big forward announced his retirement from the game.
Quiet and reserved off the ice but a force on it, Sundin didn’t say much to rally his team — but as Healy put it, he didn’t have to.
“He didn’t speak a whole lot,” he said. “But when he did speak, boy, his message was heard resoundingly.”
His comments were seconded by the Swede’s long-time teammate, Tie Domi, who suited up with Sundin and the Maple Leafs from 1994-2006.
“He did a lot of his leading by the way he played,” Domi said. “He always wanted the puck when the game was on the line, and that’s what true great leaders do. They want to be on the ice and they want the puck.”
Remembered as a Leaf
Sundin will be remembered most for his tenure with the Leafs, where he spent 13 seasons and was team captain from 1996-97 through 2008.
“I feel lucky to have had the chance to have such a great leader, great role model, as a young guy coming into the league,” said current Leaf Matt Stajan, who cracked the lineup during Sundin’s heyday in 2003-04.
“You couldn’t ask for a better captain,” Stajan said. “When he spoke in the dressing room, guys would listen. No matter who you were in the room, you looked up to him. I learned a lot from watching him, how hard he worked both on and off the ice.”
The 38-year-old Sundin was the first European-born player drafted first overall in the NHL when Quebec selected him in 1989.
He spent four seasons with the Nordiques — now Colorado Avalanche — before he was dealt to Toronto in a blockbuster move in 1994 that sent fan-favourite Wendel Clark the other way.
Clark would re-join the Leafs and suit up with Sundin from 1995-98 and again 1999-2000.
“Mats was just a big horse of a player,” Clark said. “He played hard, and he always carried his weight. He could play in any situation.”
Sundin tops the Toronto franchise in points, with 987, and is the only Leaf to surpass 400 goals while wearing a Toronto jersey (420). But it was his presence in the locker room that made him a cut above the rest.
“He treated everybody really well,” Healy said. “Didn’t matter if you were a fourth-line player that played three minutes a night, or you were a backup goalie. He treated you like you were a huge part of the team, and he had no ego.”
Criticized in final year with Toronto
Sundin didn’t leave Toronto on the best of terms. He was criticized for declining to waive his no-trade clause at the trade deadline of the 2007-08 season, during the final year of his deal with the club. He signed with Vancouver as a free agent December 2008, halfway through the 2008-09 campaign.
“He shouldn’t have been put in that position in the first place,” Domi said. “And I think that should’ve been handled differently.”
Over 41 games with the Canucks, Sundin recorded nine goals and 19 assists, adding three goals and five assists in eight playoff games.
He announced his retirement Wednesday in Stockholm’s Grand Hotel after 1,346 games in the NHL, scoring 564 goals and 785 assists.
“He’s one of the best,” Healy said. “Even last year, he was still one of the top 20 players in the world. And in his day, he was top five. He had it all, size, strength, speed — he’s competitive beyond belief. I think maybe that’s the thing people don’t recognize, just how competitive he was.”
Sundin added 38 goals and 44 assists 91 playoff games. He was the captain of Sweden’s Olympic gold medal-winning squad in 2006.
“He is a first-class guy,” Domi said, “[and] he’ll be a great friend for the rest of my life. More importantly, he’s definitely one of the best players to ever play the game.”