Mats has grown into a leader

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:13 AM ET

Standing next to George Armstrong and Darryl Sittler at a Maple Leaf Gardens photo-op, Mats Sundin recalled a twinge of doubt.

Though taller than the two Hall of Famers, Sundin felt like a Swedish commoner inheriting their captain's C, with forerunner Wendel Clark in the crowd and only seven months elapsing since the Doug Gilmour era abruptly ended.

"I didn't know what I was getting myself into," Sundin said yesterday, shaking his head.

But he fought any urge to excuse himself and jump out a bathroom window. Approaching the 10th anniversary of his promotion this Sunday -- only Armstrong served longer in team history -- Sundin is glad he stayed around.

"Looking back, I don't think I would've become the player I am today without being the captain," Sundin said. "It has taught me a lot about hockey, a lot about dealing with players and dealing with people in different walks of life."

Shy by nature and protective of his private life, Sundin prefers to let his skill do the talking. He enters the regular season next week with a remarkable 1,243 points in 1,231 NHL games, due to pass Sittler in career Leafs goals and points early in October.

But the boy from Bromma realized upon accepting the letter that he would have to come out of his shell. He went from a quiet corner of the room to having 20-plus players watching and emulating him. He's the face of the most scrutinized team in hockey, compelled to speak after every game, big win or stinker, and again on most off days. While some teammates used his daily media interrogation as a diversion to slip out, Sundin either answers for their failings or spreads around the credit in good times.

"I'm a more outspoken person today," he said. "As a younger man, that helped me. I'm more open-minded."

On ice, many would prefer him to be the ball o' fire that Gilmour was, hacking and whacking to the final buzzer. Or drop the gloves as Clark did in games he felt required a change of pace. Yet Sundin's mates can't remember him being demonstrative to the point of ranting, initiating dressing room destruction or grabbing some laggard by the collar, a la Mark Messier.

"People would see the fakery of me doing that ," Sundin said. "I'm someone who believes you have to earn the respect of people."

And he has shaken hands with many players coming and going from 60 Carlton St. and 40 Bay St.

"In my six years, he's never got mad and lost it with anyone," winger Wade Belak said. "He can get pretty vocal, like when we were on that seven-game losing streak last year. But even then, his criticisms are never aimed at one person. When he goes off, he's always justified and that's what makes him a good leader."

Sundin hasn't had the ultimate thrill for a Leafs captain, accepting the Stanley Cup from the commissioner. With a one-year deal at present, he might never get the chance. But he has had a front-row seat to watch the city turned on its ear by just a whiff of championship success. As captain, he has represented the team to meet kings, queens, prime ministers, rock stars, Muhammad Ali and a who's who of hockey.

"It's the little things that matter, too, like the letters I get from the sick children in the hospitals," Sundin said. "We played the Blue and White game in Oshawa a few days ago and people were all cheering for the Leafs. (In Winnipeg), last week we had so many fans, when we hadn't been there in years.

"I've been coming (back and forth from Sweden each summer) for 12 years now and it never ceases to amaze me when I get here and see what the Leafs still mean to people.

"My best memory is probably playing the last game at the Gardens (in 1999) and being out there with all the great players in franchise history. That's when you realize what it means to be the captain of this team."


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