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Big Mats is Back

by Dan Rosen / Vancouver Canucks
SATURDAY


Send in the clowns

As I expected, the circus came to Toronto today. It was a calm, but still wild scene at the Air Canada Centre this morning.

I'm told normally three or four people come to Saturday morning skates, but today there was at least 25-30. I didn't count.

We were lined up outside the visitor's dressing room waiting for a glimpse of Mats Sundin. Cameramen were trying to stake out the best spot. Some television crews had cameramen stationed outside the arena by the players' entrance to get shots of him coming in. It was crazy.

Considering how we were waiting - kind of like a U with people lined on both walls directly outside the Canucks dressing room and meeting at the end by the entrance way to the ice  - at one point I joked to another reporter here that all they needed was a red carpet. Ryan Seacrest certainly could have come here before the Oscars in L.A. tomorrow night and been the one to ask Mats what he was wearing?

"Well, Ryan, I'm wearing skates by Bauer, gloves by Warrior and my jersey and hockey pants are by Reebok."

"Gorgeous, Mats, just gorgeous."

Yeah, that probably would have added to the show. And, let me stress, this was definitely a show. However, at some points I felt that all I was doing was holding up a wall. People started waiting outside the Canucks dressing room at around 10 a.m. The Leafs weren't even on the ice yet and the Canucks weren't scheduled to skate until 11:30, yet there we all were.

At least the walls in this building are sturdy. They're only 10 years old.

Oh, who am I kidding, we're morons.

Actually, it's our job. If I wasn't standing there holding up that wall, I would have missed Sundin walking out of the dressing room with a dazed and confused look on his face. First he turned right and when he realize that probably wasn't the right way to go to get to the ice, he turned left and asked some of the reporters standing against the wall, "Which way do I go?"

Whether it was an act or he was totally serious, it was still priceless comedy.

As for what he had to say, well it wasn't anything we haven't already heard. It feels different for him to be in this building as a visitor, but Sundin is happy to be back in Toronto, a place he still calls home. He is honored to have worn the blue and white for 13 seasons and has many great memories playing for the Leafs. He says he isn't quite sure of how he'll be received tonight, but he's also not worried about it because it's out of his control.

Asked if he has had any trouble securing tickets for friends, Sundin said, "Most of the people that are my friends, most of them are actually ticket holders here so they have their own tickets. I haven't had that much of a problem actually."

Irony of location

How funny is this?

I make my way down the steps in the ACC on my way to the media room. By the way, I'm following Cliff Fletcher down the ramp. I turn right and as I'm passing the Maple Leafs dressing room I look quickly to my left and pictured on the wall is a framed photo of Mats Sundin in all his blue and white glory.

It's literally right outside the Leafs dressing room. Talk about a reminder of the past. I thought this team was looking forward.

We'll just chalk it up to an oversight, right?

OK, all kidding aside, I'm here at the ACC now and awaiting the circus. The Leafs skate first at 10 and the Canucks should follow.

At least, that's what everyone is hoping for. Well, actually, no one really cares if the Canucks skate so long as the man of the hour is made available to the hungry press corps sometime this morning.

I can't see how that doesn't happen.

Without question, the talk in all of the Toronto papers and on all the television broadcasts is about Sundin. The question everyone is asking is the same one I asked yesterday: What kind of reception will he receive?

Today is the day we find out.

FRIDAY

Words from Sundin

Mats Sundin spoke to reporters after practice in Ottawa this afternoon. He said that "it's going to be fun to come home," and added that he's "looking forward to get back." Sundin stressed that he spent a lot of great years and has a lot of great memories from the Toronto Maple Leafs, their fans and the city.

"It will be tough to pass the Maple Leafs dressing room," Sundin said. "I think as professional athletes you get adjusted, but we'll have to see when we get there."

Sundin also addressed the critism he received at the deadline last season when he chose not to waive his no-trade clause despite being asked to do so by then interim GM Cliff Fletcher. It's a topic that will surely come up tomorrow when he arrives at the Air Canada Center.

"It was an unfortunate situation at the deadline and it wasn't a fun thing to go through, but that's a part of this business," Sundin said. "We're in a winning industry and when you're not winning there is going to be all kinds of stuff going on. That's part of the game."

