Mats Sundin of the Vancouver Canucks will make his highly anticipated return to Toronto Saturday night. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
When he steps through what to him will be the most unfamiliar of passageways – to everyone else, it’s the visiting team’s entrance to the ice – at the Air Canada Centre Saturday, Mats Sundin’s transformation from one-time Maple Leafs superstar to bygone relic of ruins past will be complete.
If the Vancouver Canucks center is anticipating a 100 percent standing ovation the moment his first skate blade touches the ACC playing surface that night, he’s going to be in for quite an unpleasant surprise. But if he’s honest with himself, Sundin ought to own up to the fact it was he, and nobody else, who was the architect of his tangled-up-in-blue departure from Toronto.
Don’t let Sundin’s apologists convince you the former Leafs captain earned the right to finish out a contract exactly as he’d designed it, simply because that contract had a no-trade clause in it.
First of all, there’s a big difference between someone having the right to act in a certain manner and being right to act in that manner.
But there’s more to it than that. Indeed, if the last few months have taught us anything – yes, even those of us enveloped by the surreal bubble of professional sports – surely it’s that business arrangements and contractual situations change every second of every minute of every day.
Why didn’t Wayne Gretzky finish out the 21-year personal services contract he signed as an 18-year-old in Edmonton? Because sh-… er, stuff happened, times changed, people adapted, and No. 99 became a Los Angeles King.
The same should’ve gone for Sundin and the 2007-08 Leafs. There was never any unctuous maneuver on the part of Toronto’s management team; John Ferguson’s firing happened, another mediocre Leafs season happened and interim GM Cliff Fletcher happened to ask Sundin if he’d consider a trade.
The notion the organization “put” Sundin in an uncomfortable situation would have some validity, were it not for the fact the player acquired ultimate power over his future the moment he acquired the no-trade clause.
Besides, any agent will tell you that, by and large, no-trade clauses are intended to act as a guarantee the player holding it won’t be dealt to a handful of teams he designates, as opposed to it being an assurance the player can maintain the same mailing address for the contract’s duration.
The fact is, Sundin could have burnished his image in the eyes of Torontonians once and for all had he agreed to be traded last spring, live in an upscale hotel for a month or two and get perhaps his last good shot at a Stanley Cup championship.
If he had agreed to that, the Swedish-born legend could have done anything he wanted afterward – signed with Vancouver in April; done back flips up Highway 401 all the way to Montreal and joined the Canadiens; even become teammates with his pal and countryman Daniel Alfredsson in Ottawa – and Leafs fans would not have had any legitimate quarrel with his decision.
Sundin also would have avoided a backlash if he sat out the entire current season, trained throughout the summer and signed in any of the 29 other NHL markets for the 2009-10 campaign.
Instead, he did the one thing he swore he wouldn’t do. He took the very thing he held up as his chief reason for staying in Toronto – the desire not to be an in-season “rental player” – and snapped it in two as easily as one of those dainty-ass composite sticks when he signed with the Canucks in December.
Some will say he had every right to change his mind about being a rental. While that’s technically accurate, it doesn’t mean Sundin was right to change it – and it sure doesn’t mean anybody is foolish or petty for pointing out his drastic shift in philosophy.
It’s impossible to prove, but I’ll go to my grave believing that, if the Leafs won the Cup with a player (or draft pick that became a player) who would have been acquired in any trade of Sundin out of Toronto, there would be a huge public movement to award No. 13 an honorary Cup ring for agreeing to be dealt.
That, of course, can’t happen now. And that is completely and utterly Sundin’s fault.
He had the chance to depart as a beloved hero banished against his will, but instead, the rigidity of that will left him vulnerable to legitimate charges of villainy and undeniable charges of hypocrisy. He obviously never understood the value of Obi-Wan Kenobi agreeing to be struck down by Darth Vader in Star Wars, never got that you could dig in your spurs to win a battle, yet still be stuck in the mud enough to lose a war.
Ultimately, I expect any initial round of boos Sundin will hear Saturday night quickly will be drowned out by cheers of fans who are well within their right to appreciate the 13 years of loyal, classy service he provided to the team.
But I don’t fault any Leafs fan for tossing raspberries and profanity-riddled verbal bon mots Sundin’s way. They’ve got the right to do anything they want to do, just as Sundin, the great libertarian, did less than a year ago.
And if they choose to jeer him, they’ll be looking out for their own interests first – precisely what Sundin’s last lesson taught them.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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