Mats turns the tide

GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 5:04 PM ET


  A skipper, according to the dictionary, is the master of a ship or captain of an airplane.

 He could also be the soul of a hockey team, who is capable of picking up his teammates by their skates and carrying them to victory.

 Of course, I'm speaking of Mats Sundin, the leader of a much-maligned group of Toronto shinny players who were written off by some experts as losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in five games.

 This, of course, would be rather difficult now that the series is tied 2-2, thanks to two home-ice victories. The Leafs could really mess up the "doomcasters" if they bury the Flyers this afternoon in the City of Brotherly Love or, at worst, in the seventh game, again away from home.

 Leading them in their quest to the first Stanley Cup in 37 years is the blue-eyed Swede, the best Swedish hockey player in a Maple Leafs uniform since Borje Salming, the all-star defenceman, who used to thrill the fans at Maple Leaf Gardens in the 1970s.

 I remember well when Sundin set his skates on Canadian soil as a 19-year-old. It was former Quebec Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut who flew to Sweden in 1990, visited Sundin's parents and then spent 10 hours in London to obtain Sundin's release from his Swedish club, Djurgarden.

 REST IS HISTORY

 The rest is more or less history. Sundin became the hero of Quebec City until the day that the master negotiator, Aubut's general manager Pierre Lacroix, figured out a six-player deal between the Leafs and Nordiques which sent Sundin to Toronto for popular Toronto captain Wendel Clark.

 I talked to Aubut yesterday about the deal that shocked hockey fans in both those cities, and he told me the following memorable sentence:

 "I was reluctant to make the deal," he said. "I loved Sundin's parents. They're wonderful people. And I treated Mats as I would my own son. I had him in my house on many occasions."

 The deal worked out well temporarily for both clubs, even though the Leafs have enjoyed Sundin's services a lot longer than the Nordiques -- today's Colorado Avalanche -- were able to cheer for Clark, mainly because of the age difference between the two star players.

 Having watched Sundin play for the past decade in Toronto, I couldn't help remembering the late Harold Ballard, former owner of the Leafs, who used to say about Swedish hockey players that "if you sent them into a corner for a puck with a dozen eggs in their pants pocket, they would emerge without any damaged."

 But times have changed. Sundin, a 6-foot-4, 205 pounder, is anything but a pushover on the ice. As he once told me: "It's fun playing in North American rinks. The games are more physical and are being played with greater intensity. I love North American hockey."

 In addition to his physical talents, Sundin contributes a great deal with his mental outlook and leadership qualities to the success of his team.

 He is, indeed, Captain Mats, a player who, when injured, is back on his skates so fast that other players on the team did not have time to complain about their own aches and pains

 GROSSLY ABBREVIATED

 It was a week of pleasant and sad news in the world of sports. We lost some of the finest athletes and human beings this city has known when we had to say goodbye to Mike Wadsworth, an Argonauts all-star lineman, ambassador to Ireland, athletic director at Notre Dame, father of three girls and loving husband of Bernie. We also lost Sid Smith, former captain of the Leafs and a lovely individual. Both will be sadly missed by their families and the sports community ... I also lost a friend and colleague, John Parsons , tennis columnist of the London Telegraph, with whom I covered 17 Wimbledons and several other Grand Slam tournaments ... ... Etobicoke Sports Hall of Fame hockey members Dick Duff, Dave Dryden, Mark Napier, Mike Pelyk, Wally Stanowski and Pete Conacher, as well as figure-skating queen Barbara Berezowski-Ivan will sign autographs at the Woodbine Centre next Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m.


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