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Sundin's Leafs legacy becomes permanent

by Chris Lund / Toronto Maple Leafs

"Loose puck in front. Down is Irbe. Rebound — Scores! They score! They score with 28.8 seconds left! The Leafs have tied the game!

Don't tell me about heart and dedication and resilience. This is unbelievable."

- Joe Bowen's call of Mats Sundin's game-tying goal against the Carolina Hurricanes on May 28, 2002

Heart. Dedication. Resilience.

If you were to fill a room with people flipping through dictionaries in search of ideal words to describe a Toronto Maple Leaf, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with three better than heart, dedication and resilience. For a franchise steeped in a history of hard-nosed, hard-working, high-skilled teams, those three superlatives come to mind more often than not.

Find a great Maple Leafs team and you'll find those three adjectives. Find a Maple Leafs legend and they'll emerge as descriptors of choice.

While Mr. Bowen's famous call described a particular goal, he also served up an accurate biography of its scorer.

For 13 seasons with the Maple Leafs, Mats Sundin was the heart of the Maple Leafs. For 13 seasons with the Maple Leafs, Mats Sundin was wholly dedicated to the Maple Leafs. For 13 seasons with the Maple Leafs, Mats Sundin was as resilient as any player to don the sweater.

For 13 seasons with the Maple Leafs, Mats Sundin was unbelievable.

13 seasons.

Now, just over 20 years after making his Maple Leafs debut on January 20, 1995, Mats Sundin will take his rightful place on Legends Row.

Sundin made the trip back to Toronto from Sweden this week with his parents, Tommy and Gunilla, his wife Josephine and their two young children. The opportunity to have his family present when he is recognized for his career in Toronto will make the moment that much more special.

The honour remains tough to grasp for the Leafs great despite his career taking a remarkable trajectory from the days when his parents would chauffeur both he and his brothers, Patrick and Per, to games in Sweden.

"It's going to be a special moment and obviously it's tough to imagine yourself being part of a monument on Legends Row," said Sundin. "Being a statue, that's not what you first thought when you started playing hockey and a game that you love."

Sundin's Legends Row induction will be especially fitting when he is unveiled alongside fellow Swede and Hall of Famer Borje Salming. Both players became trailblazers in their era while wearing the Maple Leafs' crest. Salming became one of the first Swedes to cross the Atlantic and thrive playing NHL hockey, providing a new goal for European players. Sundin — who was already the first European to be drafted first overall by the time he arrived in Toronto — also became the first European to captain the Maple Leafs when he was given the 'C' in 1997.

The ties between Sweden and the NHL don't get much stronger than two bronzed effigies that will dwell outside Air Canada Centre forever. The city of Toronto may never find two more appreciative adopted sons.

"I still consider Toronto my home," said Sundin. "13 years in this city, I played my whole career in Canada, but Toronto, being the captain here and all the ups and downs you go through in one season and 13 seasons as a team."

"They're forever in my heart and it's going to be a hometown for my whole family for the rest of our lives."

The figurative shadow cast by Sundin's legacy goes beyond the literal one cast by his statue. Ask any Maple Leafs fan that grew up during Sundin's era who their hockey hero was and you can bet you'll get stories of watching number 13 on a Saturday night.

Many current Leafs —particularly those who grew up in the city — list Sundin as their idol.

As a player who grew up idolizing Mats Naslund and Borje Salming — Sundin eventually played with both as a member of Sweden's national program — he never envisioned a time when he would play that role for a next generation.

"You can't imagine when you're in the midst of your career and playing hard that you're going to be that person that maybe other kids look up to and can thrive and make their own careers and become National Hockey League players," said Sundin. "That's the neat thing about the game. It continues to grow and continues to evolve and grow better. We're all just happy to have had a part of it while we were playing."

Those who watched the majority of his minutes in a Maple Leafs sweater all have their Mats Sundin memory. The exceptional backhand. The bullet slapshot. The Sundin smile. There's always a Mats Sundin moment or goal that springs to mind.

For some it's the aforementioned goal against Carolina. For others it's a rather famous "PING" to win a Game One in Ottawa. And then there's his 500th goal, which the man himself lists as his personal favourite.

"My 500th goal still sits there as my favourite one. Slapshot and shorthanded 3-on-4 against Calgary and a hat trick game winner. That's the one that sticks out."

Sundin's likeness, preserved in bronze, will live in front of Air Canada Centre — an arena he helped open and one that provided the backdrop for so many of his greatest moments.

Games come and go, seasons pass by and careers come to a close. Excellence finds a way to persist through flux. Sometimes that persistence comes in the form of an anecdote. Other times in a photo or film reel. Sometimes that persistence is something much more tangible.

Those who work with Bronze have the utmost reverence for the permanence it provides.

Bronze is forever. Bronze bestows legacy on the person or thing it represents. Bronze is an honour given to those worthy of it.

Mats Sundin's statue, and every statue on Legends Row, becomes a home for the legacy of the greatest Maple Leafs. A time machine that takes us out of our seats the way they did so many times in the past. An awe-inspiring reminder of what it means to bring respect to the crest and colours.

For the players themselves, that permanence finds a way to mean much more. They are captured at the peak of their brilliance in a way that resonates well beyond sport

"I imagine my daughter who is three years old now bringing her kids here to look at the statue," said Sundin. "That's really amazing."

On September 12, 2015, Mats Sundin takes his place in Bronze on Legends Row.

On September 12, 2015, Mats Sundin and his legacy of heart, dedication and resilience achieve permanence.

On September 12, 2015, Mats Sundin truly becomes a Maple Leaf forever.

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