TORONTO - Mats Sundin has made peace with the fact he'll never again experience the feeling of standing in an arena tunnel before a big game.
But the all-time leading scorer of the Toronto Maple Leafs is sure to stir up some emotions when he makes his return to Air Canada Centre on Saturday night to watch his former team take on the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"I'm looking forward to it," Sundin said Thursday. "I've watched a couple games on TV that the Leafs played this year and the team looked great."
Sundin will be sitting alongside Larry Tanenbaum, the chairman of Maple Leaf Sports&Entertainment, during his first visit to the arena since visiting as a member of the Vancouver Canucks in February 2009.
It's a symbolic reunion for Sundin and the Leafs that began this week. The big Swede visited the Hospital for Sick Children on Thursday morning before making an afternoon appearance with the Leafs foundation at an elementary school. On Friday morning, he's scheduled to conduct a skating clinic.
More than two years into retirement from the NHL, Sundin lives in Stockholm full-time with his wife and harbours no regrets.
"If you're going to miss something, it's kind of that moment where you get on the ice for a game or a playoff game," he said. "That kind of atmosphere, the feeling of that, is going to be impossible to recreate somewhere else in life.
"In saying that, retired life has been great for me. I feel a lot better physically and mentally. Once your career is over, it's actually nice to watch the games now from the stands."
The 40-year-old has mostly been keeping a low profile. He hinted that he and wife Josephine are thinking about starting a family and the couple is currently building a home in Sweden with the help of a Toronto architect.
Sundin looks just as fit as when he last played. On Thursday, he said he could still perform high-intensity circuit training using a Monark bike and weights that has been dubbed the "Swedish Touch" in his honour—a routine trainer Matt Nichol thinks only a handful of current NHLers can handle.
"I do work out a few times a week, but it's more just to stay in shape," said Sundin. "But it's nice in the mornings knowing you don't have to work out and practice. I think when you've done that for almost 20 years the way I did, it was to the point where the body just can't take the grind anymore."
Sundin spent 13 seasons playing for the Maple Leafs and feels the team is starting to turn the corner. He laughed when it was pointed out that fans used to complain that he never had suitable wingers and now grumble about the lack of a top centre for Phil Kessel.
"That's the way it is with all teams," said Sundin. "There's no team that has everything the way you want it. Every team thinks they're missing something, but I really like the Leaf team the way it looks right now. I think they have goaltending, they have the defence, they have scoring up front and they're young. They're all going to get better as the year goes by. ...
"I think they have something really good going."
From all indications, he'll be around a lot more to witness it.
Enough time has passed since Sundin wore a Leafs sweater—none of his former teammates still play here—for him to start being celebrated as part of the franchise's alumni. And it's only a matter of time before his No. 13 is honoured with a banner in the rafters at ACC.
He's all for it.
"I'm just happy that the Leafs want to have a relationship with me," said Sundin. "I think it's very important for me. As I said, I spent the best part of my career with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto is my second home. It feels like coming home every time I come here.
"I hope that if the Leafs ever need me for anything, (they know) I'd be happy to help out any way I can."
And so it was, he found himself standing in a gymnasium before 300 schoolchildren on Thursday afternoon talking about the benefits of leading a healthy and active lifestyle.
Almost all of the kids were too young to remember Sundin as captain of the Maple Leafs, but they gave him a reception befitting a conquering hero—with cheers and high-fives and autograph requests.
"I'm shocked they still remember me here," said Sundin. "Even the young kids. That's good. That was great."