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Weighing the Options

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Barry Sanders.

Jim Brown.

That’s about it.

If you are looking for athletes who retired after one of their most productive seasons, athletes not forced from the game by injury, then it comes down to Barry Sanders and Jim Brown…and maybe Mats Sundin.

Brown was 30 when he walked away from the Cleveland Browns in 1965. Sanders was coming off a 1,400-yard campaign when he left the Detroit Lions in 1998. He was absolutely certain the club could not win in the near or intermediate future. Turns out he was wrong. The Lions weren’t going to win in the long-term either.

Michael Jordan, you say.

Pick a retirement. He quit at 30, came back, quit at 35, came back and finally packed it in for good at 40.

I have looked and I could not find another parallel. Wayne Gretzky quit at 38, Sundin’s present age, but he scored only nine goals in 70 games. Sixty-two assists made the points figure more respectable but you can bet that if Gretzky had enjoyed one of his best seasons, he would have been back.

Sundin is a different kind of 38. He scored 32 goals. He was even or plus in 57 of his 74 games.

And yet, the longer Sundin basks in Sweden’s endless days, the stronger the possibility that he is not coming back. Certainly, money holds only limited enticement. Sundin is already rich as a Pharaoh. He never used his contract to keep score on respect he was being accorded within the game.

He is just a different guy, a guy who camps and hikes by himself. Ninety-nine players out of 100 would come back for a two-year-contract and $20 million. He is that one. Figuring him out is like catching a leaf in a windstorm.

The Leafs have tried to cover every eventuality. They are planning for life without Sundin. There is no replacing him, of course, but someone will succeed him. And if Sundin comes back, the Maple Leafs have goosed their playoff chances substantially.

Leaf fans are braced for an arduous climb back to respectability. The changes already made, free-agent acquisitions, a breath of fresh air in the locker room and the arrival of new coach Ron Wilson and his staff, should produce enough good things to make for a passable winter, even an encouraging one. The patrons aren’t looking for the captain’s return to push them to the conference finals. In a very real way, the hunger for his Sundin’s return is not as marked as the recent past where the club was in a life or death fight (death it turned out) for a playoff spot.

Will Mats Sundin come back? I have no idea. Nothing would surprise me anymore. But I will tell you this: he is one of the few who would turn away from the money, forgo the farewell tour, and get on with the rest of his life.
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