Mats has a fan in Holik

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:55 AM ET

One of Mats Sundin's worst antagonists paid him the best of tributes yesterday.

Bobby Holik, a thorn in Sundin's side since the world junior championships in the late 1980s, was saddened to think last night's Maple Leafs -- Atlanta Thrashers game would be among the last for the rival centres with retirement not far off for either. They were born a few weeks apart in the winter of 1971, Holik in what was then Czechoslovakia, Sundin in Sweden.

"If you do your homework you could find out exactly how many times we've played," Holik said with a laugh. "As we say in the States, it's a lot of water under the bridge. Definitely, he's one of the best I have ever played against.

"It has been a lot harder for him than me, being in Toronto, being the only star here (while he won two Cups on a talent-laden New Jersey Devils roster). I respect him tremendously for carrying this team in this city for that long, almost single-handidly. The supporting cast keeps changing, but he stays. He has got a lot of respect around the league for that."

Sundin went into last night's game needing four points to tie Dave Keon for second in Leafs history with 858 points.

"You (media) guys don't make it easy on him, but he holds up his end of the bargain on the ice," Holik added. "I don't think people in Toronto know that. They need to see what life would be like without him for awhile."

Sundin usually brings out the best snarl in Holik, who often drew the coverage assigment against Sundin with Sweden and the Leafs.

"Ah, those playoff years," Holik said of his battles with the Devils against the Leafs in 2000 and 2001. "The guys talked about this last night. As much as I enjoy (his whole hockey career), it was one of the best times. But you move on."

As a free agent, Holik spent an unsatisfying season with the New York Rangers (the Leafs refused to meet his price) and is now with one of the National Hockey League's up-and-coming clubs.

"It's funny, I was awful in Atlanta last week and we won by 5-0. I cherish the challenge against Mats, but me against him is part of our whole team effort."


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