Mats Sundin pleads papa-hood.
For not being in attendance at any of the Maple Leaf centennial festivities. For missing the outdoor Classics. For his no-show when legendary numbers were formally retired at the Air Canada Centre. Sheesh, even the quasi-fugitive Dave Keon was present for that night of wrongs righted, the organization reversing its stubborn policy of merely honouring jerseys lifted up into the rafters.
Indeed, there have been whispers that Sundin has turned into neo-Keon, seething with bitterness against the franchise that arm-twisted him out of town in 2008 after he’d refused to waive his no-trade clause in-season.
You know, there’s never been a scintilla of bile in Sundin’s character. He always turned the other cheek — and was occasionally vilified for a phlegmatic nature. A very Swedish modest nature.
“No, no, no,” the former Leaf captain protests, down the line from Stockholm. “Zero bitterness. Everything I got as a Toronto Maple Leaf over the years, I’m so grateful.”
It’s just that he’s been, well, breeding, after putting off both marriage and fatherhood until his career was over.
“Three kids under the age of 5, crazy busy,” he says. “It’s wonderful. I love being a father. But you realize when you get to my age that you should have had them when you’re 22.”
He is 46, a hall of famer now almost a decade removed from the NHL, his final year, a half-season, spent as a Vancouver Canuck, looking totally weird in those colours when he returned the ACC, leaking tears during a mid-game video tribute and lusty standing ovation.
This outfit has historically treated its captains abominably, from Keon to Darryl Sittler to Wendel Clark to Sundin. When Punch Imlach couldn’t move Sittler, he shipped his best friend and linemate Lanny McDonald to the Colorado Rockies. Sittler ripped off the C and ultimately fled the insanity to Philadelphia.
But, since the rapprochement spearheaded by president Brendan Shanahan, they’ve all found their way home, to be duly lionized.
Sundin — the last great Leaf until Auston Matthews emerged with rookie dash and flash — was often in Toronto during the early years of retirement. But in recent years, every notable Leaf and league event conflicted with either maternity ward duties or a parental health issue.
The three Sundin spawns with wife Josephine — Bonnie, Nathaniel, Julian — are 5, 2 and 11 months.
Making up fast, he laughs, for lost time.
“I’m really sad to have missed out on all these Leaf things. If I could have been there, I would have. I have nothing but great memories about being a Maple Leaf player. Since I’ve retired I’ve been treated great by the organization. They’re always sending me invitations. So there’s no truth to these rumours at all. I don’t know where people come up with these ideas.”
Sundin reminds that Sweden is “a remote corner of the world” and a considerable hike from Toronto, which is why he’s had minimal contact with former teammates, though he flew to New York for Tie Domi’s wedding last summer. “It’s not like we get a lot of players I knew just passing through.”
He does still maintain his foundation, which pairs post-doctoral fellows from the University of Toronto and the Karolinska Institutet, studying childhood illnesses.
But from a distance, he’s kept an interested, watchful eye on the Leafs, appreciating the stability current management has brought to the franchise after decades of internal chaos and scandal and get-contender-quick schemes, many a hockey genius finding their Waterloo in Toronto.
“Brendan Shanahan has done a terrific job with the organization, brought in a great GM. If there’s any city and any fans in the world that deserve this kind of a team, it’s Toronto. They’re young, all kinds of talent, really a lot of wonderful things going on. It’s been great to watch from the sidelines. It’s going to be a great future in the next few years as a Toronto Maple Leaf fan.”
The regret, of course, is that Sundin was never graced with a gifted and synergetic surrounding cast. If he ever made personnel demands — unlikely — it wasn’t publicly discussed. An Olympic gold medal with Sweden but never a Stanley Cup final; only one year with more than a dozen post-season games. Still, 564 regular-season goals, 785 assists and hall induction in the first year of eligibility.
Sundin, the first European drafted at No. 1, didn’t make his NHL debut in Toronto. There were four years with the Quebec Nordiques and some unhappy memories there, though Sundin won’t dwell on those either.
But if anybody can understand the expectations and burdens now borne by Matthews — exceedingly media groomed and vigorously shielded by the organization — it’s Sundin.
“I won’t compare him to me,” he states firmly. “I will say it’s fantastic watching him play, seeing a young man maturing, developing even from last year, and he’s hardly even started his career yet. I have him right up there with Connor McDavid. The Leafs have waited so long to have a young franchise player to build around. He’s that player.’’
If Matthews sometimes disappoints with his pro forma answers to reporter questions, his utter lack of spontaneity in dressing room scrums, Sundin reminds that the kid is only 20 years old.
Mats Sundin pleads papa-hood.