Sundin Sure Didn’t Help His Team. Just His Wallet

In retrospect, why did so many of us think Mats Sundin was going to be the saviour of hockey mankind? He fooled so many people, he’s the modern day version of Harry Houdini. Toronto, Montreal, the Rangers, and finally, Vancouver, all wined and dined him like the NHL would have done in 1972 to Valeri Kharlamov if they thought the great Russian was free to come to North America. Sundin hoodwinked these teams, and many of the fans of these teams. He didn’t mean to, of course, but everyone got kind of swept away by some magical, “we’ll win the Cup if we get him” ideal that was so far off base it makes everyone look downright silly now.

Sundin totalled nine goals and 19 assists after being given five million dollars to play half a season. He wasn’t in great shape when he arrived in Vancouver after sitting out so long, he’s not a young man, and during the all-star break, instead of working out, he went to Whistler to have fun. In the playoffs, he had three goals and five assists. His team, the Canucks, are gone, and once again their fans are disappointed. Did Sundin help the cause? Not one bit. And like I said, he walks away with five million bucks for all this.

I went back and dug out this excellent piece by Scott Burnside. He knew in December the whole thing was a sham. Why didn’t more of the hockey world?


December 19, 2008, 12:08 AM ET

Now that it’s over, let’s take the Sundin saga for what it was — a sham
By Scott Burnside

Hallelujah, Howie Morenz! The big man has spoken. And so, it shall be, evermore, the Vancouver Canucks.
Or at least for the rest of this season. Or until the money runs out.

What a sham this has been, this threepenny opera. Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” was known stylistically as the theater of the absurd, but that play about waiting for something momentous had nothing on “Waiting for Mats.”
For months, the hockey world has been consumed with speculation and conjecture about where Mats Sundin would land as though he were some god descending from Mount Olympus with a lightning bolt in his hand instead of a hockey stick and a résumé chock full of holes.

The great Swede has been mythologized and courted and coveted, and now, mercifully, he is back, if for no other reason so we can stop wondering which team will be blessed with his presence.

Oh, yes, there are the 1,321 points in 1,305 regular-season games, and the 12 straight seasons of 70 or more points. But in all his time in the NHL, Sundin, 37, has managed to appear in zero Stanley Cup finals games. He has won no major awards. He was part of Sweden’s gold-medal team in the 2006 Torino Olympics. But the Vancouver Canucks are likely paying him a prorated salary of $10 million to play in the NHL, not on the big ice surface of a once-every-four-years tournament.

Sundin didn’t ask for the attention. That much we’re sure of given how intensely he guards his private life. Fair enough. But what is galling is this whole process has revealed Sundin to be the exact entity he insisted he wasn’t 10 months ago — a hired gun. Nothing more. Nothing less.

His decision to come back makes a mockery of his stand last season, when he refused to waive his no-trade clause so the Toronto Maple Leafs could move him to a Stanley Cup contender. Sundin insisted his heart was in Toronto and that joining a team just for a playoff run would somehow cheapen the moment.
Funny how all that went out the window as he makes plans to descend on Vancouver in late December, having played his last serious hockey on March 29 and having decided (we assume) the Canucks’ dough looked more appealing than whatever the New York Rangers could come up with.

Players who negotiate no-trade clauses are completely within their right to refuse to waive them. It’s their prerogative, and teams who bestow those clauses on their players do so at their peril. But Sundin’s stubborn refusal to do the very thing the Leafs needed him to do to move forward as an organization seems somehow petulant now. By refusing to go to Montreal or Anaheim or Philadelphia or wherever interim GM Cliff Fletcher was looking to deal him, Sundin robbed the Leafs of what should have been a lucrative package that would have included a first-round draft pick, a prospect or two, and perhaps a young positional player.

Sundin may have agonized over the many suitors who would have had him, but he has done exactly what the Leafs wanted him to do in February; now, the only thing the Leafs get is Sundin’s back.

Loyalty? Don’t make us laugh. One GM told last February that he would always be suspicious of a player who, given the choice between possibly winning his first Stanley Cup and staying in a hopeless situation, chooses the latter.

So, what did the Canucks get in the end? They got a talented center who is difficult to knock off the puck and put up great numbers (78 points) on a bad Leafs team last season. They also got a player who has been occasionally nicked up (he last played more than 75 games back in 2003-04) and is getting older by the minute. He hasn’t played in a playoff game since 2004, so at least he’ll be fresh, assuming the Canucks make the playoffs.

Is he the kind of player, like Mark Messier, who can lead the Canucks over the hump? Ha.

Look at Sundin’s track record. At the most pivotal moments of his NHL career, Sundin has been hurt (as he was during the Leafs’ surprise run to the 2002 Eastern Conference finals). When he’s been healthy, he has a history of being shut down by other teams (as he was repeatedly by Bobby Holik and the New Jersey Devils during frequent playoff meetings when Pat Quinn was coaching Sundin and the Leafs). In 1999, when the Leafs also advanced to the Eastern Conference finals, it was Buffalo’s Michael Peca and Alexei Zhitnik.
No, the only connection between Messier and Sundin is the “leadership” award Messier bestowed on Sundin during last season’s playoffs. Talk about shams.

