Retiring happens to every player, of course, but Mats Sudin’s farewell announcement was as anti-climactic as his entrance into big-time hockey was spectacular. The man who dominated the NHL landscape for so many years as captain of the Leafs, the man who might well be considered the best international player of the modern era, ended his career with a long distance statement, no fanfare, and little opportunity for public celebration of a great career. It just doesn’t feel right, but it’s done and no one can do anything about it.
Sundin’s career was nothing if not a roll call of team success for Tre Kronor and personal success with a Toronto Maple Leafs team he wasn’t able to lead to the Stanley Cup, the only true barometer for hero-worship in a city still looking for its first post-Original Six championship.
Sundin was the first European to be drafted first overall, by Quebec in 1989. He scored a goal in his first NHL game, on October 4, 1990, and never looked back. Despite scoring 23 goals as a rookie, he was part of an emerging Nordiques team that was terrible for many years, thus allowing him to represent Tre Kronor at the World Championship in lieu of the NHL playoffs.
If his NHL debut was impressive, his international debut was one for the ages (although he played briefly at the 1990 Worlds). Sundin scored perhaps the greatest goal in World Championship history in the deciding game of the 1991 event, going end-to-end, deking Slava Fetisov out of his proverbial jockstrap, and beating goalie Andrei Trefilov to give Sweden a 2-1 lead midway through the third period against CCCP. The win gave Sweden gold and relegated the Soviets to silver and established Sundin as the most exciting player of his generation.
Back in the NHL, Sundin was soon acquired by the Leafs in a huge deal that saw beloved captain Wendel Clark traded to Quebec. It was a deal made by the brain of GM Cliff Fletcher despite wounding the hearts of Leafs fans, but Sundin arrived at Maple Leaf Gardens and delivered the goods. For the next 13 years, number 13 was the team’s best player, a dominant force offensively and a gentleman and ambassador for the team off the ice. He became team captain in 1996-97, a position he held with class and dignity until leaving the team, becoming the longest-serving European “C” man in NHL history.
Along the way, Sundin reached all the important milestones, far surpassing 500 goals and 1,000 points, rolling one 30-goal season into the next. But he was able to take the Leafs only as far as the Conference finals (twice), thus preventing him from taking his place alongside the team’s immortals such as Keon, Mahovlich, Bower, Kennedy, Apps, and the other great players of the black-and-white, multi-Cup eras.
What Mats failed to deliver in Toronto he was able to deliver several times for his country. In all, the totals read four gold, two silver, and two bronze, but there is more to the story than the numbers. After the heroics of 1991, Sundin took Tre Kronor to gold at the 1992 and 1998 World Championships and then captained the team to the top of the podium at the Olympics in Turin, truly his crowning glory. He nearly – and single-handedly – took the team to the World Cup finals in 1996, and his record of participation is virtually impeccable. Simply put, when asked to play for his country, he said yes.
But what was most incredible was how he raised his level of play for Tre Kronor. He didn’t just participate for Sweden; he dominated. He put on that blue and yellow sweater and simply became the best player on his team and invariably the best player on ice. Peter Forsberg might have scored the great shootout goal against Canada to win Olympic gold in 1994, but to compare the two finest Swedes of the modern era is to diminish Foppa’s reputation at the expense of Sundin’s greater abilities. You have to admire and respect Foppa, but you worship at the blades of Sundin.
And so the two sides of the collectible Sundin coin tell two different but similar stories. Looking back at his international career, we see a deity who started with the greatest goal in World Championship history and ended with Olympic gold around his neck and a “C” on his sweater.
As for the NHL, his protracted waffling last year before signing with Vancouver and delivering a disappointing half season and playoffs – coupled with his almost back-door exit from the team he led for so long – somewhat diminishes the immediate force of his bravura career on our collective consciousnesses.
Time will soften this assessment, no doubt, but it would have been nicer if fans in Toronto had a better chance, under better circumstances, to say good-bye and thanks. He deserved as much – and so did they.