More Than Just an Honour: Why Maple Leafs Need to Retire Mats Sundin's Number
Down a goal with just two minutes remaining in the final period. The nervous energy is palpable in the crisp Air Canada Center air, as the fans inch closer to the edge of their seats. As the clock ticks closer to zero and the onlookers grow anxious, the same thought goes through the mind of everyone in the building; give him the puck.
It was no secret to anyone, and yet when the puck was in the possession of arguably the greatest Maple Leaf of all time, you just knew he was going to get the job done as he did so often. The expectation was there that when it came to crunch time, there was no one better than the captain.
Captain clutch. Mats Sundin.
That's how it used to be in Toronto, as the man who spent 11 seasons with the C on his chest (and 13 as a member of the team) etched his spot in Leaf history countless times on his way to legendary status on a team that has no shortage of hero's.
Now retired and living at his home in Sweden, Sundin no longer laces them up for the Leafs on a nightly basis as the leader of an entire city. He no longer can be counted on to score the game-tying or winning goal. He no longer can create lasting memories in a city that lives and dies with every move their beloved team makes.
He no longer is a member of the Maple Leafs, and yet he deserves to be thanked for all he did, as is customary in professional sports. But Sundin deserves more than just his number raised to the rafters of the ACC in honour (as the Leafs do not retire numbers), he deserves an honour that no other Leaf has ever gotten before him.
The Leafs need to retire his number 13 so it not only can be remembered forever, but never again be worn by another player in this city. No one will ever compare to the captain.
He played in 981 games for the blue and white and he left the Leafs as the franchise leader in countless offensive categories; including points (987), goals (420), power play goals (124), and short handed goals (23). He sits second all time (behind Borje Salming) in assists (567) and plus/minus (plus 99).
He also cemented his place as the most clutch player to ever dawn the Maple Leafs jersey, with 79 game-winning goals for the club-including 15 overtime goals, which is an NHL record. Furthermore he holds the team record for most GWG in a season with 10 (2003-2004) and OT goals in a season with four (1999-2000).
He is the longest serving European-born captain in history and has the most career points, goals, and assists by a Swedish player, making him a hero in more than just Toronto. As a nine-time all-star he gained league-wide admiration and respect over the time he played.
If it was statistically-based only, Sundin is clearly the greatest Maple Leaf of all time, but of course there is much more to it than that. As a franchise that has been lead by countless terrific leaders, many in the city struggle to name him the greatest captain of the team, let alone best player of all time.
The fact that he is European has always been widely speculated as one of the reasons he wasn't as loved as some others in the first few years of his captaincy. Others attribute the fact that a Stanley Cup was never won while under his reign, therefore he cannot be the best.
Then of course there is his ever-popular (or not) exit from the team in 2008, that hurt his status as well.
After stating many time he would not leave the Leafs mid season of that year, waving his no-trade clause and allowing the club to trade him, he became a free agent on July 1, 2008. After hearing offers from multiple teams, he decided to sign with the Vancouver Canucks in Decemeber, leaving the franchise he had been apart of for the last 13 years.
The fans of Toronto were crushed, but also angry that he would leave for nothing rather than allowing the team to gain something with his loss. He went from the leader of the team to the last person anyone in the city wanted to talk about.
And then came his return to Toronto on Feb. 21, 2009, an emotional outing for the former captain, but no one knew just how emotional night it would be until he stepped on the ice.
After hearing scattered boos and cheers throughout out the game, during a commercial timeout the Leafs held a video montage of Mats and his career as a Leaf. The crowd's attitude suddenly changed, everyone stood on their feet and gave him a rousing standing ovation. The ovation went on for a few minutes, with the refs backing away and allowing it to continue, and Sundin clearly fighting back tears.
It was then he knew he will always be loved in this city. It was then the fans of Toronto showed their class and their appreciation for the man who did so much for them.
The game went on, eventually going into overtime and then a shootout. And with the two teams tied, of course, the final shooter was none other than the big Swede.
There he was, standing at center ice in the city that called him their hero for so long, all eyes now on him, as he wore a different jersey and had a chance to score the game winning goal for someone other than the Leafs.
And just like the fans would have believed in him had he been wearing the Maple Leaf, everyone knew he was going to score. That's what he does. When the game is on the line, Sundin comes through in the clutch.
And that's exactly what he did, scoring on a patented Sundin shot we had seen so many times before.
Given first star honours he came out on the ice after the game for one last time, his official goodbye to the city. He waved and blew kisses to the city who know could not hide their love for him. Tears streamed down his face as the fans cheered even after he left the ice.
He had come back to Toronto one last time, reminded everyone of how great he really was, and then with one final wave he walked off the ice. Gone for good.
He announced his official retirement on Sept. 30, 2009 from Sweden, where he resides today.
He didn't immedietly sign on with a sports network as so many players do, he didn't find the closest reality TV show and get his daily dose of airtime. He didn't use his status to get himself a job in the head office of a team in the league.
He simply walked away. Something the greats of the game don't do often enough.
He had been in the center of the spotlight for so long and after his job was done, after he had done everything they had asked him to do, he waved goodbye and went home.
He hadn't jumped ship in Toronto. He didn't leave them hanging as he went on to try and win a Cup. By the time he left the ship had crumbled around him already. The Toronto ship was already sunk, there was nothing more he could have done, and he deserved his chance at a Cup. Toronto fans more than anyone should have understood that.
And now that Dion Phanuef is the new captain of the Leafs, two years removed from Sundin's departure, it's time that the former captain got what he deserved.
Not just a plaque and a fancy ceremony. Not just his number raised to the rafters in honour of the job he had done. No, Sundin deserves to be the first Maple Leaf in history to have his number retired. Never to be worn again.
For 13 years he was the heart and soul of the Leafs.
Contrary to the popular saying, Sundin was all Swedish, all finish. Instead of Captain Clutch, it's time that the Maple Leafs as an organization finished strong.
One last thank you, one last goodbye, before he walked off into the horizon as the greatest there ever was.
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