Sundin still is a force

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:07 AM ET

Mats Sundin celebrates his 37th birthday today.

Almost two decades since breaking into the NHL with the Quebec Nordiques, no one is more surprised than Sundin that he's still here.

"I remember coming in when I was 19 and thinking I'd be happy to play four or five years because that was about the average for guys," he said. "I've been very fortunate to play as long as I have. I'm not sure anyone likes to realize they're the oldest guy on the team ... but when you've been around for awhile you learn to appreciate the game more and I think I've actually enjoyed it more the past few years."

After 17 seasons in the NHL his only concession to time is his hairline. He hasn't lost a step. He hasn't lost the enthusiasm often associated with youth. He hasn't lost his work ethic, he is a testament to durability and he remains a puck magnet.

"Mats controls the puck so well, especially down low. You are not chasing to get it back so often when you are playing with him because he has it on his stick and he is physically able to control it. You just spend more time in the other team's end when you are playing with him," said Leafs coach Paul Maurice, who gives Sundin much credit for keeping hockey's version of the Titanic afloat.

Sundin has missed more than 10 games in a season only once since 1994-95. He has endured while contemporaries such as Eric Lindros, Sergei Fedorov, Radek Bonk and Alexander Daigle have risen and disappeared like phoenix across the NHL landscape. He has become one of the NHL's ironmen. "I have been very fortunate with injuries, there is no doubt. This is my 17th year as a professional. I have had some stuff that kept me out for a while, but nothing has been broken or in terms of knees or stuff that is really functional for hockey players, I have been fortunate."

He has been maligned as all that ails the Maple Leafs and blamed for the team's inability to break a 40-year estrangement from the Stanley Cup. He has taken the criticism with grace. He has learned not only how to survive in the hockey whirlpool that is Toronto; he has learned how to thrive in it. He has gone from being somewhat shy and awkward when he first arrived from Quebec in 1994 to the oasis of serenity in a turbulent franchise.

Perhaps the reluctance of some to accept him lies in the fact that he came to Toronto at the expense of fan favourite Wendel Clark. Some have never been able to forgive him for that. Until, maybe this season. When he set franchise records with his 350th goal and 917th point he never smiled wider and the ovation was never louder or more sincere.

Maurice compares him with Ron Francis. To understand how much that means it is necessary to know that Maurice gets positively dewy-eyed about his former captain with the Carolina Hurricanes.

"Mats Sundin, with his consistency, his personality, his work ethic, those words get fired around all the time," Maurice said, but "you really need to see it in practice every day, in the weight room, with all the added responsibility of this market, he has found a way to enjoy it and embrace it. He has done a marvellous job in that locker room welcoming young kids, helping them perform at their best, setting the tone for our team."

His greatest moment? They would be the team's run to the conference finals in 1999 and 2002. "When you work together all year and then you're one of the four teams at the end left out of 30 that was a tremendous feeling. It's not only about the trophy. For me, it's also about the journey, about working together as a team. When you can be part of something like that over a season I think you can appreciate (the accomplishment) more."

Maybe this explains finally why he is so hesitant about waiving the no-trade clause and becoming just another rent-a-player. For Sundin, the Stanley Cup, without the journey, would be an empty victory.


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