Sundin used his unique combination of size and finesse, strength and skill to score 420 of his 564 goals and 987 of his 1,349 points in Toronto. He played in 77 Stanley Cup Playoff games with the Leafs, but never reached the Stanley Cup Final in what officially will become a Hall of Fame career when he's enshrined Monday in Toronto.
He finished his career in 2009 after a season with the Vancouver Canucks. Only 26 players had more career points in the regular season and just 20 had more career goals when he retired.
But the foundation for that legendary career was laid in Quebec, the city Sundin called home for the first four seasons of his career -- including his most prolific in 1992-93, when he had 47 goals and 114 points -- after he was made the No. 1 pick in the 1989 NHL Draft by the Nordiques.
It's easy to say 23 years removed from the start that someone with Sundin's skill set and pedigree was destined for the Hall of Fame. But there was something that Robbie Ftorek, an assistant coach with the Nordiques during Sundin's rookie season, saw during some tough times that let him know what was going to make the difference in the long run for Sundin the person, not Sundin the player.
It was November 1990, and Sundin was in the midst of a 10-game stretch without a goal, a stretch in which the Nordiques were 0-9-1. He had just two assists during that time and was a minus-14 in a season he would finish at minus-24. Ftorek's son, Casey, who was just shy of 7 years old at the time, decided to take it upon himself to shake Sundin free of this slump.
"Mats was struggling -- big time," Ftorek told NHL.com. "My son went up to visit me because he was on a school vacation. We were driving home after a game, and I said, 'So what did you think of your buddy?' because he and Mats after practices would skate, pass the puck and shoot and stuff. He says, 'He's not scoring.' I say, 'You're right. You better talk to him tomorrow because we need him to score.'
"So we went out and had our practice and he and Mats are practicing and shooting and everything. After a while I see Mats is looking down at Casey and Casey is looking up at Mats and they're obviously talking. So we get in the car and we're driving, so I said, 'Did you talk to Mats?' He said, 'Oh yeah, I talked to him.' I said, 'What did he say?' He says, 'He said he's going to score me a goal tonight.'"
Sundin not only scored Casey a goal that night, he scored him three goals -- the first hat trick of his NHL career. After the game, Sundin didn't forget who helped him snap his drought.
"So after, I'm downstairs in the coaches' office and Casey comes in the room and I said, 'Have you seen Mats?'" Ftorek said. "He says no, so I said you better go and see him. And you know how it is in Quebec City -- he's got people all around him. So Casey goes in, cuts his way through the reporters and Mats sees him and says, 'Hey, Casey, come here. I've got something for you.' He gave him a puck. He said, 'This is my hat trick puck. I'm giving it to you.'
"He was a good friend to my son Casey, who was very, very young."
In what was a common theme during Sundin's first two seasons in the NHL, the Nordiques lost that night to the Winnipeg Jets, 11-4. The team finished last in the League 1990-91 and second to last in a 22-team NHL the following the season, but the team that slowly was angling toward great things -- slowly being the key word.
The 1990-91 Nordiques boasted some terrific young talent. Along with Sundin, Quebec dressed fellow 2012 Hall of Fame inductee Joe Sakic, who was 21 at the time, and 18-year-old Owen Nolan, who went on to score 422 goals in his career. The following season, a 20-year-old defenseman named Adam Foote would make his NHL debut with the team.
But that talent had not yet ripened, and the victories were few and far between as the Nordiques finished with 46 points, 11 fewer than the next-closest team, the Maple Leafs. Night after night, Sundin found himself overmatched as a top-six forward against far more experienced competition. On a team as bad as the Nordiques during those first two seasons, Sundin wasn't hidden on a third line and allowed to develop slowly like many of today's rookies.
As painful as those two seasons were, they also were key in Sundin's development.
"There's no question," Ftorek said. "Because he played on the second power-play unit, if not the first. He played on the penalty-killing units, whether he should've or not. And he learned those things, because the coaches could see he had the ability to do things -- great things. What are you going to do? Put an old, old veteran out there who's going nowhere, or are you going to put your future out there to learn? Then it becomes a great learning experience for that individual.
"He took it and he ran with it."
Sundin finished his rookie season with 23 goals and 36 assists and improved to 33 goals and 43 assists the following season. He emerged as an elite player as a 21-year-old in 1992-93 with 114 points, No. 11 in the NHL. This year's other Hall of Fame class members, Adam Oates, Pavel Bure and Sakic, finished No. 3, No. 13 and No. 17, respectively, in League scoring.
In his only trip to the postseason with the Nordiques, Sundin had three goals and an assist in a six-game series loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the Adams Division Semifinals. It was a relatively impressive feat, as the Canadiens went on to win the Stanley Cup while only losing two more games during the final three rounds. The Nordiques held a 2-0 series lead against the Canadiens and lost Game 3 in Montreal in overtime 2-1.
Sundin scored twice in Game 5, a 5-4 win for the Canadiens. It would be the final postseason goals he would score for the franchise, as the Nordiques again fell short of the playoffs in his final season with the club.
"Mats just kept on going, kept pushing, kept learning and kept doing extra and did the videos and learned to improve his game," Ftorek said. "You could see that he was going to be a star. He just had it about him. He was strong even with his size. He knew how to use his leverage and his balance against big guys trying to take him off the puck. He just came to work every day and wanted to improve all the time. He was a pleasure to be around."
Following the 1993-94 season, the Nordiques decided they needed to become a more physical, grittier team. As then-Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher tells it, the Nordiques came to him asking for Wendel Clark, the undisputed face of the franchise since 1985 who had scored a career-best 46 goals for the Leafs in 1993-94, a couple months before that year's draft.
The trade was consummated June 28, 1994, the morning of the draft, with the Leafs getting Sundin, Garth Butcher, Todd Warriner and a 1994 first-round pick that became Nolan Baumgartner in exchange for Clark, Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson and a first-round pick that turned into Jeff Kealty.
"I don't have total recollection on it," Fletcher told NHL.com of the deal, "but all I know is Quebec inquired about Wendel's possible availability, and if I remember correctly, all I said at that time was, 'If you want to talk about Wendel, I'm talking about Mats Sundin.' Somehow it sort of developed from that point forward over a couple of months."
When the deal was made, there were only 26 teams in the NHL and the Leafs and Nordiques were playing in different conferences. The fact that Sundin was such a high-profile player in Quebec made his development tough to miss for Fletche.
The skill and talent weren't the only things that stood out to Fletcher -- it also was Sundin's durability during those first four seasons.
"He was with the Nordiques for four years before we made the deal, and you couldn't help but notice him," Fletcher said. "He was a player we had great interest in. You had to look at his size. He was 6-5 and was playing at close to 230 when he ended his career, but back then he was close to 215. So he was big, strong, and when we were looking at the trade, the first thing that jumped out at you was in his first four years in Quebec, he didn't miss a game. Then you look at his production over the four years, it was amazing.
"The most important thing that identifies Mats' career is a lot of great players are streak players. Mats was just so consistently good. I guess you could call him a coach's dream."
The dream was realized in Toronto, but it all started with four formative seasons in Quebec.
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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