Mats cements status

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:00 AM ET

He hasn't quite reached the legendary status of Borje or Bjorn, Sweden's version of the Killer B's.

But by becoming the first native son to score 500 goals in the NHL, Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin is creeping closer to those two national icons in terms of popularity back in his home country.

"Swedes are not as big on celebrations as (North Americans) are," Leafs European scout Thommie Bergman said yesterday from Sweden. "But Mats is getting close. He's just one level below Borje Salming and Bjorn Borg.

"In hockey, Borje is still No. 1. But Mats is closing in."

Sundin led the Swedes to an Olympic gold medal seven months ago. Then he hit the 500-goal milestone by recording a hat trick against the Calgary Flames Saturday.

So what does Sundin still have to accomplish to reach the elite status of Salming and Borg in Sweden?

"He needs the Stanley Cup to take it to the next level," Bergman said.

News of Sundin's memorable goal rippled throughout Sweden yesterday, leaving smiles on many faces, including Bergman's.

In 1972, a year before Salming and Inge Hammarstrom joined the Leafs, Bergman became the first European-trained professional to play regularly in the NHL.

Even he could not have predicted at that time that a Swede would crack the 500-goal barrier 34 years later.

"It's a heck of an accomplishment," Bergman said. "People here knew he is one of the best players in the game.

"Part of his popularity has to do with what a nice, down to earth guy he is. People here relate to that. A lot of soccer players here are prima donnas but Mats is just so classy."

ALFIE APPLAUDS MATS

Among those offering their congratulations to Sundin is fellow Swede Daniel Alfredsson, the captain of the rival Ottawa Senators.

The two men were teammates with the Olympic champion Swedes in Turin in February.

"When you look back, Thommie Bergman and Salming paved the way for a lot of Swedes and Europeans like myself to play in the NHL," Alfredsson said last night during a phone interview from Ottawa. "Maybe 20 years from now, kids there will point to Mats scoring 500 as a moment that paved the way for them.

"I know Mats must be happy. It's something to be proud of. Scoring 500 goals is a great accomplishment no matter what country you are from."

GENERATING LOYALTY

Buffalo Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn gets two thumbs up for coming to the aid of his players in the wake of the crippling snow and wind storm late last week that left much of western New York without power.

The Sabres, in Detroit at the time of the storm, anxiously asked themselves what was in store for them back home when they boarded the plane after their shootout victory over the Red Wings Friday night. Enter Quinn, who had ordered the equipment crew to buy 10 generators for any team member who might require one.

"It was a huge gesture," Sabres co-captain Chris Drury told reporters. "Guys were nervous. Their minds were on other places. A lot of us have infant children or pregnant wives.

"It was something that wasn't lost on us, knowing the team is helping make our families feel secure. It put our minds at ease."

Drury felt so at ease, he went out and scored the first hat trick of his career in a 7-4 win over the New York Rangers Saturday.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH

The juiciest storyline of the upcoming week is the return of Jose Theodore to Montreal on Saturday.

The splashy French tabloids should have a field day with the high-profile goaltender, who makes his first appearance as a member of the Colorado Avalanche at the Bell Centre since being traded by the Montreal Canadiens last March.

Whether it be the highly-publicized legal woes of his family; his positive test last season for a hair-loss medicine that also can be used to mask steroids; or the incident in which he was seen holding hands with Paris Hilton this summer; Theodore just can't seem to stay out of the spotlight.

But at least life seems calmer in Denver, especially with the recent birth of his daughter (No, it's not Hilton's!).

As for Montreal, he has nothing but nice things to say about his stint there. If the Habs were expecting bulletin board fodder, they are not going to get it.

"In Montreal, hockey's the only sport," Theodore told the Denver Post.

"You had 10 or 11 reporters on the road for every game, radio and TV and everything.

"But having said that, I loved my time in Montreal. I love the city. It's my hometown, and I loved playing there. It's a great organization."

THE WEEK AHEAD

The Canucks and Oilers kick off an emotional home-and-home series tonight in Vancouver, with the second leg scheduled for Edmonton tomorrow ... Former Brampton Battalion standout Wojtek Wolski makes his first NHL appearance at the Air Canada Centre when his Avs face the Leafs Wednesday.


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