September 17, 2006
Does Mats even want to be captain?
By AL STRACHAN
Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson says that now, finally, this is his team.
His hand-picked coach is in place. So is his support staff. The players are the ones Ferguson says he wants.
But what about the captain? Does Ferguson want Mats Sundin in that role? More importantly, does Sundin want to be in that role?
The only person who knows the answer to that question is Sundin himself, and his nature is such that even if he didnít want the job, he wouldnít say so publicly.
But the indications are that he doesnít.
On Thursday, the first day the 2006-07 Maple Leafs officially gathered, Sundin ducked out a side door and skipped talking to the media.
In itself, that is not a major concern. But it is indicative. Without doing a team-by-team survey, it is a safe bet that he was the only captain in the entire league to do so.
Itís just the latest hint that while Sundin willingly will wear the C if he is asked to do so, it is not the kind of appointment that he particularly enjoys.
None of this is intended to be a criticism of Sundin. He is an excellent player and easily the greatest talent on the Leafs. He is a polite, friendly man, well-liked and well-respected.
But that has nothing to do with being a captain. No one expects him to play goal because he is not suited to it. If he is not suited to being captain, then why expect him to do that?
The requisite qualities of a captain are not as clear-cut as they used to be. At one time, there was little doubt as to the identity of the team leader and he was the one who got the job.
But nowadays, on some teams, a youngster barely into the league is made captain because some of the suits in the organization thinks the move will sell a few more tickets.
Sometimes, the job goes to the longest-standing veteran on the team, even if heís well down the pecking order when it comes to talent.
And sometimes, it goes to the teamís offensive star. That is how Sundin got the job.
But the most successful captains in todayís game are the ones who have a number of specific attributes. One is that they donít mind taking a public stance, even if it is going to be controversial. That hardly sounds like Sundin.
Another is that they willingly battle referees to get a better deal for their teammates. Sundin will do that.
Another is that they are always willing to be the spokesman for the team whenever a wider issue arises, and opinions are being sought. Sundin isnít much for that, either.
And perhaps the single most important attribute of the captain is that he stands up for his teammates in all conflicts, especially the ones with the coach.
According to all reports from within the dressing room, that kind of activity is not Sundinís forte.
Expected of him
There is no suggestion here that Sundin should be stripped of his Leafs captaincy as Darryl Sittler once was. If he wants the job, fine.
But if the situation is as it appears to be, and he is only doing it because he feels it is expected of him, now is the time to make the change.
It is not uncommon for a new coach to identify a player he wants as captain. If there is to be the kind of coach-captain dialogue that is so integral to the teamís success, it canít be forced. Both men have to be comfortable with the relationship.
Sundin wouldnít be the first captain to relinquish the post. He could say ó and it probably would be true ó that it would be better for the teamís fortunes if he simply played hockey and didnít concern himself with peripheral issues.
Itís a new season. Ferguson is talking about the team being his own, and Maurice is just starting his tenure as coach.
If Sundin is not sure he wants to be captain, this is the perfect time to step down.