This isn't exactly timely, or even pertinent in any way, other than I promised to post this ages ago!
Full disclosure. This goes way back to a Hockey Talk discussion about who should be Captain of the Leafs, and the qualities that make up a good leader. When I brought up Mats Sundin, someone responded that he was not a leader, seconded by another HT regular. I decided I wanted to write an article about Sundin's career as a Leaf, as I experienced it. Now 2 (or 3?) years later here it is!
This one is for Beleagured, Tom and Tracer (wherever he may be), and everyone else here who loves to talk hockey! I hope you enjoy it.
I'm putting my name on it, because, why not?
Of Mats Sundin, Leadership, And A Tale of Two Trades By John Mitchell
Was Mats Sundin a good leader? I don’t know and neither do you. How could we? We never played with him, coached him, or competed against him. We weren’t around the teams he captained, or sat down to interview him. I’ve never even met him. Have you? So, was Mats Sundin a good leader? Let’s get back to that.
In many ways Sundin's legacy revolves around two trades, one that happened and the one that didn't. In 1994, Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher was looking to shake things up. His team had just lost in the Western Conference Final for the second year in a row, and Fletcher wanted a centre to take pressure off of Doug Gilmour. On draft day, June 28, 1994, Fletcher and his Quebec counterpart, Pierre Lacroix, pulled off a blockbuster: Wendel Clark, Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson and the Leafs first round pick (22nd overall) to the Nordiques, for Mats Sundin, Todd Warriner, Garth Butcher and Quebec's first rounder (10th overall).
It was a stunner. Wendel Clark was Captain of the team and had just come off a 46-goal season. Drafted first overall in 1985 by Toronto, Clark’s ability to score goals and willingness to take on all comers made him one of the most popular Leafs of the post-expansion era. He was certainly my favourite player. Mats Sundin had also been drafted first overall, by the Quebec Nordiques in 1989, the only European born player ever taken first in the draft. He was coming off an 85-point campaign, after putting up a career best 114 points the previous year. Sundin was considered one of the rising young stars in hockey, but he was no Wendel Clark, and I was pissed.
Reaction to the deal was mixed, particularly in Toronto where Clark had been the heart and soul of the Pat Burns coached squad that had recently come within a Gretzky high stick of making the franchise’s first Stanley Cup appearance since 1967. “You’re kidding me,” replied Don Cherry when informed by the Toronto Star. “This has got to be April 1. I hope somebody’s kidding me that you would trade Clark for Mats Sundin”. Cliff Fletcher, anticipating the fans reaction, reportedly told then assistant GM of the Nordiques, Sherry Bassin, "If I put Clark's name in the deal, you might as well put mine in there, too, because they'll run me out of town"
Don Cherry’s animus toward European players was well established – he may not have coined the pejorative “chicken Swede”, but he wasn't shy about using it – so his response was not surprising. Truth be told, though, that attitude had a wide purchase in North American hockey circles, and lingers to this day. How often have we heard that what separates Canadian players from the rest of the world is “heart”? As fans we may admire skill, but we love heart. Clark played with heart, and I loved him for it. It wasn’t fair to compare the two, but it took me years to warm up to Sundin, because I mistook his reserved demeanor for lack of heart. I’d like to believe it was more about passion than passport, but I can't be sure.
“He was loved”, said former Leafs coach Pat Quinn some years back, reflecting on Sundin’s career, “but with the sort of emotion that is guarded. How do you explain love? It’s not always based on rationale.” The late Mr. Quinn went on to say, “I think we as Canadians sometimes put an extra rung on the ladder that guys that weren’t Canadian had to climb to become loved by us. He should have been”. Former Leafs teammate Garry Valk was more pointed, “He’s not from there, he’s European, that’s the only reason”.
With Clark in Quebec, Doug Gilmour was named Captain of the Leafs, a popular and obvious choice. Over the next few seasons, GM Cliff Fletcher continued to tinker. Following Clark and Lefebvre out the door were Peter Zezel, Nik Borschevsky, Dave Andreychuk and others, as the team began to look and play less and less like the one that had been to back-to-back conference finals. After an 8 game losing streak during the 95-96 season Pat Burns was fired, replaced on an interim basis by Nick Beverley (who infamously referred to his players as “nimrods” after a playoff game loss to St. Louis).
