Should Sundin stay or go?

Mats Sundin talks to reporters following the Leafs' optional practice yesterday, telling them he...

Mats Sundin talks to reporters following the Leafs' optional practice yesterday, telling them he only wants to help the club reach the playoffs this season, then go from there. (Toronto Sun/Fred Thornhill)

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:35 AM ET

The fabric of a hockey team is composed of hundreds of threads, each distinct yet tightly interwoven. Normally, a good tug on any one of those loose ends will have virtually no effect on the integrity of the whole.

But start reefing on the string labelled "captain" and the whole outfit might come unravelled faster than the Liberals' election strategy.

Indeed, the most sensitive political position in Toronto isn't mayor or premier. It's captain of the Maple Leafs. For nine years, Mats Sundin has been the public face of what probably is the most intensely scrutinized hockey team on the planet.

Not one of the legends who preceded him in this most visible of positions has done a better job of the captaincy than has Sundin. He has performed his mission with utter selflessness, unquestioned loyalty and appropriate respect for the legacy he wears on his sweater.

On those rare occasions -- usually in the midst of a losing string such as the one the team now is experiencing -- when people from outside the dressing room have questioned his leadership, there always have been 25 voices of support for Sundin from within. That, by the way, is the only support that matters.

A story that appeared on these pages yesterday suggests that Sundin, who will be 35 before the March trade deadline, would be willing to waive his no-trade clause and accept a deal if the team continues its sorry descent in the NHL East standings.

The story, written by Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun, cited an unnamed source. While it's wise to be wary of "sources," be conscious that Garrioch spends about 23 1/2 hours a day cultivating and maintaining contacts all over the hockey world.

So, let's not be naive. There's a very good chance the captain's patience might be wearing thin.

For the record, Sundin is focused on doing what he can to get this six-game slide turned around and to get the Leafs into the playoffs.

"I think we have a good hockey team here," Sundin said after the team's optional workout yesterday. "I think we're good enough to make the playoffs.

"From the start of this season we knew it was going to be a battle. There are a lot of good teams in our conference and it's tough to get one of the eight spots. But we have a good enough hockey team to do that. Once you make it into the playoffs, anything can happen."

If that happens, then this entire discussion about Sundin's future here is moot. But a playoff spot is not a slam dunk, given the injury situation and the various shortcomings of the people available to perform every night. If the slide continues, then the Leafs may have to blow up the whole thing.

At that point it will be entirely appropriate to let Sundin, well into the back nine of his career, move on if he chooses to waive his no-trade clause. He will never ask the Leafs for a trade, but the betting is that he wouldn't say no if the possibility is offered.

And before everybody starts screaming about disloyalty, be mindful he has been a rock of excellence through thick and thin for 12 years, without getting even a sniff at a championship. He has earned the right to determine his own fate. In the process, his leaving would bring in a player or draft picks who would help in the rebuilding.

All of this falls under the category of cart-before-the-horse, of course.

"I haven't thought about it a lot," Sundin said. "My only concern is to be part of this team, try to make the playoffs and do everything I can to be the best I can be every time I'm on the ice.

"I'm going to leave the rest to the people who are making those kinds of decisions. It's really out of my control and my only concern is with the Toronto Maple Leafs. I don't want to go anywhere else. I want to stay here and continue to do the work."

There is no reason to question if that sentiment is genuine. It is. Sundin happily has invested 12 years in the Leafs, and they in him, without a moment's discord.

But they both want a championship. If it turns out the only way each side can get what it wants is through a trade, then what's the problem? It would be one gut-wrenching decision on both sides. But it would the right one.


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