ETOBICOKE, Ont. - You better stand up and cheer for him was the message the Toronto Maple Leafs delivered to the gathering media at Lake Shore Lions Arena Friday afternoon.
"Him," of course, is former Leafs captain Mats Sundin, who makes his return to the city he called home for 13 seasons Saturday night when the Vancouver Canucks pull into town for the middle game of Tim Horton's Hockey Day in Canada presented by CBC (7 p.m. ET, CBC, NHLN-US).
There is rampant speculation across this region that Sundin will hear some boos because he left the team as a free agent. His former teammates and even some of the newcomers to the famous blue and white sweater want to hear none of that.
"I think there is only one way you can (react) -- applaud the guy for what he's done for this organization and the city of Toronto," Leafs center Jason Blake said. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you what is going to happen because I don't know."
Sundin has never been an opponent at the Air Canada Center. The last time he played in Toronto wearing another jersey was March 26, 1994 when as a 23-year-old center for the Quebec Nordiques he had two assists in a 6-3 loss at Maple Leaf Gardens.
The big Swede came to Toronto the following season and began rewriting the storied franchise's record books, leaving with the most points (987), goals (420) and game-winning goals (79) in Leafs history. He also ranks second all-time in assists (567) and sixth in games played (981).
According to the Leafs, those numbers alone warrant nothing but cheers from the 18,819 planning to attend Saturday night's game.
"He deserves a standing ovation. I think he's arguably the best Leaf ever," said Leafs center Matt Stajan, an ardent Sundin supporter. "He put up points in an era where it was a lot tougher to score goals because the goalies are better and the players bigger and stronger. In my mind he's the best Leaf to ever play so I would expect nothing less than an ovation. I will be a part of that for sure. He deserves it."
While most everybody expects the cheers to drown out any boos Sundin might here Saturday night, the Leafs can't quite figure out why the fans would at all be upset with him.
Of course, they all know the Sundin saga.
Yes, ex-interim GM Cliff Fletcher asked Sundin to waive his no-trade clause last season. Yes, Sundin refused to do so. Yes, the Leafs could have gotten a bonanza of prospects and/or draft picks had Fletcher been given clearance to trade him. Yes, it would have been a boon for the struggling franchise, which was entering its inevitable rebuilding years.
No, Stajan stressed, Sundin does not deserve to be vilified for the decision he made.
"He deserved every right to make his own decision and maybe he could still be here if things worked out differently and last year didn't happen the way it did," Stajan said. "I think it got blown out of proportion a little bit. Everybody respected that he had the choice not to waive it and he deserves that. I think the media blew it out of proportion and made it seem like he had to when all it was was Cliff asking him and him saying no. That was the end of it and that's how it should have been left. He deserved that and it's too bad he didn't.
"It's too bad that people think he deserves to get booed now," Stajan continued. "That's just stupid."
Stajan went on to say how dedicated Sundin was to the Leafs cause last season. He said Sundin never showed any odd displays of emotion despite the daily chatter in the media, especially the talk radio shows, about how he was doing a disservice to the Leafs by not waiving his no-trade clause.
"He didn't want to leave halfway through the year and it was in his contract," Stajan said. "Once he said no, that was it."
Rookie center John Mitchell, who grew up a Leafs fan in Southern Ontario, said he respected Sundin's choice. And this is coming from someone who might have gotten called up to fill a roster spot had Sundin waived that clause in his contract.
"I'm sure it's real disappointing for him to never win the Stanley Cup, but at least last year he said, 'I don't want to get traded just to go to a contending team so I could be there for two months and win a Stanley Cup,' " Mitchell told NHL.com. "It's not something he wanted to do and you would think maybe someone that is older and hasn't won it would be saying, 'Well, why wouldn't I want to do that?' He's got more pride than that."
The irony is now Sundin is back in Toronto and playing for a team that fancies itself as a Stanley Cup contender.
The Canucks have won seven of eight games this month to move into fifth in the Western Conference. After struggling for his first nine games, Sundin has started to look like his old self over the last eight. As a result, the Canucks now have two viable scoring lines.
So, not only do the Leafs have to contend with the emotional return of their former leader, they have to battle him on the ice and they are keenly aware of how difficult of a task that is going to be.
"They are a good hockey team and obviously adding him they're a great hockey team, so we have to be ready to play from the drop of the puck," Blake said. "We can't get caught up in all that other stuff."
The Leafs insist they won't. Even if they don't believe it themselves, they're calling it "just another game." For a lot of them it could be considering 11 of Toronto's 22 healthy players have never played a game as Sundin's teammate.
"I think it might be tougher on him coming back for the first time in so long," Blake said. "He's very well respected in this locker room and outside in the community. He did a phenomenal job here. He's a great player, a great leader, a hell of a captain. Are we going to get emotional? Well, a lot of these guys didn't play with him so for most of the team it's probably just another hockey game."
Coach Ron Wilson, who said he would be "disappointed if the fans didn't welcome (Sundin) with open arms after all he's done for this team," added that none of his players have approached him to talk about the circus that awaits Saturday night.
"We don't talk about stuff like that," Wilson said. "It's basically another game for us and another challenge against a team that is battling for playoff position. We have a chance to upset the apple cart a bit."
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