Photo: The Star

Mats announced that he would be exercising his no trade clause on February 25, 2008.  It may not be a popularly shared sentiment at this time, but this decision should be considered one of the Swede’s great moments as a Maple Leaf. Of course, it almost certainly won’t be remembered as such, as it is one of the few contentious things Sundin did in his career in Toronto (perhaps the only contentious thing, aside from his January 2004 attempt to use a broken stick as a discus-like instrument of Swedish wrath and frustration).

Sundin made a difficult choice knowing that many would not understand it. Painfully aware that in a city like Toronto, many would also lash out at him for it.  But as he said yesterday, loyalty was both his biggest strength and his biggest weakness.  The Swedish centerman was loyal to a fault, literally.

Yes, the rebuilding goodies we might have received from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for our captain’s services may have hastened this franchise’s recovery.  Moreover, it’s quite clear that his refusal to abandon his team  influenced the decisions of some of his other clause-bearing teammates that spring.  Yet the face of Toronto’s hockey club was put in an extremely difficult position by Maple Leafs management.  In the end, he chose to stand by the teammates, the organization and the fans that he was committed to.  And really, consider this: most of you that have felt the bond that arises between teammates or colleagues in the gruelling battles on the ice or in any walk of life. Would you ever just turn around and walk away, before the battle was truly lost?.  Mats often exemplified this simple concept: giving up when there is even a sliver of a chance left is not in the nature of a true leader.

Really, I’m confused by those that say Mats was “taking the easy way out” or “had no desire to win”.  He was being loyal, remaining a dedicated soldier to his teammates and his city in spite of management’s plans to the contrary.  In the years to come, I believe Sundin’s accomplishments as a Leaf will outshine the controversy of this incident.  But there will always be those that want to cast Mats in a negative light, based on condemnations and negative assumptions about the man’s character.

They do so in spite of the very obvious positive assumption that can also be made: Mats didn’t want to leave his teammates. He believed in the “long-term committment” and was loyal in all the ways a captain should be.  As such, negative assumptions postulate that Mats exhibited a lack of heart and selflessness, uncharacteristic deficiencies that fly in the face of what he displayed for over a decade in this city.  This deficiency in character was never evident in the way he carried himself on and off the ice, or in the many anecdotal testimonials from both those within hockey and the thousands of fans he encountered in some capacity or another that had nothing but nice things to say about him.

Thus, compare the negative outlook to the alternative: Sundin was simply being loyal.  A trait that coincides perfectly with the character that Sundin embodied with poignant statesmanship, consistent effort and a infectious desire to win (regardless of the rotating ranks of mediocrity that were his wingmen).  It seems that there is one clear, logical path to take in the final judgement of this man’s character: he was the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, through and through.

Sundin made a difficult choice that day in February, but one that probably felt natural in his role as the captain.  An equally difficult, but much more alien decision was made late into the following season when he signed with the Vancouver Canucks.  This difficulty was reflected in the amount of time it took before Mats inked his new contract, as he had to come to grips with the fact that his former franchise no longer truly saw him in their plans for the future.  He left reluctantly and his heart may never have joined him in British Columbia. The fire that had been stoked through years of battle in the blue and white had waned to barely a flicker. Tonight, his jersey will be rightfully retired in the ACC.  He may have finished his career as a Canuck, but at heart, he was always a Leaf.