Unwelcome Mats awaits?

DON BRENNAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:02 AM ET

The top scorer in Maple Leafs history makes his return to the Air Canada Centre tomorrow night, and the jury is out on the reception he will receive.

Will the faithful of blue and white be "fir or agin" Mats Sundin?

"I hope they give him a standing ovation," Kyle Wellwood, a teammate of Sundin's as a Leaf and now a Canuck, said yesterday. "But Toronto fans, it seems like they boo everybody. So there's a chance ... "

More than a chance.

Ironically, the answer would have been a no-brainer had Sundin not been so adamant about maintaining his Toronto address in the days leading up to last season's trade deadline.

With the Leafs in rebuild mode and their captain months from becoming eligible for unrestricted free agency, Sundin was undecided on his plans for the 2008-09 season. Retirement was not out of the question. The only thing he knew for sure was that he didn't want to pack up and move in March, and so he refused to waive the no-trade clause in his contract.

GOT NOTHING

Instead of landing a package of prospects and picks for him, the Leafs wound up with nothing when the club and Sundin parted ways at the end of the season.

"I know that there are some people that talk about maybe he let the team down, in the sense they couldn't get anything for him, but he had a no-trade clause in his contract and he thought he was going to finish his career as a Maple Leaf," said Senators defenceman Brendan Bell, an ex-Leaf. "I think he deserves that right to make that choice."

Sundin, who played 981 games and scored 987 points (including 420 goals) over 13 years in Toronto, only elected to resume his NHL career when the current campaign was well under way.

The Canucks signed him to a one-year deal that will pay him a prorated $8.2 million US and, through 16 games heading into last night's meeting with the Senators, he had rebounded from a slow start to score six goals and five assists for Vancouver.

"His legs and hands are real, real close to where they should be," said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault. "I think I said after the all-star game, it's still going to take him a couple of more weeks and that's where we are. He's slowly but surely getting into the rhythm here and he's going to be a good player for us down the stretch."

Sundin, who made his Canucks debut Jan. 7, was his old self at the start of February with four goals in three games. But before playing Ottawa, he had only one assist in his last four outings.

"It's a process for me," Sundin said when asked if getting back into the swing of things was harder than he thought it would be. "I wouldn't say I feel better than expected, and not worse either. It's going to be an up-and-down period for a while, until you're there where you want to be. It's kind of what I expected."

But never has he questioned his own decision to return.

"No, I feel fortunate to be back playing in the National Hockey League," said Sundin. "At my age, I realized that if I wasn't going to play this year that would have been the end of my career. To get a chance to compete again against the best players in the world, I feel very fortunate. I'm very happy to be playing. It's been a lot of fun playing hockey again."

Sundin said he hasn't given too much thought about how he will be treated when he steps on ACC ice in a Canucks sweater.

"I feel good about going back," he said. "Toronto feels like a home for me. I spent 13 years in the city, with the Toronto Maple Leafs and the fans there, and it's been great years. It's always going to be a part of my heart. Saying that though, once the puck drops it's going to be a game like any other game."

A Sundin countryman who has been the target of Toronto boobirds over the years thinks No. 13 will be saluted.

"I think they'll cheer him," said Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson. "I don't think him not waiving his no-trade clause can erase what he did for all those years. I think the fans will appreciate what he's done."


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