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Sundin's fairy-tale finish gives Canucks 3-2 win

by Dan Rosen
TORONTO -- If the script that played out here at the Air Canada Centre were turned into a movie, the writer would wind up in Hollywood collecting an Oscar.

It was too good to be true. But this was no fictional tale -- it actually happened.

Mats Sundin got to say goodbye to 19,504 adoring fans in this emotionally-charged building Saturday night with a kiss, a wave and a bow after skating onto the ice as the game's first star.

As if it were meant to be, the former Toronto Maple Leafs' captain and the franchise's all-time leading scorer got the shootout winner to lift the visiting Vancouver Canucks to a 3-2 victory over his old mates in one of the most entertaining games of the season.

At no other time in recent history has Leafs Nation stood as one and cheered for an opposing player like it did Saturday night. It was the rarest of sights in the capital of hockey and something Sundin will never, ever forget.

"All the battles and everything we've gone through the last 13 years with the Leafs, the ups and downs, disappointments and happiness, a lot of feelings come to mind when you come on the ice," Sundin said. "The ovation from the fans was very special. I'll remember that forever."

Well before the puck and the game rested on his stick, Sundin had to fight back tears as the fans saluted him with a two-minute standing ovation early in the first period.

A video tribute in honor of Sundin played on the ACC scoreboard during the first television timeout. As soon as the tribute began, the crowd stood as one and began cheering and hollering for their former leader.

If there were boos, they were drowned out by the roaring ovation.

Sundin, pictured on the video board sitting on the bench, stood up and gave a wave to the crowd, but he wasn't going to get away with doing so little.

"I had to tell Mats to stand up. I don't think he was really quite sure how to react there," Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said. "He did stand up and went on the ice and it was a good moment. It was a good moment to be a part of as a player and as a staff."

Sundin's linemates, Pavol Demitra and Ryan Kesler, were already on the ice, so he hopped over the boards -- and the roar from the crowd grew even louder. Sundin stood by himself near the Canucks bench taking it all in.

Finally, the players moved down the ice to the right circle in Toronto's defensive zone, but Matt Stajan, the Leafs center who was supposed to take the draw against Sundin, let his old teammate stand in the circle by himself. The lineman with the puck, Mark Pare, waited to call Stajan into the circle until well after CBC returned from the break.

At this point, the fans were still standing and the noise had reached its peak. Sundin was visibly emotional as he began to well up.

"There's no doubt about that," he said. "There were tears coming. It was very special."

Pare finally called Stajan into the circle. Stajan, like the rest of the players, was tapping his stick on the ice throughout the entire emotional ovation. It's the universal sign of respect and admiration from one hockey player to another.

Vigneault said everyone on the Canucks bench was caught up in the moment, too.

"I really thought when they had the tribute on the video and the ovation Mats got was outstanding," the coach said. "It showed a lot of class from the people that were here at the game. I think it was well-deserved."

The smattering of boos Sundin heard each time he touched the puck was a reminder from the fans that they still aren't completely over last season and the way he finished his career in Toronto.

Sundin was vilified by a faction of Leafs Nation for choosing not to wave his no-trade clause because he would have fetched a decent return for the team entering the inevitable rebuilding phase.

"I understand why he decided to stay with his team last year," Vigneault said. "He was captain and he thought they had a shot at making the playoffs. It's simple, honest and that's what he did."

It was also obvious from the moment he came out for warmups that many fans have not been given enough credit for forgiving Sundin. Fans held up signs that read, "We Love You Mats," and "Thank You Mats."

"With everything that has been going on since the deadline, it was very special," Sundin stressed. "Of course, I will remember that for the rest of my life."

Especially for how the night ended.

Perhaps Vigneault knew something when he wrote Sundin's name third on the shootout card. He had Pavol Demitra first and another ex-Leaf, Kyle Wellwood, as his No. 2 shooter.

Jason Blake was stopped by Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo and Demitra came down and scored on Vesa Toskala. Niklas Hagman missed to start Round 2, giving Wellwood a chance to win it.

As if that was going to happen on this night.

"Kyle could have ended it if he had the shot," Vigneault said, "but it was a dramatic finish."

Wellwood missed and Mikhail Grabovski scored, giving Sundin a chance to break the tie and win the game in the third round. With the crowd roaring, Sundin skated in on Toskala, switched to his backhand and beat his former mate.

Sundin was mobbed on the ice by his current teammates as Toskala quickly exited the stage. The fans stayed, standing and cheering until Sundin was announced as the first star.

"It's just one of those nights where you give a guy a chance like that and you know he's going to be able to score," Wellwood said.

Yes, one of those nights, one of those amazing scripts that was written live.

The beauty of sports.

"It was a perfect ending," Luongo said.

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