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100 Greatest Players

Mats Sundin: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Longtime Maple Leafs captain only Swedish-born player with 500 NHL goals

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

Mats Sundin wasn't exactly a well-kept secret heading into the 1989 NHL Draft in Bloomington, Minnesota. The generously skilled native of Bromma, Sweden, had been on the radar of the Quebec Nordiques for some time and he was their prime target for the two months before the draft at the Met Center.

So it was that Sundin would make history on June 17, 1989, the first European-born player to be selected at No. 1 when the Nordiques announced his name.

 

Video: Mats Sundin only Swede to score 500 goals

 

"We made up our mind two months ago," Nordiques chief scout Pierre Gauthier said, adding that he had made three trips overseas to study Sundin and plot what the big center could bring to the Nordiques.

Sundin (6-foot-5, 231 pounds) would skate to his 2012 Hockey Hall of Fame induction mostly by way of the Toronto Maple Leafs, for whom he played 13 of his 18 NHL seasons. He was a massive presence as Toronto's captain between 1997-98 and 2007-08 before leaving for the Vancouver Canucks as a free agent and one final season.

But on that Saturday in Bloomington in 1989, pulling on a Nordiques jersey and being swarmed by the media, Sundin considered Quebec's provincial capital and his economical knowledge of where his NHL career would begin.

 

MATS SUNDIN CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 1,346 | Goals: 564 | Assists: 785 | Points: 1,349

 

"I know it is a nice town and there are a lot of girls. That's about it," the 18-year-old said with a laugh.

There had been plenty of debate heading into the draft as to whether the Nordiques would jump at trading the No. 1 pick for immediate help in a bid to escape the Adams Division cellar. When a trade didn't materialize, the Met Center held its breath awaiting Quebec's decision, thought to be between Sundin and forward Dave Chyzowski, another highly touted prospect.

The Nordiques' choice of Sundin was to the surprise but also the delight of the hulking center, who had two years remaining on a Swedish League contract with Djurgardens IF Stockholm and a military commitment of between seven and 11 months.

"I think this is a great moment for European hockey," he said, a view echoed overseas.

Chyzowski, chosen at No. 2 by the New York Islanders, had no problem with where he was picked.

"(Sundin) will make a big impact and I am more than happy to see him go there and I am probably even more than happier to see myself go to New York," he said.

Over 18 seasons, between 1990-91 and 2008-09, Sundin would play 1,346 regular-season games for the Nordiques, Maple Leafs and Canucks and 91 more in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Over six seasons, Chyzowski played 128 games for the Islanders and Chicago Blackhawks.

That's not a knock on Chyzowski, because Sundin had a longevity and talent that were both among the elite of the NHL and, in some ways, without peer.

Sundin began his career impressively in Quebec with 23 goals and 36 assists for 59 points in 1990-91, then had 76 points and a career-high 114 in his second and third years in Quebec, respectively. He scored 47 goals in his third season, also a career best.

In Sundin's fourth season, 1993-94, his name started circulating in trade rumors, and the Maple Leafs were paying attention. Toronto knew it wouldn't get an impact player like Sundin without giving up a rich asset, or two, and Maple Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher was ready for the firestorm when he finally made the trade for Sundin at the NHL Draft in Hartford on June 28, 1994.

Sundin, forward Todd Warriner and defenseman Garth Butcher went to Toronto for Maple Leafs captain Wendel Clark, solid defenseman Sylvain Lefebvre and prospect Landon Wilson, with a draft pick thrown in by each side.

Toronto fans were in an uproar over losing Clark, the heart and soul -- and often the blood and guts -- of their team. It was more than an address change for Sundin, meanwhile; the trade meant that he'd be exposed to yet another new culture, and be in the unenviable position of having been traded for a wildly popular player.

"I'm looking forward very much to playing in Toronto," Sundin said when the trade was made. "I think it's a good team with the possibility to win a Stanley Cup. I liked Quebec a lot, but this is what happens in the NHL. You must take the circumstances that happen."

Sundin surely wouldn't miss the roastings he took, most notably on the bench from coach Pierre Page in 1993 when the Nordiques blew a 2-0 series lead to the Canadiens in the Adams Division semifinals.

All that the big Swedish artist could do upon arrival in Toronto was explain that he wasn't going to replace the crash-and-bang game of Clark, a wrecking ball on skates.

What Sundin brought was a terrific offensive game born of strong skating, a powerful shot from anywhere on the ice and a great consistency.

For 12 of his 13 seasons with the Maple Leafs, Sundin led Toronto in scoring. He would establish still-standing franchise records for goals (420) and points (987). He was captain for 10 seasons, succeeding Doug Gilmour to become the first European in Toronto history to be so named, and he stoically faced plenty of sour music from the media and fans, aimed at his team and himself, when the Maple Leafs missed the playoffs five times on his watch.

The eight-time NHL All-Star Game selection made history along the way.

Sundin is one of three players to score at least 20 goals in his first 17 NHL seasons. He is the only Swede to score 500 goals and has the most points (1,349) and goals (564) by a Swedish player. And he was the first Swede to reach 1,000 points, finishing with 1,349.

His impact on the game is not limited to the NHL. Sundin was viewed as a hockey hero in his homeland, winning the World Championship with Sweden in 1991, 1992 and 1998.

But even world titles paled next to his leading Sweden to the gold medal as captain at the 2006 Olympics. Sundin earned an assist on teammate Nicklas Lidstrom's winning goal in the gold-medal game against archrival Finland.

"You can't do much more than what he has done for Swedish hockey," Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said upon Sundin's retirement announcement on Sept. 30, 2009. "He has been a big, big key to all of our success for many, many years. To win the Olympics is obviously a great ending to his time with the national team. He's looked upon as one of the greatest to ever play in Swedish hockey."

It was with a heavy heart but with much thought that Sundin, at 38, retired from the game he loved.

"It's a little sad to announce that my career as a professional hockey player is over," he said at a press conference in Stockholm. "I would have loved to play until the age of 65, but as a hockey player you obviously retire a little earlier than that."

The Maple Leafs were effusive in their praise of Sundin's contributions to the team.

"Mats always carried himself in an exemplary manner both on and off the ice," said then-general manager Brian Burke. "As captain of the Leafs for over a decade, his commitment to charitable initiatives within our community was extraordinary. He will go down in history as one of the greatest players to ever wear the Toronto Maple Leafs sweater. We extend our best wishes for continued success to Mats and his family."

Sundin is celebrated outside Air Canada Centre in Toronto with a statue on Legends Row. At the Maple Leafs' 2016-17 home opener, having just been voted No. 5 on the list of Toronto's top 100 players, his No. 13 was among 17 numbers retired.

"A Stanley Cup ring would've been nice to have," Sundin said when he retired. "But in all honesty, I've experienced and won so much since I landed in Quebec as a 19-year-old. It feels like I've experienced so much more than I could ever have imagined."

 

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