Sundin gone, but the hypocrisy lingers

KEN FIDLIN, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 7:54 AM ET

In his 5,000 days -- give or take -- as a Maple Leaf, for a man with such a placid, agreeable nature, Mats Sundin proved to be a remarkably polarizing figure.

Even now, the better part of a year since he last wore the blue and white, as he heads to Vancouver to begin life as a Canuck, he still is getting more than his share of needling.

The big Swede crammed an awful lot into his 13 seasons with Toronto and, when he skated off the ice after his last game on April 5, he had pretty much rewritten the team's record book. He had served 10 years as captain of one of the league's iconic franchises, the first European to take on that role. No question, Vancouver is getting a class act.

But the glaring omission here, the one for which so many fans won't forgive him, is the fact he never led a Stanley Cup parade down Yonge St. Now, in that regard, he is not unlike any other Leafs captain of the past four decades. Somehow, though, Sundin had become the lightning rod for everything that has conspired to deprive Toronto of a Cup since 1967.

But, whether you are Mark Messier, with his reputation as a leader who can move the intensity dial, or if you're Mats Sundin, who took a more subtle approach, no captain alive can knit a Mercedes Benz out of a ball of steel wool. The talent has to be there and it never was in the Sundin era.

Under different circumstances, Sundin would have retired a Leaf and been accorded the same abiding reverence that the elegant Jean Beliveau receives in Montreal. Of course, Beliveau presided over a Montreal team that oozed talent in an era when the Forum became the Stanley Cup's home away from home.

In many ways, Sundin was like Beliveau, a man who engendered admiration and respect simply for being himself. A lot of the vitriol I see and read on the Internet directed at Sundin is by people who wanted him to be something he wasn't. There is an impression out there that a fiery captain somehow can squeeze something extra from his teammates.

That may be true, but those kinds of characters are few and far between. The simple truth is that every team has a captain and the very best ones are the people who are true to their own personalities. In the 10 years he wore the C, Sundin took plenty of criticism, but none of it ever came from within the Leafs dressing room. That, in itself, is a measure of respect.

Even when Sundin refused to give up his no-trade clause last winter to allow interim general manager Cliff Fletcher to start to rebuild the franchise, it was easy to respect his position. Sundin felt uncomfortable parachuting into a new situation as a rent-a-player, an interloper on another team's Stanley Cup run. There was also the misguided belief that, somehow, the Leafs could rally to make the playoff themselves.

Such a trade could have given Fletcher and the Leafs a running start on the rebuilding. It is believed that Fletcher had a commitment from the Canadiens to exchange Sundin for Chris Higgins, Mikhail Grabovski and a second-round draft pick.

Moreover, it's not a stretch to surmise that if Sundin had waived his no-trade clause, so too would have Tomas Kaberle, Darcy Tucker and Pavel Kubina, though that's pure speculation.

Now that he finally has made up his mind where he'll make his new start, it's impossible to overlook the obvious: Mats Sundin is about to become a rent-a-player, the very status he spurned, to the great detriment of his team last spring.

Maybe Sundin really believed what he said last season, that he wanted to retire a Maple Leaf and that to drop in on a Stanley Cup run as a rental could not begin to compare with a journey from start to finish with your teammates. It was easy to give him a dispensation for having such high-minded principles.

But it all seems so hypocritical today. The halo that grew in intensity as the hairline receded over the years, has been tarnished. He is still a class act and if he is not the best Leaf player ever, he is in the conversation.

But, like so many things about this franchise, on so many levels, Sundin's legacy has been sadly diminished.


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