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Sundin follows his heart... to Toronto

by Larry Wigge

Mats Sundin began the season by registering a 16-game home point-streak, creating a new Leafs franchise records.
Sundin highlights
The idea of being traded can be a traumatic experience. It can set off a pride and passion in a player that he’s just not willing to give up.

That’s the place where Toronto Maple Leafs’ captain Mats Sundin has been in recent weeks, in a state of unrelenting limbo, not wanting to play anywhere but Toronto, and not wanting to waive the no-trade clause in his contract.

"I cannot leave my teammates and join another NHL club at this time," Sundin added in a written statement. "I have never believed in the concept of a rental player. It is my belief that winning the Stanley Cup is the greatest thing you can achieve in hockey but for me, in order to appreciate it you have to have been part of the entire journey and that means October through June. I hope everyone will understand and respect my decision."

Sundin earned the no-trade provision in his contract by putting up 413 goals and 971 points in 970 career games with the Maple Leafs. He’s been loyal to the sweater, the team and the fans in Toronto. Plus, the 25 goals and 37 assists in 63 games this season prove the 37-year-old native of Bromma, Sweden still has a lot left to contribute.

The big center admitted recently that he learned the pride of wearing the Maple Leaf shortly after he left Quebec City for Toronto in a trade back in 1994. On June 28, Sundin, defenseman Garth Butcher, winger Todd Warriner and a swap of first-round draft choices went to the Maple Leafs for then-Toronto captain Wendel Clark, defenseman Sylvain Lefebvre and forward Landon Wilson.

Then 23, Sundin quickly learned the importance of having pride in your team -- and how fans can show an immense passion for that team’s leaders, like Clark or Doug Gilmour.

"I don't think I realized, really, the effect that Wendel had on Toronto, his popularity here," Sundin recalled. "But I quickly understood what it meant to be a Maple Leaf the first day I came here and met the media and heard the passionate reaction of fans to the trading of a player so revered in this city."

That trade? It wasn’t popular in Toronto, where the fans loved the heart, soul, passion and grit that the robust Clark brought to the ice every shift. Showing his intuitiveness, Sundin put that lesson in his memory bank, trying to be the same kind of revered leader, but in his own way. Which he has accomplished in spades.

"It changed my career into the right direction," remembered Sundin, who, at age 23, had already had seasons of 23, 33, 47 and 32 goals in Quebec after becoming the first European-born No. 1 pick overall in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft. "Becoming a Maple Leaf has really helped me develop my game on and off the ice, learning about leadership."

It’s not just a knee-jerk reaction from a player after a long and distinguished career. Sundin has learned exactly what Clark felt in pulling that famous sweater over his head.

After scoring his 25th goal this season Saturday night to help the Maple Leafs beat Boston 3-1 and tie him with Michel Goulet for 23rd on the career goals list with 548, Sundin gave us a preview of his heartfelt feelings about playing in Toronto.

"I know it's a business," Sundin said. "I know we've missed the playoffs the past two years and could do the same this year. But ... I have to do what feels right in my heart. And that means I can't go to another team if I don't want to be with another team. I wouldn't be true to myself. I've never believed in being a rent-a-player. I've always thought that to win a Stanley Cup you should be there from training camp on, the whole season, part of the group."

Ray Bourque took a trade from Boston to Colorado to win a Stanley Cup. Others in recent years -- like Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk, Mark Recchi and Bill Guerin -- have traded in their no-trade rights for the chance to hoist the Cup. They weren’t wrong in accepting a trade. And Brad Richards or anyone else waiving a no-trade proviso before the Feb. 26 trade deadline wouldn’t be wrong this year.

Neither, though, is Sundin wrong about wanting to finish with the same team he has spent a lifetime with.

If you know Sundin, you know this isn’t really about rent-a-players. This isn’t about one last kick at the can.

"I signed here a year ago not so I would put myself in the position where I wanted to be traded at the deadline," he suggested recently. "I signed because I wanted to finish my career as a Toronto Maple Leaf, and that hasn't changed.

Toronto's been my home for 13 years, I love the fact that I play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. And I love the fact that I'm a part of the city and the team. - Mats Sundin

"Toronto's been my home for 13 years, I love the fact that I play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. And I love the fact that I'm a part of the city and the team."

Sundin then hinted that even though he can become an unrestricted free agent July 1 and has not shown any hint of losing his immense point-per-game skills that he will sit down with his family after the season to decide if he wants to return for another campaign.

This isn’t about no-trade clauses. This isn’t about being selfish, or not. It’s about the passion and pride and all of the other intangibles that go into making hockey so great.

And while interim GM Cliff Fletcher had hoped to trade Sundin and recoup some assets to help rebuild the stumbling Leafs, Fletcher, who made the trade of Clark for Sundin at the draft in Hartford in the summer of 1994, knows what kind of player, what kind of person he’s been talking to at length in recent weeks. The Leafs won’t be stripping Sundin of his captain’s “C” because he didn’t agree to a trade to help the team this week and in the long-term.

He’s been traded ... and found a home he doesn’t want to leave. You can’t blame him for that.

Mats Sundin isn’t just a hockey player. He’s the right kind of leader that 29 other teams are trying to put in their lineup every night.


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