The legacy of Mats Sundin

It was a different hockey world when Mats Sundin made history.

His status as the first European ever selected No. 1 in the NHL draft back in 1989 was no small achievement, you should remember. Back then, Euros weren’t necessarily seen as players that could be trusted to be franchise players despite the success players like Jari Kurri had already experienced. The Iron Curtain had yet to fall, so players from Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union were all but unreachable.

The year before, Teemu Selanne of Finland had been drafted 10 overall, the only European taken in the top 30. In the ’87 draft, every single player selected in the first round was a Canadian.

But in ’89, Sundin was still a slam dunk as the first pick. He was that much better than the rest of the world’s teenagers and he made history.

Twenty-years later, Sundin has hung ‘em up, a year too late, as it turns out. Had Sundin retired in the spring of 2008 as a Maple Leaf, the farewell would have been spectacular and his reputation would have been unsullied as one of the best Leafs of his generation.

Going to Vancouver for one unsuccessful half-season surely didn’t destroy Sundin’s legacy, but it did hurt it, made him appear interested only in cashing in one more time but unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to compete in the world’s toughest hockey league.

As it turned out, he couldn’t compete any longer, just as Guy Lafleur wasn’t the same when he came back as a New York Ranger, and just as Theo Fleury couldn’t crack the Calgary Flames roster this spring.

Once you check out, it’s hard to check back in. And while Sundin didn’t check out in the summer of ’08, it seemed he was dragged back to the rink, persuaded to play one more season by advisors, friends and family. His heart never seemed to be in Vancouver, although as always he said the right things, and he made not the slightest difference to a Canucks team that fell to Chicago in the post-season.

But if you remember all the seasons before that, Sundin had one heck of a career, a terrific ride. A Hall of Fame experience.

He scored 564 goals and added 785 assists in the regular season, and added another 38 goals and 44 assists in 91 playoff games. He was remarkably consistent and durable. He was more explosive in his early years with Quebec, but after being dealt to the Leafs in one of the club’s most controversial deals that sent captain Wendel Clark to the Nordiques, Sundin gradually evolved into a reliable power centre, usually a point-per-game player, and one who developed into a solid playoff competitor after being questioned for his playoff grit in Quebec City. Strangely, the team never found the perfect fit for him as a linemate, and looking back over Sundin’s long career one sees a series of different players rather than one winger who was always there riding alongside the splendid Swede.

The absence of a Stanley Cup ring injures the resume, but only slightly. Sundin did, after all, win three world championship gold medals with Sweden and the 2006 Olympic gold as well, certainly team achievements that are worthy of being in the same conversation as winning the Cup. Some will slam Sundin for being unable to bring the Cup to Toronto, but on those teams, with those players, it’s worth asking: Who could have?

The debate over whether he was a great Leaf captain, or a pedestrian one, will go on for years. He wasn’t as fiery as Doug Gilmour, and was surely never particularly popular in Toronto, never as beloved as Clark, Gilmour, Curtis Joseph or Tie Domi. Insiders would tell you, however, that he always cared about his teammates and tried to do the right thing while working for an organization that could at best be described as flighty and easily distracted.

The other mark against his name by many Leaf fans will be his status as the leading member of the infamous Muskoka Five, the group of Leafs that included Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe, Pavel Kubina and Tomas Kaberle who collectively refused to waive their no-trade clauses in the winter of ’08 to allow interim GM Cliff Fletcher to trade them for draft picks and futures as the team stumbled through another non-playoff season.

Sundin insisted he believed the team could make the playoffs and didn’t want to join a Cup contender partway through the season, a claim undercut months later when he joined the Canucks in late December for the second half of the NHL season. In the end, it mattered little, for he couldn’t help the Canucks just as he wouldn’t have been able to help the Leafs. He was finished.

Five years from now, Sundin should be a first ballot Hall of Fame selection. But the Leafs shouldn’t wait that long to raise his No. 13 to the rafters of the Air Canada Centre. Next season, perhaps, would be perfect, just to make doubly sure he’s committed to retirement. The Leafs like to do these things in pairs, so put up former captain Rick Vaive’s No. 22 at the same time, an oversight that requires correction.

Both were outstanding Leafs and outstanding leaders. That no Leaf is currently viewed as worthy of wearing the captain’s “C” is, really, an indirect but significant tribute to both men.