Since I didn’t have a chance to watch many Leaf games in Crotia prior to 2004 (ones I caught were on satellite TV on a German program called DSF and tapes I got from virtually everywhere â€“ thatâ€™s how I got to see Gilmour and Clark), I took every opportunity to watch Leaf players play international hockey. Occasionally, our national television took pity on us hockey fans and gave us World Championship games, like the quarterfinal in 2003, which featured Sweden and Finland in Helsinkiâ€™s Hartwall Areena.
As you are well aware, Sweden and Finland are big hockey rivals. To add to the flavour, the 2003 World Championships were held in Helsinki, Turku and Tampere, all Finnish cities. Coming in you already knew it was going to be a really emotional game. It turned out to be one of the most memorable moments Iâ€™ve ever witnessed in hockey.
Sundin was playing great hockey throughout the tournament, but what he did in this game was truly special. With about 8-10 minutes left, Team Sweden was down 5-1. Tre Kronorâ€™s coach Hardy Nilsson pulled Tommy Salo in favor of Mikael Tellqvist, and then the comeback started. Until that time the only goal scored by Sweden was the one from, you guessed it, Mats Sundin. He never did go on to score another goal in that game, but proved crucial when he screened Finlandâ€™s goalie for P.J. Axelssonâ€™s deflected game winner, scored on the power play after Saku Koivu got called for high sticking. Although Axelsson scored, the camera was mostly focused on Sundin, as if to say, â€œThat A should have been a C.â€ I’ve watched that game a couple more times since, and Mats and Foppa were the only two players who never looked down and out. Like many times in his Leafs career, Sundin sparked that team and his emotions carried over to his teammates; it was in that moment I truly realized what he meant to the Toronto Maple Leafs. He went on to become Swedenâ€™s leading point getter of the tournament with six goals in 7 games, adding four assists and finishing the WC with a +8 rating.
Mats has always been with me. It was because of him that I wore No. 13 on my sports jerseys; he was on the first Leafs ticket I ever got from Canada and he was the first European player I viewed as a role model. Me being in Europe and him showing me what was possible played a major part in my love for the Leafs as well as my hockey writing. I canâ€™t thank him enough.