During the 96-97 season it was clear the Leafs were going to miss the playoffs for the first time in 5 years. Captain Doug Gilmour wanted out, confessing in his book, Killer, to be "sick of the press and the pressure" (more on that later). Gilmour got his wish, sent to New Jersey to be reunited with his pal Dave Andreychuk. In May of 1997, Cliff Fletcher stepped down as President and GM of the club. He would return.
On September 30, 1997, Mats Sundin was named the 16th Captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the first European, the first non-Canadian captain in team history. After missing the playoffs that year, Pat Quinn was brought in as coach, adding the GM title the following season. The Leafs would go on to make the playoffs 5 straight years, getting to two conference finals in 1999 and 2002. In 2006, Sundin became only the 35th player in NHL history to reach 500 goals. That same year, after missing the playoffs for the first time as coach of the Leafs, Pat Quinn was fired by his successor as GM, John Ferguson Jr.
In January 2008 it appeared the Leafs were about to miss the playoffs for a third straight year, John Ferguson Jr. was fired, replaced on an interim basis by Cliff Fletcher, the man who had brought Mats Sundin to Toronto. It was clear that Fletcher’s marching orders included asking the Captain, and the veteran core of the Leafs, to wave their No Trade Clauses, so that whomever took over as GM could start to overhaul the team. I use overhaul, because calling what followed a rebuild would be a misnomer.
The request caught Sundin off guard, and he struggled to make a decision, telling CBC’s Elliot Friedman, “I am in a difficult situation, there’s no doubt about that. It seems like whatever I decide to do there’s going to be something wrong with that.” He went on to describe an encounter he had with Hall of Famer Phil Esposito who told him, “make sure whatever you are doing you are making the decision with your heart”. Shortly after, Sundin released a statement through his agent J.P. Barry: “I have always believed I would finish my career as a Toronto Maple Leaf so the actual request was still a very difficult one for me to contemplate…I cannot leave my teammates and join another NHL club at this time. I have never believed in the concept of a rental player…I hope everyone will understand and respect my decision.” The Leafs missed the playoffs, and Sundin was vilified by certain members of the media and the fanbase.
“He shouldn’t have been put in that position in the first place…that should’ve been handled differently,” Tie Domi told CBC Sports in 2009. "You know, at the trade deadline, I really still thought we could make the playoffs", Sundin told the Toronto Star. "Maybe I was the only person who thought so, but that's the truth and that's why I didn't want to move."
My opinion of Sundin had completely changed by that point. I had come to admire him as a player and a person; his talent and drive, his durability and dependability, scoring big goals at key moments; his humility and integrity, and how much he had grown into the role of Captain of the Maple Leafs. I never once heard him throw a teammate, or coach under the bus. He was a stand up guy. As much as I admired Doug Gilmour as a player, it always bothered me that when the seas got a little rough, captain Gilmour jumped in the first lifeboat. Here was Sundin, refusing to bail on his teammates, doing what a captain is supposed to do, go down with the ship. I thought it was his finest moment in the blue and white. I still do.
The trade that didn’t happen: What ticked off a number of fans was that they felt Sundin owed the Leafs (and them!) the chance to get something for him while he still had value, and that HE was being selfish by blocking any potential trade. In March 2008, Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun reported that there had been a deal in place with Montreal. “The agreed-to trade would have sent speedy winger Christopher Higgins to the Leafs, along with Montreal’s first, second and third-round draft picks, in exchange for the captain.” For fun it's worth noting that Montreal ended up trading their first round pick that year to Calgary, who used it to select forward Greg Nemisz (15 NHL games played, 1 assist). In rounds 2 and 3, Montreal selected forwards Danny Kristo and Steve Quailer, neither of whom ever played an NHL game. Higgins bounced around for another 10 seasons, fighting ill health and injuries to carve out a decent career.
Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest sports leaders of all time, Mark Messier gave Mats Sundin the Mark Messier Leadership Award for 2007-2008. His reasoning, “The truest test of leadership comes during periods of adversity,” said Messier. “When presented with difficult times during the season, Mats Sundin remained committed to his teammates, his community and to the game of hockey...The strength of his character makes Mats a tremendous role model both on and off the ice.”
Number 13 ended up playing 13 seasons for the Leafs, leading the team in scoring 12 times, while setting franchise records for goals (420), points (987), game-winning goals (79) and power play goals (124).
