TORONTO -- It's been 18 years since Mats Sundin was moved from Quebec to Toronto in a blockbuster, franchise-changing trade. Throughout all this time, Joe Sakic admittedly has thought about one question.
What if the Nordiques never traded Sundin?
Would they have won that first-round series against the Rangers in 1995? Would they have gone on to more success in the playoffs that spring? Would the Avalanche have won the Stanley Cup more than twice? Would Sakic and Sundin have gone down in history as one of the greatest tandems of all time -- if not the greatest?
In a Hall of Fame career that featured well over 500 goals and 1,300 points, one of Matt Sundin's greatest privileges was to serve as Maple Leafs captain in a city where hockey was ingrained as a way of life. (Photo: Getty Images)
"You can only imagine what it could be like if he was on our team," Sakic said Monday morning at the Hockey Hall of Fame, where he, Sundin, Pavel Bure and Adam Oates will be enshrined forever at the evening's induction ceremony.
The people in Toronto can't even bring themselves to imagine what life would have been like had Cliff Fletcher never pulled the trigger on the Sundin blockbuster. It was a trade that sent the popular Wendel Clark to Quebec City but brought back a player in Sundin who would turn into the Maple Leafs' all-time leading scorer and their captain for 11 consecutive seasons from 1997-2008.
It was a trade that brought a new face of hockey to the city that can't get enough of the sport.
"What a tremendous captain," said Sakic, who wasn't too bad of a captain himself from 1995-2009 for the Quebec/Colorado franchise. "And he did it with nothing but class. He was a tremendous leader. What a hockey player.
"He had some great players [with him on the Maple Leafs] as well, but really when you thought of the Toronto Maple Leafs it was Mats Sundin. He really carried this franchise."
For Sundin, that was one of his greatest privileges, his greatest honors. He loved playing in Toronto and wearing the Maple Leafs sweater. He loved the passion and the highs that came with winning in this city.
"Playing hockey in May, in the playoffs, in Toronto -- there's nothing that beats that," Sundin said.
Sundin also understood the lows and how to deal with them.
He mainly understood and appreciated his role in the place that has been called the mecca of hockey, and he played it well even though there were many difficult times when the pressure could have easily sunk him and the Leafs.
"That trade is still the best thing to happen to me." -- Matt Sundin on the deal that sent him to the Toronto Maple Leafs
"I tell you that there is no better place in the world to play hockey, in my opinion, than Toronto," Sundin said. "There is no place where hockey has a central role in the community as it is in the city of Toronto. In the first few years coming here it was really hard to get used to that and used to the pressure, but I think over the years I really enjoyed it. I think it helped me perform. It helped me be a better player. It was fun."
Sundin never could bring the Leafs a Stanley Cup -- something that has eluded this franchise and this city for 45 years. He never even got them into the Stanley Cup Final, though they came close in 1999 and 2002.
It matters very little now. Instead of bringing the Leafs a championship, Sundin brought the city and the franchise a role model -- himself. That is his lasting legacy here.
"I have great admiration [for Sundin]," ex-teammate Gary Roberts said Sunday at the Legends Classic. "He always took care of his teammates. He always took care of the staff. For me, Mats did not get the credit sometimes that he deserved. He led by example every day on the ice. He was a true professional and one of the best players and captains I ever played with."
The Leafs haven't made the playoffs since 2004 -- a sobering fact that makes many fans here cringe -- but with Sundin they got to the postseason eight times, including six straight from 1999-2004. Sundin scored 35 goals and dished out 43 assists for 78 points in 85 playoff games.
HALL OF FAME
HHOF inductees talk careers at forum
By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer Joe Sakic, Pavel Bure, Mats Sundin and Adam Oates spent time Sunday answering questions from fans at the 2012 Hockey Hall of Fame Fan Forum in Toronto. READ MORE ›
Those years are now considered the good old days in Toronto.
"Mats was a horse," ex-Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph told NHL.com. "He just racked up the points and we won a lot of hockey games. We went deep in the playoffs quite a few times, and Mats was the reason that happened."
Even the tough times, like when the Leafs finished last in the Central Division in both 1996-97 and 1997-98, didn't ruin Toronto for Sundin.
He left after three straight seasons that didn't yield a playoff berth and actually finished his career across the country with the Vancouver Canucks, hoping a move west would get him his elusive Stanley Cup championship ring.
Sundin now says he regrets that and wishes he would have retired a Maple Leaf.
"Out of the 13 years, and even at times when you lost 10 games in a row, I don't think I ever encountered someone that came up and said something bad to me," Sundin said. "I think Maple Leaf fans are so dedicated to their team and all they want is for the Maple Leafs to win. They want only the best for you and wish you good when you talk to them."
Of course, those fans also expect a lot out of anybody who wears the Maple Leafs' sweater. Sundin had to carry an even heavier load as the captain for 11 seasons.
He absolutely felt the pressure, but he wouldn't have traded it.
Sundin is instead just so thankful that the Nordiques traded him -- not because he ever asked to be dealt or because he disliked Quebec City (not true on both fronts), but because the move to Toronto brought him into the sport's capital city and gave the fans here a new hockey hero.
"That trade is still the best thing to happen to me," Sundin said.