Commentary

Sundin was ultimate team player

Updated: November 7, 2012, 5:09 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

Mats SundinJeff Vinnick/NHLI/Getty ImagesThe sunset of Mats Sundin's career came in Vancouver, but his Toronto days were most memorable.

Time away from the game has allowed Mats Sundin to drop that guard he wore so well during his heyday in hockey's center of the universe.

The former Toronto Maple Leafs captain used the word "emotional" several times during an interview with ESPN.com in describing the feeling of being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Being three years removed from the game, Sundin said, has allowed him more time to reflect and think about his career.

"It's really hard to take in," Sundin said, taking a deep breath. "You realize when you're young and breaking in why the older players told you to enjoy it because it would be over quick. I was in the league almost 18 years, it flies by.

"It was very emotional getting the call from the Hall of Fame. I'm very humbled by it all."

He won't ever forget getting the call from Hall selection committee chairman Jim Gregory in June.

"I was having dinner with my wife, sitting in a restaurant, when I got the call from the Hall," Sundin said. "It was emotional. We had a glass of champagne."

Emotional perhaps even more so because Sundin didn't fully expect a first-ballot call. The fact that he did get in on his first try, a feat many Hall of Famers hadn't been able to pull off, sent Sundin an important message.

"Knowing that I did not win a Stanley Cup championship, it felt a little extra special being inducted on my first chance," he said. "I figured I had a chance to get in maybe eventually, but to get inducted right away, not having a Stanley Cup championship, to me it showed the committee in some way valued my career and what I've done without winning a [NHL] championship. That meant a lot to me."

The longest-serving non-North American captain in NHL history; the first European to be taken No. 1 overall in the NHL draft; an incredible point-a-game career that featured 1,349 points (564 goals, 785 assists) in 1,346 regular-season NHL games; eight appearances in the All-Star Game; a three-time IIHF world champion; and of course, an Olympic gold-medal winner -- yes, the Hall's selection committee had plenty else to look at in making its decision.

[+] EnlargeMats Sundin
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesMats Sundin was the first European to be drafted No. 1 overall when the Nordiques selected him in 1989.

"He was the ultimate competitor," former Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher told ESPN.com. "He was so durable. He was so consistent. He wasn't a streak scorer or a streak player -- he was everything a coach would want because you could count on him, game in and game out."

Echoed former teammate Curtis Joseph to ESPN.com: "Incredible consistency. We would take some of that boring consistency on the Leafs right now, wouldn't we?"

The Trade

Sundin played his first four years in Quebec after the Nordiques took him first overall in the 1989 draft, breaking into the NHL in 1990-91 on a young, rebuilding team that over the next few years also would feature Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Mike Ricci, Owen Nolan and Adam Foote. Sundin put up a career-high 114 points in only his third NHL season on that young juggernaut squad.

But playoff success had been fleeting to that point for the Nordiques and a phone call to Toronto would change Sundin's life forever.

"We'd had conversations the previous spring with Quebec," said Fletcher, who was the Leafs' GM at the time. "They came to the conclusion that they needed to be tougher to compete with Montreal and the Bruins in their division. Wendel [Clark] was a type of forward that really appealed to them. Quite frankly, Wendel had 46 goals for us the season in which we traded him after. But we'd had the frustration and disappointment of losing out for the second year in a row in the conference finals, four games to one to Vancouver. Mats had averaged 40 goals a year in his last three years in Quebec, he was big and strong and durable and he was 23 years old. With his age and being the big centerman that every team needs, as emotional as it was to trade a fan favorite and a great Maple Leaf -- the one player that the fans had held out hope for many years because of him -- it was hard, but it was one that you could not pass up."

On June 28, 1994, at the draft, Sundin was dealt to Toronto with Garth Butcher, Todd Warriner and Philadelphia's first-round choice in the 1994 draft (previously acquired, later dealt by Quebec) for Wendel Clark, Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson and Toronto's first-round choice (Jeffrey Kealty) in 1994.

It would be the only time in Sundin's career that he would be traded.

