“My dad always talked about that,” Sundin said. “He was very impressed that Canadians would have thought so highly of a Swede.”
2. Meet the Sundins
Sundin had a few things in common with Wayne Gretzky, other than shooting some TV commercials with the Great One. Both their fathers worked for national phone companies, lived in small towns and both re-configured the outside of their houses for hockey.
Tommy Sundin had once been a club team goaltender with aspirations of playing for Team Sweden, but settled for putting on the equipment in his driveway and letting sons Patrick, Per and Mats (the middle brother) fire away at him. Mats’ mother, Gunilla, was a nurse, but shared the family passion for hockey, soccer, tennis and bandy.
“It’s amazing how my family did the same things Canadians did,” Sundin said. “As kids, we dreamed about playing for the Leafs and Canadiens.”
3. One Swede draft
At the 1989 draft in Minnesota, everyone was impressed by this giant kid, with the wavy blonde hair who spoke perfect English and called everyone ‘sir’.
As word leaked out the Nordiques were going to pick him No. 1 (to that point, no European had ever gone first overall) the Quebec media raised the alarm about such a risk. But Sundin’s manner won them over.
A bitter contract wrangle did ensue with Sundin’s club team and though the Nords paid his release, they had to fly him out of Stockholm in disguise.
4. Welcome to the Leafs
Sundin had a fishing rod in his hands, and was enjoying the remote scenery of the Torne Lappmark, north of the Arctic Circle. It was June 28, 1994, and life was about to get very complicated.
Sundin’s cell phone went off, informing him his contract dispute with the Nordiques had morphed into a huge trade with the Leafs. He judged it wiser to stay in the bush to avoid attention, when his hiking companions detected the sound of a helicopter. To the surprise of all, a news chopper landed 20 feet away.
“I was absolutely shocked they’d come to the middle of nowhere,” Sundin said. “The cameraman must have come right from the city, because he was wearing the wrong colour t-shirt and in no time, he was covered in bugs.”
5. Captain Mats
In the summer of 1997, Sundin dropped into Salming’s business office, getting his complimentary supply of boxers and briefs for the coming season from the latter’s thriving underwear company.
“Doug Gilmour had been traded, and there was talk I could be named captain,” Sundin said. “I said to Borje, ‘do you feel I should accept?’”
Salming almost fell off his chair. He’d been offered the same chance by Harold Ballard years earlier and said no — to his lasting regret of not making history. “He said it would be hard for me, the demand would be great from the fans, the team and the media,” Sundin said. “But I should never pass up such an opportunity.”
6. Setting room temperature
Sundin was often criticized for not being a forceful enough captain, at least in the public eye.
But teammates say he did have a temper and had a couple of heavy dressing room lieutenants to take care of any internal matters that needed a stronger approach.
What the Leafs who played with him between 1997-2008 didn’t realize was how many times he answered for their on-ice sins when they were too afraid to face the media music. If Sundin thought a reporter had crossed the line, the matter would be settled privately without a show for the cameras.
“I hope the fans remember me as a good leader,” he said.
7. The Shadow of Wendel
From the moment the trade with the Leafs was made, Sundin knew he would have to live with comparisons to beloved captain Wendel Clark.
“Have the fans torn down the CN Tower yet?,” said general manager Cliff Fletcher on the night of the swap, only half in jest.
Through words and deeds, Sundin made the trade work, won over the fans and in two different stints, was able to play with Clark on the Leafs.
It was more than a year later that Clark returned to play his first game at the Gardens in a Nordiques’ sweater. Sundin handled two days worth of trade questions before the match, then heard the long pre-game applause for Clark as the teams readied for the game. Sundin responded with a four-point night and hammered the glass for emphasis after scoring.
“I was letting off some steam,” Sundin admitted. “He deserved the (pre-game) cheers, but at the same time, it helped us out.”
8. Leaf Nation springs to life
Sundin never experienced a Cup final, but some of his best memories of Toronto were in the playoff madhouse, led by two runs to the conference final in 1999 and 2002.
“You’d see guys on Bay St. during the day with nice suits on, wearing Leaf sweaters over top,” Sundin said. “I think it’s the only city where if you win one game in the first round, everyone celebrates like you’ve won the Stanley Cup. I don’t think you see that anywhere else in the world.”
9. Invitation only
Sundin rarely turned down media requests during the season, but he was a hermit in every sense of the word away from the rink. He guards his privacy, to the point of fleeing out the back door of his house in Sweden when a Canadian reporter arrived on his doorstep, intent on asking him about the latest Leaf developments.
But he was a gracious host when the team held training camp in Sweden and Finland in 2002, inviting the whole Leaf entourage to his picturesque cottage by the Baltic Sea. Sundin and wife Josephine are currently building a house.
10. Spinning records
Sundin certainly did have a flair for the dramatic.
He drew an assist in his first Leaf game, and owns the record for fastest goal in overtime (six seconds), part of 12 regular season and playoff overtime goals. He scored his 500th NHL goal in overtime, short-handed as part of a hat trick against Calgary. That night he stayed out on the ice and applauded the fans, noting their determination for sticking with the team through so many lean years.
The night he passed Darryl Sittler for goals and franchise scoring, the 917th point was first called back on a phantom assist before Sundin scored to secure it. And who can forget his last trip back as a player with the Canucks, when old teammate Matt Stajan refused to go into the faceoff circle until the ACC crowd had given him a proper ovation.
11. Once a Leaf
Sundin would probably have preferred his Leaf career end on a winning note. He held on to his no-trade clause in the belief the team was going to get better, but eventually walked with no tangible trade return.
“My strength and my weakness in that case is maybe I’m a loyal guy,” he said. “But you spend so much time in an organization. I always saw myself winning the Stanley Cup here. It would never feel the same doing it for someone else.”
12. Into the sunset
Watching Sundin play one night at the ACC, Sittler had this observation.
“(Captain of the Leafs) is one of the greatest jobs in Canada. Mats may not realize it until he retires, but look at the longevity of those who went before us; Dave Keon, Syl Apps, Ted Kennedy and George Armstrong.
“If you play well as captain of the Leafs, people will remember you forever.”
13. No unlucky 13
Thirteen will likely never be worn again, even though it’s being honoured and not retired. But Sundin is not tradition bound to the idea of someone approaching him in the future to wear it or perhaps his own offspring inheriting it when he has kids.
“Someone can wear it this year, I have no problem with that,” he said. “To be honoured with Sittler, Salming, Gilmour, Armstrong and Bower ... when I broke into the league, I would have been shocked to play three or four years.”