Sundin will be a stranger in a familiar place

BRUCE GARRIOCH, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:04 AM ET

OTTAWA -- There will be a lot of awkward moments for Mats Sundin tonight at the Air Canada Centre.

None will match walking past the Maple Leafs dressing room.

"It will be interesting (to go into the visitors room)," the Big Swede said yesterday. "It will be tough to pass the Maple Leafs dressing room. Professional athletes get adjusted, but we'll have to see (what it's like) when we get there."

Signed as a free agent by the Vancouver Canucks on Dec. 18, Sundin, 38, will make what he hopes will be a triumphant return to the place he called home for 13 years. This date has been circled on his calendar since he came back to the NHL. He swears he is excited.

Sure, a lot of the guys he fought battles with, such as Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe and Andrew Raycroft, followed Sundin out the door, but there will still be plenty of familiar faces with the likes Curtis Joseph, Pavel Kubina and Tomas Kaberle on the Maple Leafs.

"It's always mixed emotions, especially when it's the first time back, and the way everybody handles it is different," Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo said. "I'm sure he has got mixed feelings. He should have a good welcome. He played there for so long and he has done so many good things for that team and that organization. I always look forward to playing in Toronto and with Mats going back, it just makes it that much more special."

Returning to the NHL midway through the season hasn't been easy for Sundin and the fans in Vancouver haven't yet witnessed his best hockey. By the time he suited up for his first game with the Canucks, Sundin hadn't played since April and everybody involved knew it would take time.

But, Vigneault admitted there have been difficult nights.

"It's really hard for anybody," Vigneault said before the club's one-hour flight to Toronto. "Obviously being off for nine months, coming into the intensity of mid-season, without a training camp, it's extremely, extremely difficult for any player whether he's young or old.

"As an organization, you've got to be willing to be patient with that player because a lot of times you might be throwing that player over the boards and his game is not where you want it to be. You are sort of working him into (game condition) and working him into shape. And that makes it challenging, a little bit."

Still, Vigneault said patience will reap rewards for the club.

"We think, and Mats thinks this for sure, that he can get back to the level where he was last year," Vigneault said. "We don't see the teams out East much, but my understanding is he had a great season last year. So, if we can ever get (Sundin) back to that stage, then with him and (Henrik Sedin), we've got two good lines that can generate some offence."

Sundin frequently has been criticized in the Vancouver media for taking bad penalties because he has had a difficult time keeping up. That doesn't seem to bother his teammates.

"From a physical standpoint, it's going to take him some time, but he seems to be getting better," Canucks captain Mattias Ohlund said. "He's given our team a new dimension and another line that has been a threat to score every night. He's just great to be around as well."

Sundin was able to avoid some of the hype by speaking at Scotiabank Place yesterday. Yes, there will be an army of media waiting for him to walk into the building for today's morning skate, but that's part of Sundin's job.

"It's going to be fun to come home," Sundin said. "It's going to feel like going home. I have a lot of friends, and I lived there for 13 years, so I'm looking forward to it. I had a lot of great years with the Toronto Maple Leafs and with the fans there."


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