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Saturday, February 21, 2009
Sundin emotional in return

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

TORONTO -- First Mats Sundin broke their hearts, then he bowed to them.

"It was the perfect ending," Vancouver Canucks star goalie Roberto Luongo said.

As if the hockey gods were watching, Sundin decided a 2-2 stalemate Saturday night with the final shootout attempt, nary a fan sitting down, capping a homecoming that despite all the hype lived up to its billing and then some.

Named the game's first star, the longtime Leafs captain skated onto the Air Canada Centre ice perhaps for the last time in his stellar career, blowing kisses to the crowd and bowing to them. "Thank you," he told them.

Mats Sundin
Mats Sundin made an emotional return to Toronto.

"It was an emotional night," said Sundin, not one known to express his feelings.

The 38-year-old star never did get a chance to say farewell to Maple Leafs fans. On Saturday night, he made sure to make amends.

If an image was ever worth a thousand words, Sundin said thank you a thousand times to those Toronto fans, fighting back tears during a touching first-period moment that won't soon be forgotten in these parts.

"There were tears coming," Sundin told us afterward. "That was special."

This is a player who rarely ever shows emotion. No wonder he signed an endorsement deal with a poker Web site last fall. The man has the ultimate poker face.

But on this night, during a poignant few minutes in the first period, the stoic Sundin barely held it in check.

"The relationship with the fans was always special," Sundin said.

It's a relationship that took several dates before it took off. One could argue it took a few years for Maple Leafs fans to warm up to Sundin. He was traded, after all, for an icon, Wendel Clark, in 1994. And he replaced another hero, Doug Gilmour, as captain.

And unlike either of them, Sundin did not wear his emotions on his sleeve. Nor did he drop the gloves. But foolhardy are those who ever doubted his will to win or his character just because he wasn't a good ol' Canadian boy who liked the odd scrap.

"So often the people outside of the actual team don't really have a clue," Sundin's longtime Leafs coach Pat Quinn told ESPN.com Saturday from his Vancouver home. "They only have perceptions of what some guy or some woman on the outside thinks is an insight. But generally, they're way off base.

"This guy was a leader, he was liked by his teammates," Quinn added. "And I mean, liked by all of them. Even in the times where we thought we had several factions on the team, in his mind there was only one team and he worked very hard at that. We had a very cerebral, calm approach from a real leader."

Truth be told, this wasn't a great game by Sundin. Battling the flu, he was held to three shots on goal and a minus-1 rating in 20:34 of ice time. He was also blanked on the scoresheet until his shootout winner.

But who's kidding whom? This was about the moment, a heartfelt ovation during a commercial break chocking up the Big Swede.

We were reminded once again why we love this game. Because it's not scripted, it's real, it's raw emotion.

It happened 6:22 into the first period when the Maple Leafs presented a short video tribute to their former captain, ending with the message: Thank You Mats.

It's what followed that won't soon be forgotten. Credit Canucks coach Alain Vigneault for having a touch a class (well, he coached in Montreal so he's seen this movie before), tapping Sundin on the shoulder and sending his line out on the ice after the video tribute. With the game still at commercial break, Sundin was able to soak it all in, as the Air Canada Centre crowd showered him with applause, the veteran center skating from one zone to the other as the building shook.

Not all 19,504 fans in the building were on their feet, but about 95 percent were. There was indeed the five percent faction (some would say the idiot quota) that booed him every time he touched the puck on this night. Yes, yes, we know, he didn't waive his no-trade clause last February, blah blah blah. Get over it. The man is the all-time points and goals leader for your franchise.

The boos were easily drowned out during this ovation.

Sundin, crouched over to take the faceoff in the Toronto zone, backed away from the faceoff dot as the ovation grew louder. Welcome home Mats, thanks for 13 great seasons. Sundin exhaled, there's no way he was going to let himself take a faceoff with tears running down his cheeks.

You see, he always cared, even if he didn't show it. He bled blue and white and it kills him that he was never able to bring home a Stanley Cup to a city craving one like no other.

Sundin is as private a person that you'll meet in this business. Because of that, despite playing in the biggest media market in the league for 13 seasons, no one around these parts can really claim to know exactly what makes him tick. He allowed few people in.

"He kept everybody out except for his teammates," Quinn said. "They knew that he had cared for them. And they knew how much he cared about being a Leaf and how much he cared about winning.

"He was tremendous," added Quinn, who together with Sundin enjoyed two trips to the conference finals. "He was a good captain. He's a terrific athlete and was the leader for a lot of the success that we had over a good six-year period. We had some teams that I think were contenders for a Cup. We never got the job done, but he certainly had a lot do with the success over that stretch."

That was recognized by Leafs Nation on Saturday night. As the Leafs get set to play out their schedule with a slew of meaningless games in a season that never had a chance, Sundin came home to provide one last hurrah.

Now everyone can move on.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.