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Sundin excels at one of Canada's two toughest jobs

by Dan Rosen

Being the captain of any club is an honor, but Mats Sundin wasn’t sure if he wanted this job.
It was 10 years ago, when the hair still was flowing out of Mats Sundin’s bubblicious Koho helmet, that Maple Leafs brass came to him with the question.

”Can we sew the ‘C’ onto your blue and white sweater?”

Being the captain of any club is an honor, but Sundin wasn’t sure if he wanted this job, because as Canadian hockey aficionados like current Leafs coach Paul Maurice will tell you, “The two toughest jobs in Canada are Prime Minister and being the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs.”

Even more daunting, each of the 15 players who wore the Leafs’ “C” before Sundin were Canadian, so certainly he was skating on ultra-thin and slick ice with this pending decision.

Before answering, Sundin sought advice from someone who knows what being both a Swedish and Toronto hockey icon is all about. Leafs legend Borje Salming, who 15 years earlier turned down the captaincy, sat with Sundin at his clothing factory in Stockholm, and the rest is part of Leafs lore.

“I really wanted to hear what he had to say more than anything, and he said he didn’t take (the captaincy) because he doubted that he was the right guy and he always regretted that for the rest of his career,” Sundin, the 36-year-old veteran in his 17th season, told “That made my choice very easy, that he said he really regretted that he didn’t take the captaincy.”

Ten years later, the “C” still is stitched onto each of Sundin’s new RBK Edge Maple Leafs jerseys, and the unassuming Swede, who spends his summers in the most remote locations of his native country and who is able to walk the streets of Toronto without much fanfare, never has sweated through it in his time as the most prominent hockey figure in one of the NHL’s signature markets.

He is the hockey version of Derek Jeter.

“He handles the pressures of this market perfectly,” said Maurice, who is in his second season behind the Maple Leafs’ bench. “He takes his time. He’s open. He doesn’t hide. It is a different animal in Toronto than anywhere else – maybe Montreal is the same thing – but he handles it so very well. He’s a role model for all of us.”

Sundin, the only non-Canadian captain in the Leafs’ 80 years, credits the captaincy for turning him into the player he is, which is a without-a-doubt future Hall of Famer, who last month became the Leafs’ all-time leader in goals and points, surpassing both of Darryl Sittler’s marks with the same goal.

Sundin was named the game’s first, second, and third star that night.

“When you come to a new team, your first concern is what are the leaders like in the room and how hard are you going to have to fight these guys to play the style of game you want?” Maurice said. “He is just fantastic to work with.”

Sundin’s work ethic matches his consistency. He has produced 70 or more points in 11 straight seasons, and has reached the mark 14 times in his career. Jaromir Jagr’s 14 straight seasons of 70 or more points is the longest such streak in the League.

Jagr, though, had 70 in 48 games during the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season while Sundin produced 47 in 47 games, but that stat alone proves what Sundin has been throughout his entire career.

He’s a point-per-game player, with 1,268 points in 1,250 career regular-season games. He currently is tied for third in NHL scoring this season with 25 points, including nine goals and 16 assists in 19 games.

Sundin and Jagr also are tied for the League’s all-time record with 15 regular-season overtime goals. His 90 game-winning goals is third among active players, behind Jagr (108) and Brendan Shanahan (105).

”All your players on the team are going to emulate your best players,” Maurice said. “If your best players come to the rink with the idea that, ‘I’m great, I don’t have to work,’ it might be true for them, but if the other guys take that approach you’re not going to have a great year. The easy one for us is to say just work as hard as Mats and you’re not going to have a problem.”

Sundin’s health has determined a lot of his consistency. He’s missed only 47 of a possible 1,293 career games. Maurice, though, said that absurdly low number is due to Sundin’s conditioning, which is off the charts even now.

“His work level hasn’t dropped off (with age). If anything it has increased,” Maurice said. “We talk about being smart about his days off and he’s open to that, but I think he looks at that as something that happens in the latter half of the season. He’s pushing himself. Mats enjoys coming to the rink, even on the dark days.”

Of which there have been plenty throughout his 12-plus seasons in Toronto, including this season, as the team has been booed off the Air Canada Centre ice twice in recent weeks thanks to a pair of 7-1 losses, to Carolina and Washington.

Sundin, who has played for five different coaches in Toronto, always has been “the guy” – standing front and center, answering questions from the throng of local media members that surrounds him after every game.

Sundin’s presence in the public eye actually is why some card-carrying members of Leaf Nation view him as the face of the franchise’s struggles and others see him as the welcome face of one of the most storied franchises in all of sports.

He never balks. He’s never curt. Yet, for some odd reason, he’s sometimes seen as two-faced, but not in the way you’re thinking.

Sundin’s presence in the public eye actually is why some card-carrying members of Leaf Nation view him as the face of the franchise’s struggles – Toronto hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967 – and others see him as the welcome face of one of the most storied franchises in all of sports.

”I wouldn’t want to play in another market than in Toronto, where you have a whole city and a fan base that really cares about the team and how the organization is doing,” Sundin said. “That has helped me a lot. It’s one of the reasons I’m still playing, too. You still have that drive and still the dream in the back of your head to be part of a championship team with an organization like that. It’s like a big carrot hanging in front of your face.”

Sundin, though, is running out of time on that dream. Although he’s in great shape, he’s not naive. His age is why he signed a one-year contract in the summer after Toronto decided against picking up the option on his old contract.

“I could have probably signed a longer-term deal, but I want to make sure now at 36 that I really analyze every season that I play now and make a good decision after that,” Sundin said. “How is my body feeling? Am I healthy? Am I mentally able to prepare for a long NHL season?”

With age comes some irony, and for Sundin that means playing with some of the kids who grew up idolizing him and the Leafs. Matt Stajan, the Leafs’ fifth-year forward, is from nearby Mississauga, Ont., and is just old enough to remember the 1994 trade that landed Sundin in Toronto.

Former GM Cliff Fletcher orchestrated the deal with the Quebec Nordiques that brought Sundin, who scored a career-high 114 points in 1992-93, to Maple Leaf Gardens, but in the process moved Leafs legend and then-captain Wendel Clark to Quebec.

“I was only 10 when that happened, but I know there was a lot of disappointment because Wendel Clark was such a fan favorite,” Stajan said. “It proved to be such a great trade. They got one of the best players in the organization in that trade.”

Even better, Clark returned to Toronto two seasons later and wound up playing another 145 games before calling his career quits in 2000.

Now each is a Toronto legend.

“Just watch him. You know he’s a leader,” Stajan said. “I couldn’t imagine anyone else being my captain.”


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