At the Draft in 1994, the Leafs held the 16th overall pick. Who could have predicted that the next fourteen years of Maple Leafs hockey would be defined by what happened that day? Twenty-seven year old Captain Wendel Clark
was now a Quebec Nordique. Twenty-three year old Mats Sundin
was a Maple Leaf. It was the only time in NHL history that two number one overall picks had been traded for each other. The Toronto hockey landscape had changed…the Mats Sundin
Era was upon us.
In his first two seasons, he led the Leafs in scoring but two first round Playoff exits would precipitate a re-build. With the 97/98 season approaching, the Leafs had been without a Captain for seven months. The nineteen Toronto Captains that had come before, had all been Canadian. So like his fellow Swede, Borje Salming before him, Mats Sundin was poised to skate into uncharted territory… smack dab in the centre of the hockey universe.
It wouldn’t take long for the Leafs fortunes to turn. The next season was filled with tremendous excitement and hope… a new right winger… a new Coach… a new goalie behind him… and a new home for his Maple Leafs. The first six seasons at the ACC saw the Leafs in the Playoffs every year, hosting 13 Playoff series, eliminating the Senators, in four out of four chances and advancing to within three games of the Cup Final in 99… and within two games, in 2002.
Most great players have a signature trait and Mats is no exception. If you watched his goals… you noticed that familiar Mats Sundin smile. The only time you’d see a bigger grin, is when it was one of his teammates doing the scoring.
Bryan McCabe would say of his Captain, “he always made everyone feel like they were the same, no matter what their role was… he always made the players around him much, much better.”
And what of Wendel, the player Mats was traded for? He describes Mats “as an even a better teammate than he was a player. His teammates, his coaching staff and everybody that had anything to do with the team, held Mats in the highest regard. He was one of the greats.”
Scoring goals is something Mats did a lot… more than 924 other Maple Leafs. And on October 11th 2007, with a single shot… he became both the Leafs all-time leader in goals… and their all-time leader in points. At the conclusion of the night, he was named the game’s Third Star… and the Second Star… and the first star. An honour only granted once before, to the man who preceded him as the team’s top scorer and who also preceded him on Legends Row… Darryl Sittler.
Mats led the Leafs in scoring for 12 of his 13 seasons, before stepping away in 2008. Halfway through the following year, Mats would return as a Vancouver Canuck. That night, his fans would give Mats, what is still to this day, the longest ovation in Air Canada Centre’s history.
Why such a heartfelt welcome, for a player wearing green in his uniform?
Quite simple… he was a Maple Leaf… and he was home.