There is an ugly footnote to all of this, when, the following season, Sundin as an Unrestricted Free Agent waited until December before signing a one-year deal with the Vancouver Canucks. In some people's minds this made him a hypocrite and a liar, becoming the rental player he claimed he never wanted to be. Toronto Star columnist Rosie Dimanno, who sat down for more one-on-one interviews with the former captain than anyone, questioned whether this was an abandonment of his values, or a proud man who didn't want the “freak show” of the previous season to be the way his career ended. In an October 2008 interview she noted that Sundin's interest was “clearly peaked” when told that new Leafs head coach, Ron Wilson, had reportedly told a journalist he believed Sundin would eventually return to the Leafs. "Wilson said that? But did he say he wants me to?" Dimanno went on: "There's the rub. Has anybody in themLeaf organization said, Come Back Mats, and truly meant it?" After Sundin signed with the Canucks, Dimanno left no doubt which party she believed was to blame for the breakup: "It was the Leafs who didn't want him, not the other way around, however much the club tried to frame his departure as a free agent's choice, promoting the fiction of a door that had never slammed shut" Mike Ulmer, who covered the Leafs for the Toronto Sun, was more succinct. "He didn’t leave the Leafs, the Leafs left him."
Back to the original question. Was Mats Sundin a good leader?
Pat Quinn, who coached other noted leaders such as Bobby Clarke and Trevor Linden, had this to say: “What separates ordinary guys from real leaders is humility and that's what he had. We have this misconception that a great leader is someone who stands up in the room. Every once in a while, someone gets the reputation that yells at someone else and it works for a minute. The real leaders don't do it that way. The real leaders do it by example.”
That sentiment was echoed by Glen Healy, who played with Sundin from 1997-2001, and won a Cup with Messier and the Rangers in 1994. “The greatest thing about all leaders is they don't talk about it, they do it. You look at his game-winning goals, his overtime goals, he's the guy who, if the game was on his stick he did it. He got it done. He's competitive beyond belief. I think maybe that's the thing people don't recognize, just how competitive he was...he's Mark Messier-like in many ways.”
“He did a lot of his leading by the way he played,” said former teammate, Tie Domi. “He always wanted the puck when the game was on the line, and that's what true great leaders do. They want to be on the ice and they want the puck.”
“What made Mats a great leader wasn't the rah-rah stuff,” said former teammate Derek King. “He led by example, and for a lot of guys that was the best leadership. He left it all on the ice.”
Off the ice Sundin was no slouch either. “You'd be surprised to know that he was the hardest-working guy on the team, right?”, said former Toronto Maple Leafs strength and conditioning coach Matt Nichol in an article for the National Post. “I can't think of any elite superstar player who puts in the effort that he did. To be honest, there's a lot of players in the league right now who probably couldn't do his pre-game warm-up as a workout...anyone who played with him would vouch for that. It was incredible.”
“He was always in the gym working out,” said Darcy Tucker. “Just a very committed guy to helping the team win and being a good captain and leader. Always accountable, first guy to talk to the media. Didn't matter if we won or lost. Making sure he was front and centre and taking pressure off teammates. It's always nice when you have a captain that's very well spoken and looking to take care of his teammates.”
Garry Roberts said, “He always seemed genuinely happy for the person who was having success and he always cheered his teammates on and made everybody feel part of the team. He was a very generous person.”
“I feel lucky to have had the chance to have such a great leader, great role model, as a young guy coming into the league,” said former Leaf Matt Stajan. “You couldn't ask for a better captain. No matter who you were in the room, you looked up to him.”
That reputation followed him to the west coast. “You never think you are going to get a chance to play with a Hall of Famer,” said former Canuck Ryan Kesler. “He was a special player for me. He brought my game to the next level. He led this team. In the dressing room, he was one of the nicest guys, but one of the hardest workers I have ever seen.”
Last word, just because, to the man who was traded in for Sundin, Wendel Clark. “Mats was just a big horse of a player. He played hard, and he always carried his weight.”
So, was Mats Sundin a good leader? Those that played with him, against him, coached him, were around the teams he captained, interviewed him, or knew him even a little seem to think he was a great leader. That's good enough for me. Maybe it should be for you too.