Sundin saga over?

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:05 AM ET

Mats Sundin has not contemplated about how you, the good citizenry of Toronto, will react to him when he comes back to the Air Canada Centre next month.

At least that's his company line. And he's sticking to it.

Informed yesterday of former teammate Bryan McCabe's comments that it would be an "absolute embarrassment" if Maple Leafs fans jeered the longtime captain when his Vancouver Canucks visit on Feb. 21, Sundin did what he does best.

He offered up his most refined politically correct response.

"I haven't thought about it at all," Vancouver's new Sultan of Shinny said on the eve of his alleged Canucks debut.

Three time zones away, Leafs fans certainly have.

Last night they gave their collective lungs a good workout at the ACC, jeering each time McCabe, now a member of the Florida Panthers, touched the puck. The boos were so loud, you would have thought Daniel Alfredsson was in the house.

And that was for a guy, McCabe, that they universally loathe.

In Sundin's case, there is less of a consensus in terms of public reaction.

But there is no less emotion. Far from it.

It is hard to come up with an issue that has polarized this city more than the Sundin affair. Judging by the influx of e-mails and phone calls received by Sun Media, a significant chunk of bitter fans think he is a hypocrite who should be despised, while a handful of others feel he was a loyal warrior who should not be slagged.

Either way, there is no sitting on the fence about this issue when it comes to Leafs Nation. Everyone has a strong opinion.

In 2002, there was similar public outcry when Curtis Joseph, the city's most popular athlete at the time, bolted to join the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings. On that occasion, there was no split vote. Cujo was viewed as a turncoat.

Time healed all wounds on that front. Joseph, whose generosity to Sick Kid's Hospital never waivered no matter where he played, was welcomed with open arms by the public when he signed as Toronto's backup goalie this summer.

Sundin might not get that benefit of a doubt. For many here, the wounds still are too fresh, too deep.

About the only thing people in Toronto will agree upon is that they all are relieved that this never-ending saga finally will end tonight when Sundin plays for the Canucks for the first time in Edmonton against the Oilers.

At least we think it is going to end.

Then again, Big Mats was going to make up his mind in the summer if he was going to return for another season. Then September. Then November. On and on it went.

To be safe, let's just say he is expected to play.

"If nothing changes until (this morning), there's a good chance I'll play," Sundin said after practice yesterday. "I'm looking forward to getting back playing in a game."

If he does, there will be as many questions as answers surrounding No. 13.

How much rust will he have? Can he still play at an elite level?

And will he screw up commentators around the league by being part of a Sedin-Sedin-Sundin line?

Fortunately for our broadcaster friends out there, Sundin has been practising on a unit with former Leaf Kyle Wellwood and young winger Mason Raymond. The talking heads have been spared. For now.

"I know Kyle. I played with him in Toronto and he's off to a great start this year," Sundin said. "He's a really smart player. He has good hockey sense. He makes it easy."

Early in the season, Wellwood found himself on waivers with a pot belly. Now, after shedding some fat, he'll take a regular shift, presumably with Sundin. Talk about a step up in lifestyle.

"He's going to give a big boost to us in all areas," Wellwood said. "He's great on faceoffs, he's getting on the power play and he has always been a plus player. He brings a lot of size too."

Sundin's post-Christmas arrival in Vancouver is being compared to that of royalty on the left coast. Upon landing there last week, he was quickly ushered into the back of an SUV as flashbulbs popped all around, the kind of treatment usually afforded a Hollywood star.

Tonight, finally, Vancouver fans hope to find out if all this fuss was worth it.

Meanwhile, back in Toronto, there might be a few sour souls chucking potato chips at their televisions in disgust.

The saga continues.

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REPLAY

LAST NIGHT AT THE ACC

NICE OVATION

Two members of Canada's gold-medal winning world junior hockey team, Brampton's Cody Hodgson and Oakville's Cody Goloubef, were on hand to drop the opening puck and received a standing ovation from the Air Canada Centre crowd.

BOOBIRDS OUT

Defenceman Bryan McCabe, who toiled as a Maple Leaf for seven seasons before moving to Florida this season, was booed the second he stepped on to the ice last night, about a minute into the game, and the boos got louder when he touched the puck. They then showed a brief video presentation of McCabe and most fans cheered.

GOOD BREAK

The Panthers scored four minutes into the game after outshooting Toronto 9-0, but Cory Stillman's goal was disallowed because the net was dislodged.

FIST CITY

Leafs enforcer Andre Deveaux, back after missing three games with a sore foot, hit Jassen Cullimore into the boards and the two then went toe-to-toe in the first.

POINT-GETTERS

Toronto G A P

Alexei Ponikarovsky 1 0 1

Jason Blake 1 0 1

Nik Antropov 0 1 1

John Mitchell 0 1 1

Florida

Stephen Weiss 1 1 2

Gregory Campbell 1 1 2

Ville Peltonen 1 1 2

Michael Frolik 1 0 1

David Booth 0 1 1

Bryan McCabe 0 1 1

Radek Dvorak 0 1 1

Cory Stillman 0 1 1

Jay Bouwmeester 0 1 1

NEXT UP

Tomorrow -- 7:30 p.m.; Maple Leafs at Montreal Canadiens; SNO, AM 640


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