It’s funny; for many years people in Toronto felt compelled to step up and talk about what a great captain and leader Sundin was as though to do otherwise would feed into the notion that a Canadian team, especially the Leafs, would never accept a non-Canadian captain. As time went on, he became so beloved in Toronto, it was as though he’d been given a lifetime pass.

When Ron Wilson took over the Leafs before the start of this season and there was much discussion about whether Sundin would deign to return to Toronto, Wilson suggested that a team that had failed to make the playoffs for three straight post-lockout seasons had lacked leadership.
What other conclusion could you come to?

Is Sundin a good player? Of course. He is a fine hockey player. But he is nowhere near the player the myth suggests.
And the Vancouver Canucks are about to find that out.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for

10 thoughts on “Sundin Sure Didn’t Help His Team. Just His Wallet”

  1. It’s funny Dennis, I was thinking exactly the same thing about Sundown. Everyone was in such a tizzy all summer long hoping Bob could land him. It’s the old adage “be careful what you wish for”.

  2. I just don’t understand how so many of us began thinking he was the second coming. And he sat back in a lounge chair in Sweden and let teams fight it out. It’s all very strange.

  3. First off let me begin by saying Im in no way in defense of mats sundin or a fan of his, but im going to point out the obvious. Now with that off my chest i’ll begin. Im not sure who started the thinking that mats sundin was going to be the savior for whatever team that landed him, but from the time mats sundin was signed by vancouver I never once expected him to win the canucks a stanley cup. What I did believe is that he would bring balance to the team to have two affective scoring lines, be a voice in the dressing room and perform once he got to the playoffs. I can comfortably say he most definitely did all of that. He helped pull them out of a god awful losing streak and helped them to a division title and also put up point per game numbers in the playoffs. Most importantly though he helped Ryan Kesler start to become a bit of an offensive threat, there was a massive increase in points once him and sundin started playing together. Do I think mats sundin was worth $5 million for half a season? absolutely not but thats sports and I’ve seen alot worse contracts handed out to players that underachieved alot worse then Sundin did. This is another example of the media blowing things out of whack and trying to build sundin up to be something he was never going to be, and alot of stupid people bought into it. The money he made cant be held against Sundin, why would he turn down an offer like that? Yet i dont think Mike Gillis did a bad thing by throwing it out there to him since it didnt hurt the team in any way ( financially the canucks are still in great shape). The only thing i feel that was proved out of all of this is that mats sundin is not the unbelievably amazing hockey player the toronto media has always preached about and praised.

  4. What I was trying to say, Jordy, that many teams, including Montreal, and I think Vancouver, believed Sundin to be the final piece of the puzzle. Did you think that about the Canucks? Did you think, okay, now we’ve got at least two excellent centremen, we’re definitely stronger now and have a real shot? Because that was the normal reaction and Sundin didn’t deliver. He made no impact.

  5. I’m not sure I believe that one player can take a team to the cup finals. He can be a key part but the rest of the team has to be able to contribute. In that sense I agree with Jordy in that Sundin was brought in to help balance the scoring. Something he did but maybe not as much as Vancouver would have liked him to. One play by play or colour guy described Sundin as not having the speed to keep up anymore and I think that is accurate. And on a final note the BOOOIns lose! Ha, ha. There is a God.

  6. Not one player can take a team, but I honestly believe many thought Sundin was the guy to put their team over the top. People thought that about Messier in Vancouver too.

  7. Dennis,

    I see what your trying to say, but to say he made no impact isnt true. He made the canucks better by giving them two effective scoring lines. He didnt put them over the top but he definitely made them a stronger team, like i said before he helped kesler emerge as more of an offensive threat, before Sundin arrived kesler was not scoring at the pace he was. And as far as one player taking a team to the top, I dont think anybody thought Sundin was going to take whatever team he went to the top, at least I didnt anyway. I knew he would help add depth. The canucks gossip i heard says Sundin was a good dressing room guy and played a part in helping the team get out of the nasty slump they were in and go on to win there division. He did his job in the playoffs and as far as im concerned he did exactly what he was brought there to do, bring leadership, depth to their scoring and help make a push in the playoffs. The difference between messier and sundin is huge. Messier acted like god once he got there and seemed to think he was also the g.m. , Sundin showed up trying to help a good team become better.

  8. just a note on Kharlamov (because Dennis’ opening paragraph got me thinking about things):

    IF a certain fellow with the initials RGO was in the canadian lineup and blanketing kharlamov in that 1972 series, we would’ve probably heard little to nothing about him

    orr isn’t awrey – even when he’s out of shape and hurting because of the knees

    just to give you further confirmation of that above conclusion: I can still remember a one on one situation back in the old forum in the early 1970s when guy lafleur was OWNED by Orr; this was before the flower became the real flower, of course, but Orr took the puck away from him and knocked him on his ass like nobody’s business.

    Kharlamov would have received the same treatment; frankly, Yakushev would have been the much more dangerous one on one player because he was also an excellent skater, rangy with excellent moves, and quite strong.

    But if Orr could handle Helmut Balderis in the 1976 canada cup on one leg, I think he would have done fine against Yakushev, Kharlamov or any KGB agents the russians dressed in moscow.

  9. Yakushev was the one. Game in and game out, that big son of a gun was dangerous. You know your stuff, that’s for sure, Blaine. And if Orr had played, especially healthy, that series might have been completely different. But regardless, the Soviets were something to behold. I was shocked, like the rest of the hockey world, after game one.

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