by Scott Burnside
With glacial-like speed, the questioning calls to sports radio and letters to local newspapers slowed and have virtually become nonexistent, creating the strange sensation they might have referred to another man, another team, another time.
No longer does Pat Quinn have to unleash his annual, pre-playoff, head-shaking diatribe about the foolishness of anyone who would question Mats Sundin's character or his ability to lead one of the most storied franchises in pro sports.
And so it should be for the Toronto Maple Leafs' captain and the newest member of the NHL's 1,000-point club.
| Mats has the benefit of the grit and the touch. |
Graig Abel Photography
Sundin managed the feat Monday night versus the Edmonton Oilers on a pretty wrap-around goal to beat fellow Swede, Tommy Salo. Alexei Ponikarovsky had the distinction of assisting on 1000.
He is only the fifth player to reach the 1,000-point mark while wearing a Leaf jersey (the others are Norm Ullman, Glenn Anderson, Doug Gilmour and Larry Murphy).
While the lights shine brightly on Sundin's accomplishment -- he will also play in his 1,000th NHL game, likely March 24th against Boston -- it comes at a time when he has taken his game to a special place, the leader whose worth is not judged solely by the score sheet.
"I think his game is better," said Toronto coach and general manager Pat Quinn. "He was depended on to do lots of scoring and sometimes when you're looking for scoring chances, offensive guys I call it 'cheat' a little bit, because they have to score."
"I see Mats playing a much complete sort of game. He can play on the defensive side as well as anybody we have. And he's made a commitment to it and he s showed great leadership for us in that regard. As a person, I have good feeling about that. He really cares for his teammates. It's not about him at all."
"I think he's a special guy. We're lucky to have him."
Nine years after the fact, it ranks as one of the most significant deals in franchise history.
At the time, of course, it might have ranked as one of the most controversial, the trading of one of the team's most popular players ever, Wendel Clark along with solid defenceman Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson and a first-round pick for Sundin, Garth Butcher, Todd Warriner and a first-round pick.
Assistant GM Bill Watters recalled the emotions surrounding the deal. Then GM Cliff Fletcher and Clark were close and the team realized they were courting fan outrage by dealing the immensely popular Saskatchewan native. But, said Watters, the opportunity to bring in a centre with the physical presence and skills possessed by Sundin could not be ignored.
"Where would we be without it? When you look at it that way, it's one of the biggest," Watters said.
Clark would return twice more to the Leaf lineup before becoming an ambassador with the club. And three years after the trade, Sundin would follow Clark in wearing the captain's "C", the first European to do so.
It would deepen the complicated relationship between Sundin and Leaf fans many of whom were quick to question Sundin's ability to lead even as he was a hero in his homeland.
"He's big. He's kind of a hero for every kid growing up playing hockey right now," said countryman Jonas Hoglund.
"When he got traded to Toronto, that was a big story in Sweden," Hoglund recalled. And when he became Leaf Captain. "That was big too. It's great because when it's Toronto, so much tradition and history."
Although the question of Sundin's ability to lead was a staple in Quinn's early years as coach, especially on the eve of the playoffs, Quinn acknowledged in the days leading up to Sundin's 1,000th point that time seems to have passed with the team's playoff successes of the past four years.
"Maybe when I first came I heard little rumblings of that but you sure don't hear that about Mats Sundin," said Gary Roberts who said it's been "a treat" to play alongside Sundin since arriving as a free agent three years ago.
"I can't say enough about him," Roberts said. "I used to hate playing against him. We used to always yell at each other. He used to always call me a plumber I used to always call him pussy Swede."
He claims he beat me up once. I don't think he ever dropped his gloves he just elbowed me in the head one night and cut me," Roberts said with a smile.
There are 30 NHL teams, each with a captain, says netminder Trevor Kidd. "Who has the toughest job in the league, dealing with the media and the whole package? I think the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs is number-one on that list."
"On this hockey club I don't think there's any ifs, ands or buts about who should wear the "C" and that's Mats Sundin."
As Sundin's on-ice game has evolved, so too has his deportment off the ice, his comfort level in dealing with the duties of being captain both in the dressing room and in public.
| Mats has done a lot of celebrating in a Leafs uniform. |
Graig Abel Photography
"It's his team now. When he first got here it was Dougie's team," says close friend Tie Domi, referring to former captain Doug Gilmour.
"I think everybody comes here is definitely surprised at what type of guy he is," Domi adds. "He's a real down to earth guy who wants to win and he's one of the best players in the world. He's probably been one of my closest friends for 10 years now. We're kind of like family now. He and I are like the two brothers that we never had."
"If he has a problem with you or a group of guys, whatever the situation may be, he likes to address it," said Roberts. "I think that's where maybe he's changed a bit. After awhile you mature and you realize when you do have problems you don't like to let them slip by for too long you need to address that. I think he does that."
For fellow Swede Mikael Renberg, Sundin's selflessness is the most impressive trait.
"What I think makes him so special as a captain is that he cares about everybody," offers Renberg.
When someone else scores, Sundin is the first guy up on the bench.
"He really enjoys other guys' successes."
As for Sundin, the highest-scoring Swede in NHL history, he is typically understated about the accomplishment and the accompanying attention.
"Obviously it's something I'm very proud of," he said. "It's exciting. I haven't thought about it a lot. It's fun. I'm sure it'll be something to remember once the career's over."
Not bad for a guy who thought he d be lucky to hang around for a few years and go home.
"I thought I was going to play maybe three, four years in the National Hockey League," he said. "Here I am 13 years later."
"I'm sure once my career's over, when I look back when I'm older, I can maybe appreciate it a little bit more," he said. "There are more short-term goals right now the way I see it, that I feel are more important right now than maybe the 1,000 points. You can look back and say, 'hey, that's pretty good.'"