After skating in a charity game in Toronto in support of the humanitarian organization Right To Play, Mats Sundin is heading back to Europe to exercise his right to ‘not play’, for the time being.
Sundin who has worn the Leafs colours for 13 seasons – ten as captain – was given a rousing ovation by a modest crowd of about 6,000 at Air Canada Centre on Friday, during what may have been his final appearance in front of a Toronto home crowd.
The cream of the remaining crop of unrestricted free agents, Sundin continued to absorb the verbal jabs from hockey fans and sportswriters alike, all of whom understandably voiced displeasure at the big Swede’s indecision regarding his playing future. Newly appointed head coach Ron Wilson fired what may have been an indirect shot at the Leafs legend by questioning the team’s leadership over the past three years, each of which have seen Toronto miss the playoffs.
While observers are quick to criticize Sundin’s actions, or inaction, such judgment should be reserved without a complete understanding of all the factors involved the two-time All-Star’s thought process
At 37 years of age, the physical and mental rigours of playing the NHL – particularly in Toronto where he is team’s superstar in a fervent hockey market – have clearly taken their toll. “It takes a different commitment, than when you’re 24 years old,” admitted Sundin. “When you’re my age, it takes hours to prepare for a practice. It’s a different commitment. Personally I need to be there mentally to be able to commit to the level that I want to play.”
Also, Sundin can’t be faulted in his lack of commitment to a team that has not enjoyed success and is in a rebuilding mode for the immediate future. Furthermore, not only did the home fans deride him for refusing to be moved at the trade deadline, but a new bench boss who has never coached him has already made at least one backhanded comment.
Of course, Wilson’s verbal jab could quite easily be interpreted as directed towards underachievers Bryan McCabe and Darcy Tucker, both of whom were jettisoned by the Leafs in the off-season. The latter two players are certainly more appropriate targets of Wilson’s remark than Sundin, who has compiled 232 points in the three seasons in question in just over 219 games played, good enough to factor in 31% of his team’s goals. By comparison, defending Conn Smythe Trophy winner Henrik Zetterberg – nine years Sundin’s junior – has registered 245 points in 215 games played in that stretch, figure in 30% of Detroit’s goals. Clearly leadership is not a trait missing from Sundin’s resume.
Pundits have suggested that Sundin’s indecision falls just shy of hypocrisy, considering his remarks that his refusal to be traded was based on a belief that a player should “go through the entire journey” and be with a team from training camp and throughout the regular season, as opposed to being a rental player. When questioned on that point, Sundin came to his own defence. “Nothing has changed really, in terms of joining a team in training camp and going all the way with them. I still believe that, but saying that doesn’t mean that I’m going to make a decision that I know whether I’m going to play, or not. So, I still agree with that.”
At first glance, it seems that Sundin has painted himself into a corner with his seemingly contradictory statements. However, when also considering Sundin’s desire to not commit until he knows he has the fortitude physically and mentally to still produce at a point-per-game level, his remarks seem less paradoxical.
Sundin’s comments in February were made prior to not only the additional criticism heaped on him in the subsequent weeks and months, but also before an off-season spent in Sweden where the time off has appeared to have performed wonders, in terms of his more relaxed demeanour, if his address to Toronto reporters this past week is any indication.
The face of the Leafs franchise honestly believed he would have come to a decision by now. But, he hasn’t. And if he is not 100% convinced that he has the capacity to produce at the level to which fans are accustomed to watching him play, then he is right in deferring pronouncement on his playing future.
Sundin has fulfilled his contractual obligations to the Maple Leafs and is indebted to no one. Unlike Scott Niedermayer – who had two years remaining on his contract when he sat out the first half of last season – or NFL star Brett Favre, who retired and “unretired” with three years left on his deal, Sundin is merely exercising a right to delay a decision, a right to which he is fully entitled.
His hesitancy is frustrating for fans, teammates, and executives.
But at the same time, it’s still is right to “not play”.
Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, a regular column at TMLfans.ca