February 25, 2006
Medal for MatsYears of disappointments pushed into the background
By Steve Simmons
TURIN -- The image of Mats Sundin, that only now can go away, was memorable and sadly poignant for all the wrong reasons four years ago.
When the final buzzer sounded and Sweden was eliminated before the medal round by Belarus of all countries, Sundin's knees buckled and he collapsed to the ice, frozen by circumstance. He had been the most dominant player in the Olympic tournament but he couldn't move.
The hurt was that deep.
It seemed so much the opposite for him yesterday at the Palasport Olimpico. In his third and quite likely last Olympic Games, once again captain of a Swedish team so full of historical demise, he finally has what he so desperately fought for four years ago.
Mats Sundin is assured of his first Olympic medal. He just won't know until tomorrow if the colour will be gold or silver.
This may mean the world to Peter Forsberg and Daniel Alfredsson and Niklas Lidstrom and all the great Swedish players. But you have to understand the relationship between Sundin and Swedish hockey -- the worship his country has for him, the worship he has for national team play -- to completely comprehend just how much this does matter to him.
Just how much a gold medal would mean for Sweden and for Sundin, just days after his 35th birthday.
In Sweden, he is Steve Yzerman. The captain. The leader. The first-line centre. The most trusted player.
It isn't, in spite of his immense talent, Peter Forsberg. It isn't, in spite of his brilliant NHL play, Daniel Alfredsson. It isn't, even though he may be the best defenceman in hockey, Niklas Lidstrom.
There is this mantle for Sundin at home that he doesn't have in his second home. There is no doubting him, no questioning him. Just appreciation for who he is and what he has done.
"He has been going good for this team so many times," Bengt Ake Gustafsson, the Swedish coach, said. "It was clear from the beginning, if he was healthy, he should be the captain.
"Sundin is doing everything, more or less. I hope he can reach another level (tomorrow)."
For Sweden, the gold-medal game is what was felt in Canada four years ago, or in the Czech Republic eight years ago. The country will stop. The streets will be empty. This is different from 1994 in Lillehammer when Sweden won gold with the famous shootout goal by Forsberg that was celebrated later on a postage stamp.
This is best against best. These are teams asked to play eight games in 12 days at a pace beyond belief. This means everything.
Forsberg has his gold medal from 1994 and two Stanley Cup rings to go along with it. Lidstrom has his Stanley Cups. Alfredsson likely will soon have his. There is no Stanley Cup in Sundin's immediate future.
This is all that matters today.
"It's kind of our last chance to win a gold," said Forsberg, who came to the tournament injured but refused to stay home. "I've been playing with these guys a long time. I played with Sundin for the first time in '91. I mean, 14 years ago we got together on the national team. All the boys know it's our last chance to play together."
This is the third Olympics with NHL participation. Sweden didn't win a medal in 1998 or 2002. It didn't even play for a medal.
This tournament, like the two previous ones, has had its surprises. The gold and silver winners from four years ago, Canada and the U.S., didn't get to the medal round here. The gold and silver winners here were not on the podium four years ago.
"You never know in a tournament like this," Sundin said. "The margin is so close."
Those are the words he used. So close. One more game to play. One more game for gold.