"I was traded in the summer, which makes that a little bit easier," said Sundin. "I remember that negotiations for a new contract with the Nordiques were not going all that well. & But the big shock is when I came to Toronto."

Sundin laughs as he says this, underlying the overwhelming feeling he remembers after stepping into the world's hockey mecca.

"Hockey is important in Quebec City but when you go to Toronto, it's so huge," said Sundin. "And being traded for Wendel Clark, who was the big captain for the Leafs at the time, that was a big challenge. And I didn't really realize until I met the media and started my first season with the Leafs. It was a big wake-up call. As my career went on, I learned to understand what the Toronto Maple Leafs were all about and even more so what hockey in Canada was all about."

The Shadow of Wendel and Dougie

He was traded for Clark, and three years later replaced Doug Gilmour as captain after "Killer" was dealt to New Jersey. Gulp. Talk about replacing two legends, two fierce warriors who, to this day, get standing ovations just for having their faces flashed on the screen at Air Canada Centre.

Fair or not, it took a while for Maple Leafs fans to warm up in the same way to their new captain -- a Swedish captain -- he just didn't play the game the same way as "Wendel" and "Dougie" did.

"I think the previous captain didn't help make the Mats Sundin captaincy any easier," former Leafs winger Gary Roberts told ESPN.com. "No doubt about it. There's that expectation of having a little snarl. When you look at the mark that Wendel and Doug left on Toronto and how they played, to have a European captain like Mats & no doubt he was a little different than those two. But I think about playing with Mats, he'd say to me, 'Get me the puck and meet me at the net.' And I remember on the power play, he'd slam his stick on the ice and look at [Tomas] Kaberle, he wanted the puck so badly. He wanted the puck always. He'd go to the net and some nights he'd have two or three guys on him. That's why, to me, he was such a great leader. He wanted the puck, he wanted to be the man with the game on the line."

It was a different kind of leadership, but one that carried no less emotion or passion inside of him, even if it took Toronto fans a while to figure that out.

"It is easy to like Wendel Clark or Doug Gilmour, they played a different game from Mats," said Pat Quinn, who coached Sundin in Toronto from 1998 through 2006. "Yet, as a big guy, Mats made things look pretty easy. But there's not a chance that he didn't care for his team as much as anybody. I thought he was a great captain."

At first, Sundin admits the pressure as captain in the wake of players like Clark and Gilmour was immense, but over time he learned to channel what best made him a leader. And that's being himself and nothing else.

"I learned from watching Wendel, obviously got a chance to play with Doug, and also learned from a guy like Joe Sakic, who I played with in Quebec," said Sundin. "You learn from players like that. It's important to have people like to look up to when you break into the league. I realized that if I'm going to be a key player on the team or be part of the leadership of the team, you have to be within your personality and be who you are as a person and as a player if you're going to be successful in the long run. But you're right, my first two to three years, I had to earn my own respect as a player. For the fans too in Toronto, who had had the great leaders in Wendel and Doug, I had to earn their respect and I think that's the way it should be. But I also realized I had to stick to the way I was playing and the way offered leadership in order to be successful."

[+] EnlargeMats Sundin
Tom Szczerbowski/US Presswire"His preparation was always there. He wasn't a huge talker, but when he did speak, people sure listened," said former Leafs winger Gary Roberts, not pictured.

Some Leafs fans early on saw "different" as "weaker."

"There's a tendency in some Canadian markets that if a player doesn't run somebody through the boards, he's not Canadian," said Fletcher. "Frank Mahovlich was a prime example of someone who was constantly under the spotlight during his career and he was a great hockey player. But with Mats, just look at this record with Toronto. What a career he had."

The quiet leader

Sundin rarely tore the paint off the dressing room walls between periods. It wasn't his style. Much like Sakic, a fellow 2012 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee and former teammate, Sundin led by example. And what an example it was.

"He was the leader of our hockey team -- there's no question in my mind. He did it on and off the ice," Quinn said.

