Mats Sundin lent me his hockey equipment
It’s a funny thing to remember when you write a man’s professional obituary. But it’s what sticks.
It was 1990. The all-star game was in Tampa. I was working for the National Post.
The media had an annual game at all-star. I wanted to play but didn’t have the equipment. I was moaning about it at Sundin’s locker.
“Just take mine,” he said.
I have often thought whether Barry Bonds would have lent me his bat or whether I could have even gotten close enough to Michael Jordan to hit him up for a lightly-used pair of shoes. I don’t think so.
There were always two Mats Sundins and this is the story among many accomplished people.
The bland, unreachable, altogether pleasant countenance is for the public. What beats below, of course, is the subject of endless conjecture.
Over his 981 regular season games with the Maple Leafs and 77 more in the post-season, there was in Sundin a seamless excellence. Everything, the shot, the skating, the passing, every gift was grandly obvious.
Teammate upon teammate glowed about his charisma and understanding. New players invariably remarked about the many facets of the man that lay undiscovered until they breached the doors of the Leafs’ dressing room.
And yet, there was in Sundin a unwillingness, even an inability to appeal to our lower nature.
Just once you wanted to hear him call out a teammate for an endless succession of stupid mistakes. Just once you wanted him to question his ice time, limited (to great effect by the way) by Pat Quinn.
You wanted to see he was human, that he was capable of the same petulance and pettiness as the rest of us. And when he would not go along, many assumed he didn’t care, about his play, about his team.
Sundin, they pointed out, had never gotten his team into the finals. Never mind two final four appearances, 32 goals and 70 points in 77 playoff games.
No heart, said the critics.
It was never true, of course but even in his final games for the Leafs, all he offered to refute the charge was excellence.
Until February 21, 2009.
Sundin was making his return but as a Vancouver Canuck. A few minutes into the game, the game ops crew ran a tribute to Sundin which prompted the longest, fiercest, ovation most anyone could remember.
And Mats Sundin cried. He fought to hold his composure as Matt Stajan, a longtime teammate and a player Sundin mentored, moved out of the face-off circle.
There was nowhere to hide and all the seasons and all the disappointments and all the faces and all the moments in between were wrapped in the cheers that cascaded upon Mats Sundin.
His lip quivered. He raised his stick.
There is nothing quite so emotionally revealing, for both the watcher and the watched, as a human being fighting back tears. Parents will tell you that children spark the most overwhelming reactions not when they cry, but when they try not to.
And there, in front of the 20,000 people in the ACC that night and countless more on television, lay the naked truth.
Mats Sundin had feelings, overwhelming feelings. He had just kept them hidden. Saying goodbye set them free.
“You were an emotional guy tonight,” someone said after he had scored the overtime winner and taken one final bow.
“I always was an emotional guy,” he said.
Sundin was born to captain the Leafs. He was never among the handful of the league’s best players, but he had an unmistakable dignity and reserve.
He was a captain, an athlete for another time, when you said little and did lots instead of the other way around.
But there was a reason he was held in such high esteem by his teammates and coaches. All of us could see his obvious excellence. Few were privy to the sight of the man behind the mask.
And one day in Tampa, I was subject to the kindness so many have spoken of.
The secret is out. And now he is gone.