Former Leafs great Mats Sundin remembered as a consummate leader

Toronto Star, Sean FitzGerald

TORONTO — It used to be called The Captain’s Choice, but since the captain retired, Matt Nichol has taken to calling it The Swedish Touch.
It was a workout by name, but a form of torture in practice, where an intense sprint on an exercise bike was coupled with a strenuous weightlifting circuit. When Nichol worked as the Toronto Maple Leafs strength and conditioning coach, he had players who could ride the bike, but not lift the weights, and he had players who could lift, but not ride.

And then he had Mats Sundin.

“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,” Nichol said. “And that sounds a little bit arrogant to say that, but anyone who played with him would vouch for that. There was a pool of sweat on the floor of the gym by the time he left to go get ready for the game. It was incredible.”

Sundin’s muscles did not ripple, but he was built like an oak tree, strong and sturdy. And Nichol, who spent the better part of a decade working with the Leafs, said the team’s all-time leading scorer was also one of its most unlikely gym rats.

“You’d be surprised to know that he was the hardest-working guy on the team, right?” he asked.

Sundin, who will have his number raised to the Air Canada Centre rafters as part of a pre-game ceremony Saturday night, always seemed to leave room for surprises. He landed in Toronto in a trade that sent a popular captain back the other way, and spent the rest of his productive years beating through layers of lingering fan resentment and Canadian jingoism to become perhaps the best player to ever wear the jersey.

He averaged more than a point per game. He played hurt. He never sulked, never shirked responsibility in 13 seasons with the Leafs, and yet he has also never acquired the level of popular adoration accorded the captains who proceeded him (Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark), and perhaps not even as much as some of the less-talented who moved in his orbit during the late 1990s and early 2000s in Toronto.

“He was loved,” former Leafs coach Pat Quinn said, “but with the sort of emotion that is guarded.”

It seemed that way right from the beginning. The Leafs landed Sundin as a centerpiece in the blockbuster deal executed with the Quebec Nordiques on June 28, 1994. Sundin and defenceman Garth Butcher came to Toronto, alongside then-prospect Todd Warriner and a first-round draft pick, for Landon Wilson, a first-round pick, defenceman Sylvain Lefebvre and Clark, the Leafs captain.

“You’re kidding me,” Don Cherry told The Toronto Star when informed of the trade that summer. “This isn’t April 1. This has got to be April 1. This is a joke. I hope somebody’s kidding me that you would trade Clark for Mats Sundin.”

Toronto fans, he said, should have risen up in protest.

Quantifying Sundin’s level of fan support against the likes of Gilmour, Clark and even of goaltender Curtis Joseph has been difficult. Anecdotal evidence is provided almost every time the Air Canada Centre game-operations department airs a montage of former Leafs, where Gilmour, Clark and Joseph receive roars, and where Sundin receives applause.

Hersh Borenstein, who owns Frozen Pond, a well-established memorabilia company, has a long history of working with Leafs players. In a good year, he said he might have sold 3,000 items autographed by Joseph. In his best year, he might have sold 100 signed by Sundin.

“Dougie, No. 1; Cujo, marginally behind; then go for about an 11-mile walk, and maybe Sundin would be around there,” Borenstein said. “No one close to Dougie and Cujo. There’s no No. 3, let’s put it that way.”


“How do you explain love? I don’t always know why that happens,” Quinn said. “It’s just straight emotion. It’s not always based on rationale.”

And maybe, sometimes, it is based on the birth certificate.

“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 said. “He should have been.”

“He’s not from there, he’s European, that’s the only reason,” former Leafs teammate Garry Valk said. “Markus Naslund is popular in Vancouver, here, but not near as popular as Trevor Linden. Not even close to Trevor Linden, and Naslund’s numbers are better than Linden’s.”

Valk, now the Vancouver Canucks studio analyst on Sportsnet Pacific, learned within his first few hours in Toronto that perception of Sundin as aloof and distant differed from the way the captain dealt with teammates. Valk joined the Leafs on a tryout, and was among a group of four other hopefuls on that first day.

“We were there for one day, and he ran right up to us, shook our hands, and said, ‘Let’s go out golfing as soon as this practice is over,’” Valk said. “He took us out golfing, and we weren’t even guaranteed to make the team.”

It was an exclusive golf club. Sundin footed the bill and made a habit, as Valk discovered after making the Leafs, of hosting the team for dinner three or four times a year. He made a point of ensuring that the trainers were also included.

“That’s what made Mats a special guy,” Valk said. “He didn’t forget anybody.”

“He’s what we built that team around,” Quinn said. “He was the strength. He was our captain. We had a lot of factions in that room a couple of times, but he just dealt with that. That was his area. He had that ability to manage factions so that, when you went out onto the ice, he pretty much got rid of them.”

Nichol, who developed BioSteel Sports Supplements, and is now a trainer working with a number of NHL players, joined the Leafs when he was only 27 years old. He was young, and it would have been easy for players to ignore his advice. But not with Sundin serving as captain, eagerly following any program Nichol would suggest.

“I think the thing with Mats is, a lot of times, the guys who display that kind of work ethic usually aren’t your superstars,” Nichol said. “The only other name I could think of would be Zdeno Chara, but other than that, I can’t think of any elite superstar player who puts in the effort that he did.”

Sundin finished with 987 points in 981 regular season games with the Leafs.

“He stayed healthy, meaning that he didn’t miss games, but he was hurt very often and soldiered on and dealt with it,” Nichol said. “He did his rehab diligently. He played through a lot of aches and pains that might have sidelined other guys.”

Sundin led the Leafs to the Eastern Conference final twice under Quinn, but could never get them any further. The problem then was similar to the one general manager Brian Burke faces today in finding a centre to play between Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel — the Leafs struggled to find elite wingers to play with Sundin.

He could have complained, sulked or demanded a trade. He did not, to the point where he declined to waive his no-trade clause as the Leafs began rebuilding. He ended his career with a forgettable cameo with the Canucks. Some fans still hold a grudge.

“I hope the fans remember me as a good leader,” Sundin said Friday. “I think I was a great player under pressure. I felt that, the more important the games were, I performed better. And I am a loyal guy. I hope the fans remember me as that, too.”