Sundin's a Leaf again

Former Maple Leafs great Mats Sundin hangs out with a few students from James Bell Elementary...

Former Maple Leafs great Mats Sundin hangs out with a few students from James Bell Elementary School om Toronto, Ont., Oct. 27, 2011. (EMMA McCORMICK/QMI Agency)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:55 PM ET

TORONTO - Going on four years since his awkward departure, it’s no surprise that a cluster of public school kids would be more cognizant of Carlton the Bear than Mats Sundin.

But the franchise scoring leader was careful not to close the door when he went back to his Swedish hermitage after a short stint in Vancouver. And though grumbling may persist about him not accepting a trade to re-stock the farm, Sundin seemed a man very much at peace with himself Thursday at James S. Bell Middle School in Etobicoke.

Married, aged 40 and just now realizing where his Toronto years fit with life’s big picture, he felt the time was right to accept an offer from the team to re-connect through a part-time ambassador’s role. When he put the No. 13 blue and white sweater back on Thursday, flashed his familiar smile and came out after a video highlight reel, the children forgot about the furry mascot and were almost speechless in his presence. For Sundin, it has been a while since that sweater fit so comfortably.

Sundin took flak in ‘08, but believed he was doing the right thing, refusing to waive his no-trade clause while the Leafs still had a playoff pulse. They wound up 11 points behind eighth-place Boston and Sundin drifted away.

By contrast, long-time teammate Tomas Kaberle gradually warmed to the idea of getting a shot with a winner in Boston and fetched Joe Colborne and draft picks the Leafs used to get into 2011’s first round and trade for John-Michael Liles.

“I’m still happy with the decision I made,” Sundin insisted. “At the time we had a good chance to make the playoffs and it didn’t feel right to be the captain and leave the ship at that point.

“I talked to (Kaberle) before he won the Cup, but he said he’d wished he’d won it with the Leafs. There’s no easy answer. It was a decision I made with my heart. Staying and wanting to help out making the playoffs was the right decision at the time.”

There was also the belief Sundin had earned the right to map his own future after breaking Darryl Sittler’s scoring records, conducting himself with class as captain for a decade and keeping (mostly) quiet about the club’s inability to surround him with skilled wingers.

Though the Leafs didn’t make the playoffs his last three years, he was in on two conference finalists in ‘99 and ‘02. Someone brought up the painful shot of him in tears on the bench in New Jersey as the Leafs were eliminated.

“In a long career, you cry and laugh many times over,” Sundin said. “It’s nice to be retired, not sitting around in the afternoon with that little knot in your stomach, worried about the game that night. Now you can enjoy it.

“It’s been nice to get away from the professional aspect of hockey. The last year, when you started to think about it, it was time to go. Physically and mentally, you can’t take the pressure at the highest level.

“It’s good just to get away and to reflect, on the team, the guys you played with, the cities you played in. It’s not so much the records I think about, it’s just the (good) times. This is where I spent the best part of my career, 13 years, and it feels like home every time I land in Toronto.”

After an unannounced visit to Sick Kids Hospital, one of his favourite gestures as a player, Sundin ran the students through some exercises and Friday, will be at Angela James Arena in North York to help with a skating clinic. He’s attending Saturday’s game against the Penguins, his first at the ACC since getting a huge ovation in ‘09 with the Canucks. He also plans to watch teammate Tie Domi’s son Max play a game for the London Knights before heading back to Sweden.

“It’s important,” Sundin said of coming here to help the Leafs a few times a year. “I just hope I can have a great relationship for the rest of my life. The years I spent here playing, living in the city, and the fans, it’s nice to give something back.”

SUNDIN’S DREAM HOME

There will be a little touch of Toronto in Mats Sundin’s new dromhem.

Sundin and wife Josephine have enlisted a local architect to design their dream home on the outskirts of Stockholm.

“We’re really looking forward to it,” said Sundin, who sold his huge place in the Avenue Rd.- St. Clair West area a few years ago. “I’ve enjoyed it (married life since 2009) very much.”

Lots of room in the new place for kids?

“We’re working on it,” he said with a laugh.

Sundin looks forward to putting a trunk full of Leaf memoribilia on display when the new place is ready.

“I brought back, sweaters, sticks and pictures,” he said. “I have my stick from my 500th goal (against Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff in 2006). That would be my favourite.”

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


Photos