Sundin gets some loving, then boos

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:14 AM ET

Mats Sundin played a game of "they love me, they love me not" for much of yesterday.

In the end, Maple Leafs fans showed that the majority at least, still admire him. But arriving at that consensus has been an emotional roller coaster for both fans and player.

His return as a Vancouver Canuck was met with the same ambivalence many fans felt about their former captain during his final days as a Maple Leaf.

He was accorded a two-minute standing ovation, prompted by a scoreboard video and when he fired the winning shootout goal past Vesa Toskala the crowd cheered.

But in between, there were jeers and catcalls every time he touched the puck.

"I guess this game has been in the back of my mind for a long time," Sundin said afterward. "I'm glad it's over."

For the normally stoic Sundin, this was as close as he gets to bearing his soul.

There should never have been any doubt that Sundin's return would be cause for celebration. For 13 seasons he was the face of the franchise -- the one sure thing on a team that otherwise couldn't shoot and hit anything except its own foot. Instead the day was fraught with uncertainty.

Even Sundin could feel it, slipping surreptitiously into the visitor's dressing room for the morning skate, avoiding cameras at the main entrances. By 10 a.m., a couple dozen reporters lined both walls outside the dressing room. The only thing missing was a red carpet and Joan Rivers to tell us what Sundin was wearing.

Sundin stepped into the unknown from the visitors room just after 11 a.m. Camera lights blinked. Sundin blinked back: "Where do I go?" he said taking a step to the right (as he would've coming out of the Leafs' room), instead of to the left. Just kidding. I think.

Expectations? He acknowledged he didn't know what to expect. Nor did his new team-mates. Or his former team.

"It's a bit of a circus, but it's well deserved," Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph said. "He was a great team guy and I hope he gets a standing ovation."

History has not been kind to departing captains. Darryl Sittler had the "C" ripped off his sweater. Rob Ramage, like Sundin, was blamed for failing to bring a Stanley Cup, Dave Keon still holds a 40-year grudge. Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark left with happy thoughts but made second debuts that ended with futility. Rick Vaive had the captaincy taken from him.

Sundin had his leadership questioned. He was criticized for failing to waive his no-trade clause.

"I understand why he wanted to stay at the deadline," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. "He thought his team had a shot at the playoffs. It was simple and it was honest."

Sundin admitted yesterday that being labelled as disloyal hurt him and last night the fans still were divided in how to react to him.

They loved him when the video played during the first period. They rose. Cheered. Sundin waved from the bench. When he moved to the faceoff circle, Matt Stajan backed out and linesman Derek Amell held the puck for two minutes as the fans took the hint and said "Thank you!"

It was as close to tears the normally stoic Sundin said he has ever come in a hockey game.

The rest of the game they booed and whistled every time he touched the puck. So he remains an enigma --viewed with both love and revulsion. Last night, both were in evidence.

Then, slowly circling centre for what would be the last shot, the ACC filled with cacophony. He cut across the crease, hitting the net as his fellow Canucks spilled on to the ice in glee.

"It was an emotional week but it had a great ending," said Sundin, who saluted and bowed to fans as the game's first star.

"It ranks right up there. It has been a buildup of 13 years of ups and downs, of highs and lows ... 13 years of emotions here. It's a nice way for it to go. Very special."

BILL.LANKHOF@SUNMEDIA.CA


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