Takin' a T/O With BT: Mats Sundins' Tumultuous Toronto Return
There will be thousands of words written over the next few days of what will almost undoubtedly be Mats Sundin's last games in Toronto.
Some will be harsh, while others will be glowing. Others may just not know what to say.
After all, what can you say about someone who never showed they cared until they left?
If we were to just leave that sentence on it's own, it's unjust and inaccurate. There's no doubt that Mats Sundin cared about the Toronto Maple Leafs, the history, the fans, his teammates, and everything that discoloured and misspelled logo stood for.
If Sundin was hungry for personal accolades, he would have fled to another town where Jonas Hoglund wouldn't be the Robin to his Batman, where Harold Druken wouldn't have gotten a three-game tryout on the top line, or Mikael Renberg was acquired before his boat started to get the better of him.
If Sundin had wanted the easy way out to get a cup, he would've jumped ship to the Sakic/Forsberg era Colorado Avalanche, or maybe he would've followed Curtis Joseph to Detroit. Who knows, maybe he could've taken the money and run to the New York Rangers and helped put them over the top.
He never wavered; he never whined, complained, pouted, or sulked; you'd never here a word bad-mouthing his team or management, and he never publicly gave up.
But despite all of this, one of Sundin's most admirable qualities was that he never let you behind that steely-blue gaze. The eyes that seem to deaden when the heat is on in the third period or overtime of a big game. As much as he said to the media, you never really knew how he truly felt.
Tonight, for just a few minutes, that all came to a halt.
As Steve Thomas came out to drop the puck for the first faceoff, everyone breathed deeply—two of Thomas' best seasons came alongside Sundin in Toronto, along with some of the franchise's most recent succes—the game hadn't even started and it was evident that memories would come with every ebb and flow of the play.
It was the first period montage though, that finally showed the fans how Sundin cared for Toronto. Fans had seen the former Captain in all sorts of states, and he had spoken on how he had cared for the franchise so many times, but in the kind of world we live in, people constantly want physical proof.
The clouding of that ice-cold stare with tears though, was enough proof.
All of those Toronto years meant something to Mats Sundin.
It's hard to imagine anything making Sundin cry: The man has taken so many pucks to the face, so much heartbreak, and so much scrutiny, that anyone else might've broken down.
In fact, he seemed to thrive on it most times, as indicated by his 15 career overtime winners.
But everything he went through was enough to break him the second time around.
As that happened, it was a sad truth that dawned: Sundin never got the respect he deserved when he left Toronto.
Mats was always saddled with the expectation of turning nothing into something in a hockey-crazed market. When he was playing with fringe-second liners and bona-fide role players atop the first line, he wasn't doing enough to get this team over the hump. After years of that though, Sundin was still devoted to seeing out his time with Toronto, but that commitment wasn't good enough either.
Sundin said he wanted to play out the season and didn't want to be a rental player so he refused a trade. All of the sudden an attitude that any franchise would crave—a player passionate enough to stick it out through thick and thin—was being vilified.
And for what? Would anyone have remembered Sundin as "the Captain who did what's best for the team and allowed himself to be traded for building blocks" if the Leafs had won the cup three years later? Not likely.
No one would've remembered—if that'd actually happened the city of Toronto would've been drunk for three straight weeks.
No, Sundin saw the season out despite most leveling their Captain with cat-calls of not "truly caring about the state of the future of this franchise".
Truth is, the future wasn't supposed to be Sundin's concern—that was John Ferguson Jr's problem. It's not Mats' fault that the Brian Leetch trade happened, or the Andrew Raycroft trade, or the Vesa Toskala trade, or whatever transaction you want to bring up occurred.
No matter what, Sundin just kept trying to win games to the very end.
And why exactly should those that boo'd him tonight have been bitter? Yes Sundin did leave teams out to dry over the course of the offseason, and he's now rivaling "rental player status", but in no way did that hurt the Leafs.
Toronto had said all along that they'd be happy to have Mats back, but they'd also made no bones about the fact that they were also going to have to prepare for life without him sooner rather than later.
It was about the most amicable split you'll ever see in sports: the star looking for one last shot, walking away from the team he'd supported for so long who's building towards that one shot.
So as the shootout started, it was fitting that Mats shot third and fitting that Mikhail Grabovski—the man who could've been included in a deal for Sundin—scored to set him up.
But as that familiar number thirteen started towards the net, everything slowed down in my mind and it all started to make sense...
Tied shootout....game on the line.....Sundin shooting...It's going in...
I had come to grips with this fact before he had crossed the blue line based on one strange thought:
If he were to miss or Toskala were to make the save, where exactly can this go?
You see, that's how it had to end; It wouldn't have made sense any other way. If Toronto had to send out another shooter, no one would've cared how it ended: It would've gone from Storybook ending to Drug Store Harlequin Romance.
That's the second-most prepared I've ever been for a Toronto Maple Leafs loss. The moment that I was most prepared for though, happened way back in the summer:
Mats Sundin, walking away from the Leafs with his head held high, but no Stanley Cup ring on his finger.
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can do so through his profile, and you can also check out all of his previous work in his archives.
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