|Mats Sundin very emotional during first period NHL game between Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs in Toronto, February 21, 2009. (Alex Urosevic/Sun)
When Mats Sundin returned to the Air Canada Centre yesterday, it should have been a cause for celebration. A hero's return.
For 13 seasons, he was the face of the franchise; the one sure thing on a team that otherwise couldn't shoot and hit anything except their own foot.
Instead, the day dawned with uncertainty.
Even Sundin could feel it, slipping surreptitiously into the visitor's dressing room for the morning skate -- avoiding cameras at the main entrances. By 10 a.m., a couple dozen reporters lined both walls outside the dressing room. The only thing missing was a red carpet and Joan Rivers to tell us what Sundin was wearing. There was a buzz unlike any other gameday this season.
Sundin stepped into the unknown from the visitors room just after 11 a.m. Camera lights blinked. Sundin blinked back: "Where do I go," he said taking a step to the right (as he would've coming out of the Leafs' room), instead of to the left. Just kidding. I think.
Expectations? Always reserved, he acknowledged he didn't know what to expect. Nor did his new teammates. Or his former team.
"It's a bit of a circus, but it's well deserved, it's Mats Sundin," Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph said. "He was a great team guy and I hope he gets a standing ovation -- and that we win the game."
There were a few calls of "Sundin! Sundin!" from fans watching the practice. But nobody was willing to commit to what the reception would be at game time. "I can't really control that," Sundin said as reporters surrounded him five deep. "I have no regrets. My experience with the (Toronto) fans has been outstanding and whatever happens it's not going to change my outlook ... a lot of great memories."
But history has not been kind to departing captains. Darryl Sittler had the "C" ripped off his sweater. Rob Ramage, like Sundin, was blamed for failing to bring a Stanley Cup, Dave Keon still holds a 40-year grudge. Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark left with happy thoughts but made second debuts that ended with futility. Rick Vaive had the captaincy taken from him in 1986 after a dispute with coach Dan Maloney.
Thus the uncertainty.
"You get a little nervous. It'll be a special night," Sundin said. Very Sundinesque. When it comes to unburdening feelings its always the same -- keep it short, keep it simple, keep it zipped.
In Toronto his leadership was questioned. He was criticized for failing to waive his no-trade clause. Normally, fans get upset when players want to break their contract -- not for wanting to live up to it. But Sundin was labelled as disloyal and last night the fans still were divided in how to react to him.
They loved him when Leafs management played a video on the scoreboard during the first period. They rose and cheered. Sundin waved from the bench. When he moved to the faceoff circle, Matt Stajan backed out and linesman Derek Amell held the puck -- for two minutes the fans took the hint and said: "Thank you!"
The rest of the night they booed every time he touched the puck. The gloves, literally, came off minutes later when Sundin, trying to get off the ice, collided with Jason Blake precipitating a melee. In the second, when he cruised through centre, he was booed. So he remains an enigma -- loved and reviled. Last night, a bit of both were in evidence.
The big question though said Joseph, with a mischievous grin, is not about the lovin'.
"It's how much money he's going to put on the board." said Joseph, in a reference to the NHL tradition where a former player puts up a dollar amount that he'll pay each of his new teammates if they make him look good and come out with a win.
Yesterday morning, Sundin wasn't saying. Like the no-trade clause, like his late arrival with Vancouver, and like the mixed reception that awaited him last night, it was a question left unanswered. When it comes to Mats Sundin some things never change.