Mats Sundin glides into a pool of sick children and breathless, awestruck parents. There is hardly a ripple.
On this Thursday morning he is at Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital stooped over or on his haunches, signing autographs, reaching into a loot bag for gifts. When asked to pose for a picture, Sundin folds his six-foot-three inches down and puts his giant face right beside that of the little kid. He comes to them.
This is Sundin’s first public appearance in Toronto in nearly two years. He is in town to visit friends and attend a handful of events organized by MLSE’s TEAM UP Foundation. He will be at Saturday’s Leaf game.
Sundin arrived Wednesday night. The first order of business for the franchise’s all-time leading scorer was the kids.
“This is the best part, I think. You don’t have to be in the hotel room in New York having that little knot in your stomach that reminds you that you have to perform. I miss that but it’s nice to be here, reflect on the career you had, come out to Sick Kids and try to give back a little bit.”
Retired at 40, Sundin is exactly how you expect him to be. He is dressed casually in earth tones. His weight hasn’t changed, at least not visibly. He is still easy to be with, optimistic.
Being a retired player sits easily on him.
“You have to get away from the physical and the mental drain,” he said. “I love the game of hockey but the professional, elite hockey, it was just time to let it go.”
The most telling remark he ever made about himself came in Feb. 2009 when he returned to Toronto dressed as a Vancouver Canuck. Accorded a lengthy ovation, he fought back tears. When he is acknowledged Saturday, as he surely will be, more tears may follow.
“Are you surprised you were so emotional?” someone asked that night.
“I’ve always been emotional,” he said.
And that is the thing about Mats Sundin. You had to know where to look to find the fire.
His competitiveness radiates from the marrow out but while hockey made him famous and ridiculously wealthy, it never really owned him.
That he kept himself intact allowed Sundin to survive a decade captaining a ship that inevitably, after even the noblest ventures, ran aground on an island that was teeming with witnesses. And it keeps him whole now that the game is gone.
“Once I retired I think I saw it as a way overdue decision,” he said. “In my case at least it was.”
Sundin has been on a honeymoon from the sport. He was married two years ago and moved back to Sweden in 2010. He and his wife are building a house outside Stockholm. That occupies plenty of time. His architect, naturally enough, lives in Toronto.
When he returns you realize there has always been in Sundin something Canadian, or at least something we see as Canadian.
Sundin beams a grin when he approaches the children. He is in the same moment goofy and attentive. What you see in the first glance is decency, a transparent, guileless decency.
As a Leaf, Sundin never demanded to renegotiate a contract, never undermined a coach, never traded information for favourable press. That matters in countries with smaller populations, countries like Canada and Sweden. People feel they know you in a way they don’t in bigger, more cosmopolitan places.
While they are attracted to it, Canadians fundamentally distrust shining talent but they revere character. Rare is the man who isn’t somehow found lacking as a player or a person.
“I think that’s true about Canadians and you see the same in Sweden,” he said. “It’s all about the people.”
That’s why Sundin, a foreigner from a Scandinavian culture, could simultaneously be among us and apart from us. He was, in the same moment, a gift from afar and a local, homegrown treasure. Every summer he would return to Sweden. He would embark on solo fishing trips into the wild. When he returned to face his destiny, he would do so with renewed energy and a reinvigorated aura of mystery, of apartness.
Sundin wore the uniform proudly and his skills matched both the land in which he played and the land from which he came. His game was big, rugged and direct. Sundin never possessed Wayne Gretzky’s on-ice cunning. He did not supersede his gifts. Instead he did his best to maximize them. You got what you saw and you saw a lot.
That Sundin was never able to lead the Leafs into the Stanley Cup final speaks to us as well. Canadians generally have to go south to find wider fame and grand championships. The ones who choose to stay here are suspect. Sundin’s last game as a player was in a Vancouver uniform. When he finally moved, he chose to stay in the family. That has sometimes been misinterpreted as a lack of ambition instead of its refinement.
In retirement, Sundin keeps an eye on the Leafs but does not watch every game.
“It’s the team of my heart so I’ve got to follow them,” he said. “With the start and the young players, the team looks great. It’s fun to watch.”
His long breath after hockey continues.
“You spend so much in your life in your career and playing hockey and practicing, you are so focused on the game, it’s nice to stop and have the chance to figure out what you want to do with your life.”
He will be remembered, not as the team’s all-time leading scorer but as one of its most distinguished, most admired leaders. As sure as fall follows summer, new Leafs could be found every October saying they never knew how great a captain they found in Mats Sundin.
It was never, Sundin said, what he did for the captaincy but the other way around.
“For me, it really fit my personality. It helped my game. It put pressure on me to perform.
“I wouldn’t,” said the great Mats Sundin, “have wanted it any other way.”