"Mats didn't say a whole lot in the dressing room," said Roberts. "But his preparation was always there. He wasn't a huge talker, but when he did speak, people sure listened. That reminded me of Lanny McDonald in my days in Calgary. When Mats spoke, guys respected his preparation and his approach to the game and the way that he treated everyone around him. And I'd also say one of the most humble players I've ever played with was Mats Sundin. A lot like Joe Nieuwendyk that way. Zero arrogance or cockiness."

Former teammate Curtis Joseph, star goalie on those Leafs teams that went to conference finals in 1999 and 2002, said he remembers one time when Sundin was agitated between periods -- but of course, the captain wasn't dressed that night.

"I remember one playoff [2002] when he wasn't playing due to injury," Joseph told ESPN.com. "After a period, I just remember just how animated he was. He was just so animated, because he wasn't in control. He wasn't focused on playing and being the best player he would. I can relate to that. He was yelling and everything else, and I remember thinking I'd never see him like that before. But it's because he wasn't playing and focusing on what he needed to do. He's very intense but he didn't always show it because he had a job to do and focused on that."

But dressing room rants when he's in uniform?

"That's not his style," said Quinn. "Nor do I think leadership is famous speeches. Sometimes it is when we think in terms of great orators in history, and there are some good speakers in the dressing room, but good leaders aren't always the guys that get up and give the good oratory or yell at other players. Mats was supportive. He was a guy that picked up his teammates. To me, that's great leadership. He helped you be better. A lot of these yellers are guys that try to enhance their feelings within themselves by putting someone down a little bit. That was never his style. His leadership was how he played, how he prepared, how he practiced, who he was -- all those things are the Mats Sundin I saw and the one so many people in Toronto enjoyed to watch play."

Sundin says his quiet leadership isn't uncommon, which is why he was comfortable within it.

"I've played with guys like Joe Sakic and Nicklas Lidstrom, these guys are more quiet than I am I think, in a dressing room," said Sundin. "But they're looked at as great leaders. To me, a leader and a captain can show leadership in many different ways. You can be a rah-rah guy in the room and yell and try to get guys going. But there's guys that won't say a word for a couple of games and just try to lead by example and do things right on the ice. And certainly my way most of the time was to try and do things right on the ice as best I could and try to make people around me better."

It just took a while for some people to realize that Sundin's style of leadership, his passion for the game, was just as effective, if still different, from previous Leafs stars.

Joseph said the great ones are sometimes more appreciated after the fact. And that might be the case for some Leafs fans with Sundin.

"Just like some presidencies, sometimes you don't realize how good they were until they stand the test of time," said Joseph. "Mats is going to stand the test of time -- obviously, since he's going to the Hall of Fame. But you get a better appreciation for him after the fact."

"All in all, he just fits in with the great captains that Toronto has had over the years," said Quinn.

The great teammate

Other than winning itself, those who know Sundin inside and out believe what brought him the greatest joy was the success of teammates.

"Mats Sundin wanted his teammates to do well -- always. I mean, always," said Roberts. "You look at highlights of Mats Sundin, his emotions never changed whether he scored a goal or whether he was sitting on a bench when a teammate scored. He was always very happy for teammates' success.

"He's a very generous human being," added Roberts. "He was always taking care of his teammates, trainers and staff. Anyone you talked to that was around him in those years will tell you how incredibly generous he was."

That generosity with teammates extended on and off the ice.

"He was a very generous person," said Joseph. "I remember some of the dinners we'd have as a team. Mats would all of sudden pick up the tab and you'd be like, 'Oh, my gosh, that's a huge tab.' And it would be the second time this week he did it."

On the ice, Sundin never complained about the linemates he was given or his ice time -- both areas that some fans and media believed could have been addressed better during his career.

"It's possible, there's an argument and I've read them a number of times, but I put the team's interest ahead of Mats', sometime his linemates -- we needed more balance," Quinn said candidly. "We were a one-line team when I first got there. We needed the ability to spread some talent out and Mats allowed us to do that. Maybe it was at his own specific cost as far as points were concerned, but our team was better and it never bothered him for a second.

"He was excellent for a coach to worth with," added Quinn. "He was very supportive of his teammates."

Told of the above comments from his former teammates and coach, Sundin chuckled nervously. He hates talking about himself.

