Mats Sundin: Pierre Pagé and I Were Both Wrong About Him


Junior wraps up the MLHS ‘Memories of Mats’ series:

On June 28th of 1994, Cliff Fletcher, the General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, traded Wendel Clark, Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson and a first round draft choice to the Quebec Nordiques for Mats Sundin, Garth Butcher, Todd Warriner and a 1st round draft choice.

I resolved that day to hate that bastard Sundin forever.

I was 27 years old and had been a Leaf fan all my life.  I can remember the Dave Keon posters my Dad hung for me on my bedroom wall, around about the time I was starting kindergarten; inspiration for a smallish six year old wondering whether a little guy could play hockey against bigger opponents.  When I got a bit older, and Keon had been lost to the WHA, Darryl Sittler was the Leaf player I focussed on, curly hair flying as he racked up his ten point night, suiting up with the game’s best on Team Canada – and beating the Czechs in the Canada Cup.  I liked those players well enough, but my admiration for them couldn’t hold a candle to the way I felt about Wendel Clark.

I wasn’t alone in my love for Clark, or in my suspicion of Sundin.   Leaf management, recently freed by the death of Harold Ballard from the shackles of misery his presence had imposed, had been clearly sending signals that the times were changing and there was reason for hope.  In the 14 months immediately prior to that trade, the Leafs had made two consecutive runs to the Western Conference Final.  Thanks to the play of Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark and Felix Potvin, the Leafs made it – for the first time in a generation – to the cusp of the Stanley Cup Final.

Gilmour’s masterful play – the 1993 overtime goal against St. Louis from behind the net, among other things – endeared him to Leaf fans instantly, but there was a special spot in many of our hearts for Wendel, who had suffered through the end of the Ballard era with us, and who had overcome his perpetual back woes to become a force of nature on the ice.

It was at that place in history, so recently after the dawning of an obviously new era, and in the midst of the first unbridled joy Leaf fans had felt as their own since 1978, when  Lanny McDonald tucked home a Game 7 overtime winner against the Islanders, that this trade was concluded.

Gone was Clark – a living, breathing superhero for many of us.  In his place there was Sundin.

We didn’t know much about him;  he was too young to be really known then.  We knew he came with a pedigree – he was drafted first overall in ’89 – but for most of us, our exposure to Sundin had come in those same ’93 playoffs when his Nordiques blew a two games to none lead over the Habs,  I will never forget the scene in one of those games – I don’t remember which one, though – when Nordiques coach Pierre Pagé raged on behind the bench in the Forum as Sundin and the Nordiques collapsed against the Habs.  Pagé had the Darcy Tucker eyes when he got angry, and it just so happened that the HNIC cameras were zoomed right close in as Pagé leaned over Sundin’s shoulder and – apparently focussing his anger about the team’s collapse on the big Swede – gave him a clear and prolonged angry scolding.  It was uncomfortable to watch, even as a neutral observer.

We also knew that he wore a funny helmet – a spherical, salad bowl type affair that was acceptable when sported by “gritty” guys like Mike Foligno, but when donned by European players, usually prompted hatred and a prolonged discussion of the episodes on the Flintstones where the Great Gazoo made an appearance.  Why the hell, we demanded to know, wasn’t the Paul Henderson CCM model good enough for this guy?  You wouldn’t catch Wendel wearing one of those things as he prepped himself to punch Marty McSorley’s eyeball into the ninth row.

He was soft; we knew that, because the newspapers told us it was the case.  Why else would Pierre Pagé have yelled at him like that?  Why else would the Nordiques choose Nolan and Sakic over him?  He couldn’t win in the playoffs;  that was the necessary corollary to the alleged softness.  Worst of all, he wasn’t Wendel.

So I – and I’m sure many other Leaf fans – resolved to hate him.

Of course, I couldn’t actually do it.  He was a Leaf player, after all, and one cheers for the laundry, not the names on the back, where I come from.   As Sundin began his Leaf career, though, even if I didn’t exactly follow through on the “hating” bit, I certainly didn’t embrace him.

Sundin played brilliantly, of course.   There were plenty of goals, and bucketloads of assists.  He was, almost ever after, the place where any conversation about the team’s offence began.  He was often the end of that conversation too.  The Leafs seemed perpetually searching for someone who could match his genius, someone who could play with him.  That would come, to an extent, in the later years with Alex Mogilny and – on the power play, anyway – with Darcy Tucker golfing into a yawning net a myriad of pucks he had no business getting, but which nonetheless came to him miraculously, courtesy of #13.   In the beginning, though, Sundin often took to the ice with the likes of Benoit Hogue and Mike Craig.

It wasn’t long before Gilmour himself left town, and Sundin was without a doubt the most talented player on the roster.  Steve Stavro bought and sold the Leafs, and the Teachers Pension Plan came into the picture; the team left Maple Leaf Gardens, its ancestral home, behind. By the end of the 90s, the Leafs had become the Bay Street Bullies and it was inarguably his team.  There were a couple more runs to the Conference Final.  A couple more runs to the cusp of immortality.

There were – as the series of posts my fellow bloggers here at MLHS have put together ably demonstrates – many, many moments to love in Mats Sundin’s career.   The battles of the early ’90s with the Senators have defined the relationship between those two franchises.  Somewhere along the line, it became clear that the softness, the lack of killer instinct that had been attributed to him because he wore a funny helmet and didn’t fight, was a mirage.  Sundin knew how to put the team on his back and drive it towards success.  Sundin’s effort in the last game of the 2002 Conference Final, for instance, was the stuff of legends;  though the Leafs were down and time was running out, I just knew that the Captain would come through and pot the goal to tie it up.  And he did.

I don’t know exactly when it happened: when the irrationality of the ugly helmet/not being Wendel prejudice wore off, and I just started to enjoy Sundin’s play for what it was.  It was long before most of the moments described in these posts, though.  I can’t point you to one specific on ice moment that made the difference for me.  What I can tell you is that I do recall going to a game at the ACC not long after it opened.  As my brother and I took our seats – we had a quarter share in some season’s tickets then – and the minutes before game time ticked off the clock, a video came on the scoreboard at centre ice.  The video was pretty standard scoreboard fare;  it showed a series of energetic highlights, big hits, big saves and big goals set to a thumping techno beat.  As it reached its climax, there was the whine of a jet engine turbine powering up to full thrust.  The camera raced up the aisle of a commercial jet, through the cockpit door and the pilot – a beaming Mats Sundin dressed in a full pilot gear – turned around and smiled into the camera as he said, “This is your Captain speaking;  prepare for takeoff.”  I know it’s goofy, but I got chills.  That video was fucking awesome (special note to Howard Berger: get bent).  It was awesome because Sundin was so in charge, he was so money, he was so absolutely everything cool.  By the time I saw that video, I loved him as much I loved the Leafs.

Mats was the Captain.  It was his team, and he was a great leader.  I wish, for his sake (okay, and a little bit my own sake too), that his Leaf teams had been able to take those extra two steps – get to the final, win the Cup – but Mats Sundin doesn’t owe Leafs fans a thing.  He never did, all of the bitterness of the NTC/Muskoka Five stuff notwithstanding.  He had a brilliant career and he richly deserves the honour being bestowed upon him tonight at the ACC.

Congratulations, Mats, and I’m sorry it took me so long to see you for what you were: a genius with skates and stick.  I forgive you for not being Wendel.