Sundin was a bit more insightful on today's edition of Leafs Lunch on AM640 today. I got these quotes from the Toronto Sun's web-site.

“I was put in a position I didn’t want to be in,” Sundin said on the radio show. “For me personally, I felt that we still had a chance to make the playoffs. As captain of the team, (I felt) that jumping the ship wasn’t the right thing to do.”

Of course, the Leafs didn't make the playoffs and Sundin lost some of his supporters, who could boo the Swede upon his return tomorrow night.

“I can understand it, I can understand their point of view,” Sundin told the radio show. “I understand the passion of the fans.”

He'll be asked to delve even further into his feelings tomorrow, but Iain MacIntyre of the Vancouver Sun had an exclusive with Sundin today and the big Swede said he does not understand any venom Leafs Nation may have for him. Sundin also told McIntyre that tomorrow night's game is not about closure for him becuase he will always bleed blue and white.

“I don’t know if you can say closure,” Sundin said. “The Toronto Maple Leafs are always going to have a place in my heart the rest of my life, so that’s not going to change. [But] to look forward for this season, obviously it’s going to be nice. That’s going to be nice just to focus on what’s important for me this season, and that’s the Vancouver Canucks.”

No, boys, it’s not

Just another game they're saying.

Yeah right.

Who are these guys trying to fool? If Saturday night's tilt at the Air Canada Center between the Canucks and Maple Leafs, better known as The Homecoming of Mats Sundin, was just another game, why would I be in Toronto right now? I would probably be wrapping up a story back in our New York office and thinking about how I would spend a blissful weekend with my pregnant wife.

But, no, I'm here and to me that means this is not just another game no matter how these players try to slice and dice it.

At least Matt Stajan admitted that, yes, for cryin' out loud, tomorrow night is going to be emotional for everyone. Gad zooks, how could it not be?

Sundin has never played the Air Canada Center wearing anything but the famous blue and white Maple Leafs' sweater. He hasn't played Toronto as an opponent since March 26, 1994, when he had two assists and two shots on goal in the Leafs' 6-3 win over the Quebec Nordiques. Months later Sundin wound up in Toronto and over the course of the next 14 years he set three franchise records, for points, goals and game-winning goals.

Yes, it's going to be quite emotional in the building tomorrow night?

"He may not show it, but I don't see how it wouldn't be," Stajan said in regards to how Sundin plans to handle the evening. "I'm sure he's going to take it all in and enjoy the moment."

Even Sundin has used the old cliche, "just another game." It's old and forgive me, but it's a lie. He may want to treat it as such, but there's no way he believes that is truly what it is.

“I'm sure Mats is going to feel a lot of anxiety,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “It's probably harder on the player returning than anything else, but once the game starts that stuff gets put aside immediately.”

OK, that we’ll buy. Indeed, once the game starts it becomes a hockey game, but the buildup is atypical of what we’re used to seeing in the regular season.

Than again, won’t it be weird for the Leafs and Sundin to play against one another?

You’d have to think so, but again, the players are trying to downplay that as well.

“I don’t know (if it will be weird),” Alexei Ponikarovsky said. “I've seen a lot of guys who used to play for this team on different teams now and we already played against them. It's not weird. It's just part of the business. Because he was a captain it's a big thing for everybody, but he's still another player and it doesn't matter where he's playing. We have to face him and win the game.”

The media should get its dirty paws on Sundin tomorrow morning after the Canucks morning skate. We’ll see how emotional he is then.

Just another game.

Please, enough already.

North of the border

Welcome to Toronto my blog friends. I arrived here at Lake Shore Lions Arena only moments ago for the Leafs practice. Even though practice isn't scheduled to begin for about 15 minutes, a few guys are on the ice, including Lee Stempniak, Tomas Kaberle and Mike Van Ryn, who are both hurt.

I'm told Kaberle is due back in 7-10 days. No word on Van Ryn.

That's a story for another day.

We all know why I'm here. Mats Sundin is not in Toronto yet, but I am and the media room here at the dingy arena that's on its last legs is filling up. I'm sure there will be some local reports on the Leafs after last night's 4-3 loss to Columbus, but this weekend is all about Mats.

