I am a young Maple Leafs fan, even around these parts. Not many know this, but I was born in 1995, and a Leaf fan from birth. Naturally, I donâ€™t remember the hard-fought series against the Sabres in the spring of 1997, and Iâ€™ve only seen video of Sundinâ€™s overtime winner against the then-powerhouse Senators in 2001. A year later though, I can say I truly started to bleed blue and white.
Only 7 years old at the time, I was slowly learning what it meant to be a Toronto Maple Leafs fan from my father â€“ whoâ€™d been one (and still is) for over 30 years. I received my first Leafs jersey that year, the same white home sweater Sundin scored in against the Hurricanes in that bittersweet game six. I remember gathering around the television in the comfort of my own home for game one â€“ like we had for every playoff game that year â€“ with my father and I on one couch and my mother â€“ the farthest thing from a Leafsâ€™ fan â€“ sitting opposite from us.
To be quite frank, I donâ€™t even remember the entire series played, just bits and pieces here and there, yet that one moment will truly never be forgotten. There were never so many emotional ups and downs in my household that week. My father is the epitome of an emotionally reserved human being, and to this day I’ve never seen him be so enthusiastic about the Leafs.
It was a fateful evening in late May, and the Leafs were down a goal early, quieting a nervous Air Canada Centre crowd. The Leafs seemed to always be playing from behind from what I can recall, and an early marker for the Hurricanes didnâ€™t do much to give fans at my home in the Toronto suburbs much hope that night. Of course, that all changed in the dying minutes of the contest. A late and almost costly error by Arturs Irbe really made everyone hold their breath, but the Carolina goaltender recovered to stone the Leafsâ€™ captain.
The opportunity appeared again late in the game, but this time Irbe wouldn’t be blessed with the same fate. Sundin led the Leafs into the zone with just over a minute left, setting up shop on the right wing. A pass to Alexander Mogilny led him to the immediate left of Irbe, with Mogilny circling the net. Mogilny circled the net a few times, looking for even the tiniest of seams to thread the puck through. After a few seconds of surveying Hurricanes sticks and shins, he eventually just decided to drive out to the face-off circle, send a pass to Kaberle, who shot it on net and hoped for the best.
Watching the whole play unfold is really something special, and thereâ€™s not a goal comparable to this during my time as a Leafs fan. Watching Darcy Tucker and Gary Roberts battle the way they did in front of the net was remarkable. Tucker was cross checked from behind, knocked flat on his stomach. He still managed to deflect a pass to the waiting Sundin. The goal sent the crowd, Joe Bowen and my home into a celebration of the ages. The great Bowen said it best â€“ â€œDonâ€™t tell me about heart, and dedication, and resilience. This is unbelievable.â€ Mats Sundin had, as advertised, picked the Leafs up by the bootstraps, and garnered my true adoration along the way.
Mr. Sundin â€“ thank you for helping me understand what it was to be a Toronto Maple Leaf. Iâ€™ll never forget you.
Joe and Mats, take it away: