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 ESPN.com 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 ESPN.com.