Leafs stick up for former captain

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:52 AM ET

One gets the impression, inside the Maple Leafs dressing room at least, that Mats Sundin's value as a human being is exceeded only by Mother Teresa or Albert Schweitzer.

To a man, Sundin's former teammates in Toronto believe that the longtime Leafs captain, who returns to this city tonight to play for the first time since departing Leafs Nation, deserves nothing but a long, loud standing ovation from Air Canada Centre faithful.

Sundin's former linemate Matt Stajan suggested, following the team's practice at Lakeshore Lions Arena yesterday, that anyone who believes Sundin deserves anything but positive vibes at the ACC tonight is just dumb.

"If people think he deserves to get booed, that's just stupid," Stajan said. "He was dedicated to this team. He was our leader, he never wanted to leave our team last year."

But there are those, however, who believe that Sundin did the Leafs a disservice last year when he refused to waive his no-trade clause. Instead, he stuck around until the end of what was basically a lost season and jumped ship after becoming a free agent -- signing on with the Vancouver Canucks part-way through this season.

There were reports that then general manager Cliff Fletcher had a deal in place with the Montreal Canadiens that would have brought Mikhail Grabovski, Chris Higgins, a first-, second- and third-round draft pick to Toronto for Sundin. Some suggested that if he had agreed to waive his no-trade clause, perhaps some others would have, too. But Stajan blames the media for blowing the situation out of proportion.

"That's what I don't understand. Everybody talks about how he should have done it for the team," Stajan said. "But he deserved every right to finish his career as a Leaf and make his own decisions at the end of the season. The media made it seem a lot worse. He said no, but he kept getting asked the questions and they already knew the answer."

Trying to control the resurgent Vancouver Canucks tonight will be a challenge for the Leafs. The Canucks have won three in a row, including a 5-2 victory in Ottawa on Thursday night, with Sundin potting a goal and assist. Vancouver is 7-2-1 in its past 10. But Leafs coach Ron Wilson said his team is less caught up with the Sundin hype than the media and fans.

"It's basically another game for us, and another challenge against a team that's battling for a playoff position and we have the chance to upset the apple cart," said Wilson. "I'm sure Mats is going to feel a lot of anxiety. It's probably harder on the player returning than anything else. But once the game starts, that stuff gets put aside immediately."

Sundin has 12 points in 17 games since joining the Canucks, including six goals, and has four points in his past three games. He left the Leafs with a franchise-best 987 points and, in the opinion of defenceman Pavel Kubina, the reputation as a great person. When Kubina arrived in Toronto in 2006, he said Sundin helped him get settled.

"My first day in Toronto three years ago, he was the first guy who gave me his number and said: 'If you need anything, give me a call. If you need a car or help to find a place, anything. I'll be there for you.' And a few days later, I got a phone call after practice, and he said: 'Let's go out for dinner', and he took me to Harbour 60 for dinner," Kubina said. "He's a great hockey player, but he's an even better person."

STEVE.BUFFERY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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