George Armstrong. Darryl Sittler. Red Kelly. The Big M. The China Wall. Borje. Killer. Wendel. Instantly recognizable names for fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and all remembered as centrepieces of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey organization. Sittler had Lanny, Bower had Broda, Killer had Wendel. One player flew alone, however.
Number 13, Mats Sundin.
Mats came to Toronto in exchange for Wendel Clark in 1994. He went on to become our all-time leader in numerous categories, and wore the C for years (the first European to do so for our storied organization). With no Stanley Cups to his credit, Mats continued to compete, day in and day out, for the love of the game and for the love of our team.
Enter Cliff Fletcher, interim GM for last season. Cliff had been a part of our organization before, but this time he was called in to right a ship that was going in the wrong direction. He was trying to sell off expensive pieces and rebuild the struggling Maple Leafs.
A barrage of draft picks, prospects, and young stars were on the table, but Mats was the other side of the deal. With time ticking away towards the trade deadline, Mats never gave up on the Leafs and refused to be traded. Toronto management threw all they had at him, trying to send him away and trying to force him out of the city. Mats ended up refusing to re-sign with the Leafs in the offseason and contemplating retirement rather than playing for anyone else.
Fast forward to last December. The passion returned and Mats began working out, ready to return to the NHL. When he did, it was with the Vancouver Canucks. The day the contract was signed, Leafs fans rushed to their calendars to mark Feb. 21 as the day the Canucks came to Toronto with Mats Sundin in tow. For the first time since his time with the Nordiques, Mats would take on the Leafs.
To cheer, or to boo?
Mats was forced out of a city he loved and out of a team he genuinely wanted to play for. He was disrespected by management and fans for not "helping" the team rebuild. Is that any reason to boo Mats?
Maybe the idea of a Swede captaining the Toronto Maple Leafs still hasn't sunk in. Is that any reason to boo?
Mats has played 11 games against the Leafs prior to tonight's showdown. He has 17 points. Any reason to boo?
Maybe that last one, but nothing else warrants Mats anything less than a standing ovation for his years of service, his heart, grit, and determination, his love of Toronto and love of this team, and for never giving up on us after almost everyone gave up on him.
Mats Sundin will go down in history as a hall of famer, and as the greatest Leaf of all time. So forget what he didn't do for this team, and remember all that he did do. Tonight, at 7:00, at the ACC, in front of your TV, wherever you tune in, get on your feet and applaud "The Big Viking," because Mats deserves nothing less.
Also, Kyle Wellwood returns for the first time.