Leafs fans get it right, in cheering Mats

In the two months that elapsed between Mats Sundin’s signing with the Vancouver Canucks and his return to Toronto where he dazzled fans for 13 seasons in a Leafs uniform, there was always the question of how the patrons at Air Canada Centre would react when he stepped on the ice.

Any speculation that the franchise’s all-time leading scorer would be booed as retribution for his off-season indecision and subsequent signing with another team was laid to rest as the sellout crowd of 19,504 rose to their feet on two separate occasions.

The first instance occurred during the first TV timeout of the game, when a highlight package of Sundin’s greatest Leaf moments was displayed on the high-definition scoreboard at centre ice. The bipartisan audience, of which about one-third were Canucks fans, continued to stand and applaud long after the network had returned from commercial. The ovation continued for about two minutes while Sundin skated away from the faceoff circle to acknowledge the fans, and neither former teammate Matt Stajan nor the linesman appeared to be in a hurry to proceed with the faceoff.

The next appreciative uproar took place at game’s end, as Sundin was named the game’s first star after scoring the winning goal in a shootout, using a patented backhand deke on Vesa Toskala that Leafs fans have been so accustomed to seeing from their former captain when he wore blue and white. On the weekend of the Academy Awards, it was only fitting that this much-anticipated game followed a Hollywood script.

“When you’re a professional, you dream about getting chances like that,” grinned Sundin just minutes after leading his team to victory. “Being the deciding shooter, in a breakaway at the end of a game, or overtime goals, this is the kind of stuff that you grew up with while playing street hockey.” Toronto’s all-time leader in goals and points, Sundin humbly reflected on the result as one of his all-time favourite memories at ACC. “With everything that’s been going on since last year’s trade deadline, this was very special. Of course, I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.”

There was a noticeable portion of detractors in attendance that voiced their displeasure at Sundin’s much-documented refusal to waive his no-trade clause last year, followed by his inking of the deal with Vancouver in mid-season just months after saying he would not want to become a rental player – a move that reeked of hypocrisy in the minds of several observers. About one-fourth of the crowd did their best to offset the cheers with boos when Sundin was introduced as part of the starting lineup, and the lanky Swede received his share of raspberries every time he touched the puck – treatment usually inflicted upon ACC visitors such as Senators rival and fellow countryman Daniel Alfredsson, or more recently, whipping boy and ex-Leaf Bryan McCabe. Leafs’ game organist Jimmy Holmstrom couldn’t resist a playful dig by thumping out the classic song by The Clash “Should I Stay or Should I Go” in mock tribute to Sundin’s fence-sitting mood that was exhibited for much of 2008.

As vocal as Sundin’s critics were, they were simply outnumbered on this evening, and rightfully so. The hockey-crazed, often ruthless hockey mecca of Toronto could just have easily turned against their former leader. Instead, the city and its fans gave Sundin the due appreciation for 13 years of tireless service with the club, in what was likely the loudest ovation in NHL history for a play that is not technically registered on a player’s individual statistics – a shootout-winning goal.

“I really thought when they had that tribute on the video, the ovation that Mats got was outstanding,” said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault. “It showed a lot of class from the people that were here at the game. I think it was well-deserved. I understand why he decided to stay with his team last year; they thought they had a shot at making the playoffs. It’s simple and it’s honest.”

In the mind of Leafs bench boss Ron Wilson, things went according to plan. “I expected the reaction, I didn’t think there’d be any animosity,” he said just as the team packed for a flight to New York for Sunday’s game against the Rangers. Meanwhile Stajan, who earlier had delayed his return to the faceoff circle to allow the ovation to continue, expects the reaction to be the same upon Sundin’s next return to the building, likely in a few years when a banner inscribed with the number 13 is raised to the roof of ACC.

“He’ll probably get more of (the applause) when he comes back here after his career.”

How fitting it was that Toronto did not wait until then, to hail their former hero.

Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, a regular column at TMLfans.ca