When Curtis Joseph spurned the Maple Leafs for the Red Wings, he was a called a traitor.
When Robbie Alomar and too many Raptors worth counting wanted out of Toronto, they were labelled disloyal. Radio airwaves rang with rebuke from fans who felt jilted by the objects of their affection. All of which makes what has happened to Mats Sundin very curious, and very unfair.
Sundin may be the first athlete to be labelled disloyal for wanting to stay in Toronto.
Sometimes a guy can't win. Especially when the guy is named Mats.
Despite being the best part of a mostly ordinary franchise for 14 years, he never has been given the all-encompassing, unquestioning love accorded the likes of Dougie or Wendel. With every record, with every passing spring, with a growing yet grudging admiration, there has always been a "but" ...
But he hasn't made the team a winner. But he won't fight.
But the team can't win with him as captain.
But he's not tough enough. And, the most disaffected: But he's not a Canadian.
Some people wouldn't know their buts from the Stanley Cup. Conveniently forgotten is the fact Dougie, Wendel and a host of others couldn't put this Humpty Dumpty back together completely either. True, Sundin's future value may be highest in the young talent he could bring by waiving his no-trade clause. But it's not like he owes MLSEL. They signed him to a contract and he has lived up to every dollar. It's not his job to fix the jam into which Richard Peddie and John Ferguson have wedged this franchise. He has set records on the ice, he has been a mentor in the dressing room and he has been an ambassador in the community.
That he is now pilloried for hesitating to give up his no-trade clause is ludicrous.
"It's got nothing to do with being disloyal. The guys think if he wants to stay, he should have the right to make that decision," teammate Carlo Colaiacovo said. "Nobody has done more for this organization than Mats. As long as I can remember, first as a fan and now as a teammate, Mats has been in a Leafs uniform."
Colaiacovo said that when he broke into the NHL, it was Sundin who made him welcome. "He's been the guy who always helped young players fit in. It's difficult to imagine this dressing room without Mats."
Alex Steen has held the locker next to Sundin's for three years. "Obviously sitting beside him I've learned from him. He's shown me what it's like to be a leader and a captain for the biggest organization in hockey. Sometimes you just sit back and appreciate how he handles himself, not just around the media or on the ice, but how he prepares himself for every game or practice."
From head coach Paul Maurice to rookies, Sundin is spoken of in almost reverential terms.
Rookie Jiri Tlusty found himself in the swirl of controversy when his risque photos showed up on the Internet.
"I'm really glad I got a chance to be here with Mats," Tlusty said. "I've learned a lot about hockey and about life. If I do something wrong he'll explain things to me, not just about on the ice but about how to live. He took me a couple times to dinner and talked to me."
Tlusty also got spot duty on Sundin's line.
"The first time I was so-o-oscared," Tlusty said with a laugh. "I'm thinking to myself: 'What am I doing playing with the best player on the Leafs?' I told myself: 'Calm down.' I learned a lot from him ... like how he uses his body behind the net to stay on the puck, how he'll keep guys on his back."
Or, how to keep guys off it -- as the case may be. "If he's not here, it would be difficult," Tlusty said.
In 13 seasons, Sundin has set franchise records with 412 goals and 971 points. But, perhaps, his contributions can't be measured in numbers.
"He's always been a positive guy, respected by coaches and players for how he plays and the way he conducts himself as a person," Colaiacovo said. "It's an honour to be in the same dressing room. He's the type of player a lot of us want to be like. He's class."