But, yes, the caring he had for the success of his teammates meant the world to him.

"Good and bad, that's been part of my personality, that's part of who I am," said Sundin. "I know myself, you respect guys that look at others on the team and want them to be successful. I've always enjoyed seeing teammates having success. For me that was one of the best things about being a player and being part of a team sport that's trying to achieve something as a group. Obviously, there's 23 different personalities in a dressing room and you can't be everyone's best friend, but you need respect in the room, and I hope I always had respect for every player in the room. I think if you have that, you have a chance to go out there and do something good."

[+] EnlargeSweden Oly Team
AP Photo/Andrew VaughanMats Sundin called winning gold at the 2006 Olympics "the biggest championship that Swedish hockey has won."

To wit, when measuring Sundin's popularity with former teammates, Joseph blurts out in the middle of our interview: "I'm just so happy that he's going into the Hall."

Olympic glory

Mats Sundin did not win a Stanley Cup but there was a championship moment that certainly rivaled one. Olympic gold for Sweden in Torino, Italy, was a sweet moment in an international career that saw much success for the Swedish star center.

The victory in 2006 was extra sweet for a number of reasons, not only because it gave Sundin and his Swedish teammates the ultimate redemption after their shocking 2002 quarterfinals exit to hockey minnow Belarus, but also because for Sundin and the Swedish stars of his era, it was likely their last shot.

"For Swedish hockey, it's the biggest championship that Swedish hockey has won because it's the first time that Sweden won where all the nations have their best possible teams on skates," said Sundin. "It's also a generation of players where you had guys like Nicklas Lidstrom, Peter Forsberg and Daniel Alfredsson -- it was really one of our last chances for our group. It meant a lot for Swedish hockey and for ourselves, for sure."

No Stanley Cup, but what a career

Like fellow 2012 HHOF inductees Pavel Bure and Adam Oates, Sundin enters the Hall without a Cup ring.

Just the fact that three inductees this year don't have a Cup to their name tells you this will become more the norm than not, perhaps, just given how difficult it is nowadays to win one.

"There's 30 teams now," said Joseph. "You're not going to get All-Star players winning a Cup or multiple Cups like when you had six teams. So that criteria is not as prevalent anymore for getting into the Hall. Mats is one of the greatest players I've ever played with and he did not win a Cup."

And it doesn't change what people in hockey think of him.

"I used to have coaches that would say, 'You only remember the guys you won with.' Well, I've had really good teammates that were absolutely soldiers and they never won [a Cup]," said Roberts, a Cup winner with Calgary in 1989. "Does that mean they weren't good people? Ah, no. Mats Sundin was a wonderful teammate, a great person, and I don't think any more or less of him because he didn't win a Stanley Cup."

Still, it's the check mark missing on Sundin's résumé despite being on teams under Quinn that knocked at the door, going to conference finals in 1999 against Buffalo and 2002 against Carolina.

Quinn's Leafs teams of that era were fun to watch, led by Sundin and Joseph, yet still failed to reach the ultimate goal.

"It was an exciting time," said Joseph. "We all enjoyed it and we have that bond of those battles we went through. We found ways to win, we played a lot of Game 7s, we beat a lot of teams that were higher seeds, you feel you've achieved something when you knock off the Ottawas and teams like that. But, yes, it's like the one that got away for sure. We could have won two Cups. We really could have."

Just don't pin that on Sundin, said Quinn.

"The fact that we never won a Cup certainly had less to do with him than other things that happened," said the former coach. "I thought we had at least three teams while I was there that were capable of winning a Cup, but we never got there."

Does that missing accomplishment haunt Sundin? Hardly.

"I've been asked that many times," said Sundin. "I look at my career and I still can't believe how blessed I was to have the life and career I've had. It's just overwhelming what the game of hockey has brought to my life ever since I was a little kid learning to play. I feel so fortunate to have played in the National Hockey League. I've never once thought for a second about whether there was anything different we could have done [to win a Cup]. I've got too much from the game of hockey, more than anyone can ask for. I've won championships internationally. I'm just fortunate and got way too much out of the game of hockey, more than I deserve, probably."