Defining Mats Sundin’s Hall of Fame legacy

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Mats Sundin’s new Hall of Fame plaque reads thusly:

The first European-born player to be drafted first overall in the NHL Entry Draft in 1989, Mats Sundin went on to a 18-year NHL career with Quebec, Toronto and Vancouver. A native of Sweden, he would spent 11 seasons as captain of the Maple Leafs, the longest servicing non-North American captain in NHL history, while becoming the first from his country to score 500 goals and record 1,000 points. Also an Olympic gold medallist in 2006, Sundin was named a 2nd Team All-Star twice and finished his career with 564 goals, the 21st best total in NHL history, along with 785 assists and 1,349 points.

That doesn’t really tell you much about the type of player he was, or what his legacy ought to be.

The players that are just beginning to wind up in the Hall of Fame are the ones that I grew up watching, or players whose careers began after my birth. Last year had Doug Gilmour, Ed Belfour and Joe Nieuwendyk, while the class of 2012 featured Pavel Bure, Adam Oates, Joe Sakic, and Mats Sundin.

Attach a style of play to each of Sundin’s classmates from his induction year. Oates was a terrific playmaker, Sakic had the world’s quickest release, and Bure burned teams with his speed. What sets Mats Sundin, the longtime Toronto Maple Leaf and owner of several franchise records, apart from the group, we’ve collectively determined, is nothing. That is to say, he’s a beacon of consistency and a well-rounded talent.

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From Michael Traikos

when asked for that one particular Hall of Fame moment that defined Sundin’s career, the line goes quiet.

“I’m not so sure,” [Cliff] Fletcher says. “I would have to think about it.”

Fletcher takes several seconds to think and then finally answers: “He was just so goddamn good and so goddamn consistent. I mean, he didn’t take games off. He didn’t take shifts off. He was just so consistent. That’s the great trait in his career.”

Through 13 seasons in Toronto, Sundin only played fewer than 70 games in the lockout-shortened 1995 campaign. He never scored fewer than 27 goals, and only cracked 40 twice. He got 90 points just once, but never dipped below 72.

He was always great. He never put together a legendary campaign, it seems, one equipped with a moment that sets him apart from others. His nationality prevented him from becoming a true Canadian media phenom. I always remember him being very very good, but he wasn’t the guy we’d read about in The Hockey News every week.

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Even Adam Oates had difficulty nailing down Mats’ defining characteristic: ““Pavel’s speed, for sure,” Oates said. “Joe’s ability to shoot the puck. Me, passing. And Mats was the all-purpose guy, the big, strong guy that could do it all.”

That quote is from this James Mirtle story, who looked to define the Class of 2012 as the Class of Humble, Unassuming Personalities.

The players’ four speeches were all fairly understated – fitting given Sakic had used that term early in the day to describe himself and his fellow inductees.

There was little ego when they played and even less so now, as they stood in their black blazers, pushed through their speeches and tried to thank everyone who had touched their careers in a handful of minutes.

How unassuming was Sundin? Well, even to fans, some didn’t know exactly what they had in Mats even during Sundin’s prime. From Jon Steitzer at Maple Leaf Hot Stove:

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My darkest secret may be that I wasn’t always a Sundin fan. In my teenage years, I rebelled against top six players and had a string of garbage Leafs who I loved including Benoit Hogue, Randy Wood and Mike Johnson, before coming around to the better choice of Steve Thomas.

I was a bit of an ass in the sense that I viewed 80-point seasons as Sundin’s job the way that being a marginal penalty killer was Randy Wood’s job. I didn’t allow myself to truly marvel at some of the numbers Sundin was putting up. In an effort in unfortunate timing, I didn’t come to the realization of how great Sundin was until after the lockout.

After all, this was a guy that was traded for Wendel Clark. “This isn’t April 1. This has got to be April 1. This is a joke. I hope somebody’s kidding me that you would trade Clark for Mats Sundin,” Don Cherry decreed to the Toronto Star back in June of 1994.

Michael Langlois has a bit on how circumstances worked against Sundin, from an article originally published in Lindy’s Sports annual and now appearing in online form:

Sundin had the challenge of being European, like fellow Leaf and Swedish great Borje Salming before him.  Those Toronto all-timers that I cited above were all ”good Canadian boys”, to borrow Don Cherry’s parlance.  We didn’t know that much about Sundin when he first got here, though he had been a very high draft pick of the Nordiques.  Some of us retain vivid memory of a very young Sundin being yelled at by then Quebec coach Pierre Page on the bench at playoff time—providing the first indication that, somehow, the big Swede was a talented under-achiever, someone who we might not be able to count on at crunch time. 

The team Sundin joined in 1994-’95 was (where have Leaf fans heard this before) a team in transition.  They were no longer the over-achieving Pat Burns team from years before.  They began to go backwards, and Sundin was there for the fall-back.

The reaction wasn’t all positive though. It’s only apparent when you look back on Sundin’s achievements, what he accomplished, that you begin to truly appreciate just how good Mats Sundin was. Unfortunately, as go many long careers without Stanley Cups, or even a single game played in the finals, there isn’t that defining Sundin moment that really cements him in Toronto. No moment that you could turn into a statue.

There are several of lesser importance: Sundin’s 500th goal is marred because it came during such a down year for the team. Sundin’s clutch playoff goals against Ottawa in 2001 and Carolina in 2002 are off because the Leafs didn’t go much further in the playoffs. They’re great memories, but the team surrounding Sundin wasn’t one that befit his talent or the history of the team that has 14 Stanley Cup victories and a plethora of local legends that the old timers still get to admire.

If we want a dissenting opinion, however, Dustin Nielson of the Team 1260 in Edmonton got it wrong: 

Eh, well, I think that if you’re going to go all in on whether or not Toronto bias affects Hall of Fame voting, don’t put it on Mats Sundin. He may have a legacy that’s tough to pin down, but I think we can come to a general consensus that, looking back, he was one of the top players of his era.

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