The Canucks, who won in Ottawa last night, 5-2, remained in the nation's capital overnight and are practicing there today before heading to Toronto. There is not supposed to be any media availability with Sundin today, so we won't get to hound him with questions until tomorrow.

Here's hoping they set him up in a press conference because if it's going to be done in the locker room, that place is just going to turn into a zoo of the worst kind. Think A-Rod, only smaller but in a much more confined area.

I'll be chatting with a few Leafs today about what they think of their former captain's return. My guess is not too much, but we can't just make up the stories, now can we.

By the way, Brad May's kid is on the ice and he's pretty darn good. Just thought I'd throw that out there. Jason Blake is out there now as well.

Check back later for more updates from the Leafs. And, if anybody cares, my journey here this morning was about as smooth as it could be. I even had a smart cabbie who was able to find this arena despite my horrific directions. That was money well spent.

Chat later...

THURSDAY


What should I expect?

The talk all week in the Toronto and Vancouver papers and seemingly everywhere in between in Canada has been about Mats Sundin's return to Toronto.

Surprise, surprise.

I remember leafing through the schedule when the big Swede signed with the Canucks back on Dec. 18. I wanted to know if the Canucks were headed to the big TO and when that would be. I remember finding Feb. 21 on the schedule and immediately telling my boss, "We should be there for that one."

A little more than two months later, here we go.

Well, officially I'll be leaving Friday morning, taking an 8:50 a.m. flight out of Newark so I can arrive in time for the Maple Leafs scheduled noon practice. Right now it's almost 4 p.m. ET Thursday and I'm currently sitting in our New York office waiting for a pair of phone calls. My mind, though, has already made the trip north of the border even though I haven't even packed yet for my two-day visit to the circus.

And, yes, that is what Sundin's return to Toronto is going to be.

I'll be one of the clowns performing. Sundin's the big elephant in the room. Thankfully, I can't picture anybody walking the tight rope. At least, I hope not.

I've been reading stuff all day about how some fans will boo him, but most of that will be drowned out by the cheers. I've asked the Leafs PR department if there is anything planned in the way of a tribute for Sundin, but they didn't want to reveal anything. I like it better that way. It adds to the evening. It makes the spectacle better when you don't know what to expect going in, and I seriously don't know what to expect at the ACC on Saturday night.

Cheers? Boos? A video tribute? Who knows?

What we do know is Sundin played 13 seasons in the blue and white and became the franchise's all-time leading scorer last season. It shouldn't matter if you are still mad at him for the way his tenure in Toronto ended because his time there deserves to be applauded by everyone in the building and every Leafs' fan glued to their TVs or computers.

Now, if you are still mad at him for the way he departed, that's your right. He could have waived his no-trade clause last season and gotten the Leafs a gold mine of prospects and/or draft picks in return. He didn't because, as he says, he thought Toronto still had a chance at making the playoffs and he didn't want to give up hope before March. His loyalty needs to be appreciated as well, even if some of you may think it was misguided.

The thing that gets a lot of fans out there is how Sundin returned this season. He's a half-season rental player for the Canucks and that is something he apparently never wanted to become. Than again, if it's true that the guy simply found the desire to play in the NHL again and the Canucks ponied up the dough, isn't that his right and their right?

You'd have to agree, no?

My belief is Sundin will be greeted rather warmly Saturday night. I also expect the Toronto media will grill him pretty hard Saturday morning and the topic of mercenary rental player will come up quite often. Sundin is smooth and he'll be able to deflect a lot of that stuff. He will try to turn the focus onto the game and the Canucks playoff hopes. There will be questions on what he thinks of the state of the Leafs now. He'll answer those without giving much in the way of cannon fodder to the scribes and radio voices.

Starting Friday afternoon, I'll be posting to this blog on a regular basis to keep all of our readers informed. It plans to be one of the most emotional nights of the season in the NHL and you can catch it all right here on NHL.com.

If you have any questions or just want to voice an opinion, email me at drosen@nhl.com. I try to respond to all of them, and the good ones I'll post on the blog.
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