Former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin laughs as he speaks before his number 13 is raised to the rafters prior to NHL action between the Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens in Toronto on Saturday February 11, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
TORONTO - As Mats Sundin was about to take to the ice Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre, current Toronto Maple Leafs' trainer Brian Papineau offered him a familiar piece of equipment.
"Just as I was about to hit the ice, he handed me one of my sticks," Sundin said. "I told him 'I don't think I'm going to need that tonight.'"
Sundin didn't need his old stick as he took to the ice in a black suit instead of his familiar blue and white jersey to watch his No. 13 be raised to the rafters in front of 19,685 adoring fans.
Sundin's number joined 17 other Maple Leaf greats as the organization honoured his number during a pre-game ceremony before Toronto's 5-0 loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
Accompanied by his parents and wife, Josephine, the former Leafs captain had his number lifted alongside other team icons such as Johnny Bower, Darryl Sittler, and former teammates Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark.
His No. 13 now sits beside the digits of another famous Swedish Maple Leaf—Borje Salming's No. 21.
During his speech Saturday, Sundin recalled getting a bit of advice from Salming after being traded to Toronto back at the 1994 entry draft.
"He said, 'Mats, you'll love moving to Toronto, you'll love being a Maple Leaf,'" Sundin said. "It's the great tradition and great history of the Toronto Maple Leafs that I'm now part of."
Interrupted by chants of "Sundin, Sundin," a periodically choked up Sundin thanked ownership, management, teammates, family, friends and the fans.
"I miss driving to the ACC with a little knot building up in my stomach before the game," he said. "But the No. 1 thing I miss being retired and not being in Toronto are the people. There are no fans more loyal, passionate and committed than Leafs fans. Thanks for all your support over the years."
A few of Sundin's former teammates were in attendance, including Bryan McCabe and Tie Domi in the stands, as well as defenceman Tomas Kaberle (now with the Habs) who took the ceremonial faceoff for Montreal.
"We had so many battles together," Sundin said before joking about his former teammate. "Over the years, Kabbie and I worked on the power play and I'd be yelling at him for passing the puck on the wrong side or into my feet, and the crowd's yelling at him, 'Shoot!'"
The ceremony was a touching tribute to a player beloved by Leafs fans. Even some of the Canadiens were moved by it all.
"Growing up in Toronto watching Mats Sundin play and most of his career here, it's a privilege and an honour to be a part of this night," said defenceman P.K. Subban.
"I had some of my family there and I know that they enjoyed it. You almost get a little bit teary-eyed when you see him out there and watching the video clips of all the great things that he's done for this franchise.
"It was a great night."
Sundin was drafted first overall by the Quebec Nordiques in 1989, and was traded to the Leafs five years later at the 1994 entry draft in the Wendel Clark deal. He spent 13 seasons in Toronto, becoming the Leafs' all-time leading goal scorer with 420 and point-getter with 987 points in 981 games.
He cited his 500th goal as one of his most cherished career highlights. But the two that stood out the most for him were the Eastern Conference finals in 1999 against the Buffalo Sabres, and in particular in 2002 against the Carolina Hurricanes, who beat the Leafs in six games to get to the Stanley Cup final against the eventual champion Detroit Red Wings.
"Both times, we were good enough to go to the final," Sundin said. "Against Carolina, we were probably the better team on paper. To have a Toronto-Detroit final, that would've been special."
Despite never winning the coveted Stanley Cup, he made it clear he had no regrets about his 13 seasons in Toronto.
"I wouldn't trade my years with the Leafs for anything," Sundin said.
All the current Leafs wore the former captain's No. 13 during the warmup and had patches of his number on their game jerseys. Sundin praised the current club and even drew comparisons with his old teams.
"I like this team," said Sundin. "They remind me of the team we had when we went to the conference final the first time.
"We had a young group, good skaters, guys who could play, we could score with all four lines, good goaltending—and I see all that here."
And during his speech, Sundin was sure to urge the fans to back the current incarnation of the blue and white.
"Support them, cheer them on," he told the crowd. "Give that extra energy they need to win."