When Mats Sundin is formally inducted into the Hockey Hall Of Fame tonight in Toronto, you’ll probably see a glowing tribute video. You’ll probably hear some former coaches and players gush about how great Sundin was as a person and a player and how deserving he is of this great honour. And it will all be true.
But it won’t be the whole truth. And when we look at a player’s career at times like these, it’s rarely true that everything we choose to remember will be everything that really happened, because, well, nobody’s perfect. Everybody has their warts. And no matter what you hear tonight, The Big Swede is no different.
Don’t get me wrong. As a kid, Mats Sundin was my favourite player. Whenever I played hockey, I was always Number 13. I had about ten posters of my sports heroes adorn the walls of my bedroom, but Sundin held the coveted spot over the head of my bed. My favourite hockey card was of Sundin, and I still have it in a plastic case tucked safely away in my bookshelf. My first memory watching the Leafs was a Sundin goal.
But after watching how Sundin handled his messy final season with the Leafs in 2007-08, it somewhat tarnished my memories of him.
Sundin was a member of the notorious “Muskoka Five” along with Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina. These players (named after the popular cottage country located just a few hours north of Toronto where many of the Leafs enjoy their summers) were all signed to no-trade clauses by then-Leafs’ general manager John Ferguson Jr., and subsequently refused to waive their clauses at the trade deadline in February 2008.
Fans and media members vilified the group. Sure, it was their own personal choices to negotiate those no-trade clauses in their contracts, and JFJ was handing them out like candy on Halloween. But nonetheless, their refusal to waive those contracts cost the Leafs valuable young players, prospects and draft picks that they could have received in return and started a much-needed rebuilding process. As captain and face of the franchise, Sundin was also the poster boy of the Muskoka Five.
Sundin said repeatedly it was out of his love for the Blue and White that he refused to leave the team, but in truth, his misguided attempt at loyalty cost the Leafs many times more than the benefit they received from Sundin’s presence in another non-playoff season.
Sundin’s contract ran out after the Leafs finished 12th in the Eastern Conference and last in their division at the end of the season. He sat out for half of the next season before signing with Vancouver for one last shot at winning the Cup. The Canucks came up short in the playoffs, and Sundin’s hall-of-fame career came to an end.
When Sundin came back to the Air Canada Centre wearing the blue and green of the Canucks to play the Leafs in his final season, Leafs fans greeted their former captain with a standing ovation. Forgive and forget, right? Leafs Nation has never been accused of judging their former stars rationally looking back on their careers, and Sundin definitely had some memorable moments in a Leafs jersey. But thinking back on Mats Sundin’s career as a Leaf will always be bittersweet for this observer, and any rational Leafs fan who lived through the Sundin years will say the same thing.