November 12, 2012
HHOF Profile: Sundin endured intense pressure as Maple Leafs captain
By LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
Some will argue Mats Sundin deserves to be in the Hall of Fame just for surviving 10 years as captain of the highly scrutinized Maple Leafs.
In the NHL's largest media market, he had to answer for failures beyond his control and, when times were good, he rarely had a moment's peace.
But the tangible evidence of his Hall pass includes a point-a-game pace through 1,346 games, while sitting just outside the top 20 goal scorers in league history. And when a big one was needed, it was usually the big Swede supplying it, with his heavy shot or deadly backhand.
"He just wanted to be the guy when it counted," said former Toronto linemate Steve Thomas. "When we played together on the Leafs, we were also in competition for most career overtime goals. Mats would be like me in overtime, standing up on the bench, wanting to be out there and get the winner."
Sundin scored 15 times in regular-season overtime, twice in Leafs playoff games. He had a point in his first game for Toronto, owns the Leafs record for fastest goal in overtime (six seconds) and scored his 500th NHL goal in OT -- short-handed -- as part of a hat trick against Calgary.
He also had 36 goals for Sweden in international play, including three the year he led Tre Kronor to the gold medal.
Like Borje Salming before him, Sundin was a Scandinavian trailblazer, the first European picked No. 1 overall, the first to captain an NHL team. Daniel Alfredsson, Markus Naslund, Henrik Sedin and Nicklas Lidstrom would follow with the C on their respective teams, but no Swedish forward matched Sundin in points and only three European-trained players have more in NHL history.
"I knew I had to be as good as I was before the C and better afterward," Sundin said of the pressure.
He passed Darryl Sittler for most points by a Leaf and made it look easy--too easy for critics who wanted him to play more physically.
"Mats reminds me of Frank Mahovlich or baseball's Joe DiMaggio," said analyst Harry Neale when Sundin was at his peak. "Those kind of guys who are so fluid and graceful that it looks like they're not giving you everything.
"Yeah, Mats is not belligerent, but there's a mile-long list of guys like that in hockey who've made it big. All I know is that I see Mats fight for the puck one-on- one and usually come up with it. You give him half a step and he's gone."
Thomas, who had his final back-to-back 20-goal years with Sundin as his centre, defended another frequent jibe, that he hadn't won a Cup.
"I see a guy with 500 goals, 1,000 points, the basic qualifications for the Hall," Thomas said. "Winning the Cup often has to do with timing, as a lot of great players who didn't get one will tell you.
"He was a leader in his own right, a lot of the time just doing it by example. He never skewered any player in public."
Teammate-turned-TSN commentator Mike Johnson also paid tribute.
"He didn't play with great players -- I would know, I played with him about 60 games my rookie year -- but he never complained, never rolled his eyes when he saw my name beside his on the board. He treated everybody equally and that's why everybody loved him.
"If you want to question his greatness, (look at) his international play, Olympics and world championships. He was the best of the best and that's a true measure."
Sundin began with a team of young lions in Quebec that included fellow Hall inductee Joe Sakic. Seeking No. 19 to wear on his new Nordiques' team, Sundin found it was already claimed by Sakic, so he took 13 and made that iconic instead.
"I think once you've retired, you reflect on your career and it kind of grows how fortunate you've been," Sundin said. "To have been able to have your passion and your love as a profession. For me, it's meant a lot just to play in Canada where hockey means so much to people.
"I hope the fans remember me as a good leader."