At the end of his worknight, they asked Mats Sundin if he had proven, once and for all, that he was an emotional man.
“I’ve always been,” he said.
Who would argue after a remarkable night in which the Leafs longtime captain scored the winning goal in a shootout and was named the first star of a 3-2 win by the Vancouver Canucks.
Sundin’s return to Air Canada Centre was not without boos, but early in the first period, the Leafs game crew gave everyone the vote.
hey played a 60-second clip of Sundin’s biggest goals scored over 13 impeccable seasons as a Maple Leaf.
The sellout crowd responded with wave after wave of applause. First Sundin stood up on the bench, then urged on to the ice by coach Alain Vigneault, he stood, bathed in gratitude.
It went on and on and Sundin skated into the face-off circle looking for relief. The linesman wouldn’t drop the puck. The people weren’t done.
Through it all, Sundin looked stressed, his features pinched, he even short-armed his waves of acknowledgement. His expression mirrored that of thousands of people in the building – he was trying not to cry.
“There were some tears coming,” he said later. “It was very special.”
Scoreboard technology has changed the interaction between athletes and crowds. I was there the night they saluted Maurice Richard in the final game for the Montreal Forum. When the great man wiped away a tear, the people saw the effect of their applause. “He hears us.” The ovation redoubled.
It was the same way Saturday. When the patrons saw the barely-constrained emotion, what they had long suspected had been proven true. Here was an athlete who felt the same way about them as they did about him.
Sundin’s perceived lack of passion was sometimes interpreted as aloofness. He was, in fact, anything but aloof but it was a side the public rarely saw. One of the rites of any season was the wave after wave of players, from Gary Roberts to Shayne Corson to Gary Valk to Alexander Mogilny who only understood Sundin’s real nature once they had played with him.
Fans, of course, don’t see that. They do see A. J. Burnett opting out of the final two years of his Blue Jays’ contract, worth 24 million to go play for the Yankees. He won 38 games in three years for the Jays, just a little over a dozen a year. Thanks.
They see Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Damon Stoudamire, Antonio Davis, hightail it out of town when things went south. Now Raptor fans search Chris Bosh for a hint of the same thing.
But the thing about Sundin is that he always wanted to stay, always considered it his particular calling to play for the Maple Leafs. If there was a distance, it was only one of perception. Only five players, George Armstrong, Tim Horton, Borje Salming, Dave Keon and Ron Ellis played more games than Sundin, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Ellis’s last Leafs season was 1981. Mats Sundin played about five more seasons worth of Leaf games than did Wendel Clark, whose position near the top of the Leafs pantheon is unassailable.
After the applause thundered down for two minutes, Sundin and the linesman had finished the bargain. The puck was dropped and everyone moved on.
With that ovation and another hand when he took to the ice as the game’s first star, the public had their say in the Mats Sundin question. Theirs was a vote of gratitude with a caveat; many begrudge Sundin’s unwillingness to waive his no-trade clause in his final days as a Leaf.
There aren’t many Mats Sundins, certainly none in sight and so the night featured electricity that fit the man. During the play, Sundin elicited a healthy dose of booing when he touched the puck but less than poor Kyle Wellwood, whose groin muscles and work ethic were equally substandard in the eyes of the patrons.
The closest similar outpouring for Sundin came in October 2006 when he scored a shorthanded, game-winner for a hat-trick against the Calgary Flames. It was his 500th goal and the crowd that night was like tonight's. He lingered that night, basking in the fans’ appreciation and this is not as easy as it sounds. You have to know when the applause will no longer come, when it’s time to go. On the ice, last night and that night, Sundin was unfailingly right.
It is an open question whether that faculty with Mats Sundin now. He can still hammer a puck and his hand skills look up to speed but tonight, at least, he didn’t show the powerful skating stride that set him apart. He has seven goals and 12 points in 18 games.
The most highly-anticipated night of the season came and went and it lived up to the billing. Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark had their numbers honoured this season. There was never any doubt how they would be received. Saturday brought suspense, emotion, drama and more emotion.
From now on, as far as Mats Sundin and the denizens of the Air Canada Centre, things are back to normal. The fans care a great deal. So too, does Mats Sundin.
Turns out he was always an emotional man. He has quite a way of showing it.