Will Toronto roll out the welcome Mats, in February?

As the final epitaph is written in Mats Sundin’s career as a Maple Leaf, the diversity of opinions on the manner in which he departed Toronto and signed with Vancouver is as large as the distance that separates the two cities.

The popular and simplistic approach has been to denounce the franchise’s all-time leading scorer for exercising his refusal to waive his no-trade clause at last February’s trade deadline. Critics note that had Sundin complied with Cliff Fletcher’s request to deal him to the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto’s rebuilding stage would be more advanced than it is today, and the Leafs would have Chris Higgins and at least one very high draft pick in their arsenal. In his response to the Toronto media and fans, Sundin provided his explanation that would be repeated ad nauseum for the next 10 months – he did not want to be a rental player and felt that a journey to the Stanley Cup should be completed with one team, from training camp to the end of the playoffs.

In the wake of Sundin’s prolonged indecision and eventual signing with Vancouver in mid-season, pundits are more than eager to fire claims of hypocrisy against the 37-year-old former Leafs superstar.

Such claims, while made out of understandable frustration, are undeserved.

The face of the franchise, who served a full decade as the team’s captain, deserves nothing more than a rousing appreciation for his service in blue and white. Sundin wore #13, played thirteen seasons in Toronto and fell just 13 points shy of 1,000 as a Leaf, and was anything but an unlucky acquisition from the Quebec Nordiques in 1994. Had Fletcher not engineered the trade that sent an injury-prone Wendel Clark the other way, the Leafs fortunes – generally mired in mediocrity since the mid 90’s – would have been infinitesimally worse.

In assessing his status as a so-called rental player, it’s worth noting that Sundin will be scheduled to play 46 games for the Canucks assuming that he joins the team on December 27; well in advance of the trade deadline, and not quite in the same scope as notable rental players such as Marian Hossa last season, Rob Blake in 2001, Alex Mogilny in 2000, or the consummate rental, Butch Goring in 1980.

Furthermore, when considering the emotional toll that Sundin endured from the Toronto fans who derided his decision to refuse to be traded, he cannot be faulted for wanting to take as much time as he felt was necessary to regain the mental and physical fortitude to compete at the standard that he has set for himself. One of Sundin’s more vocal defenders is Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who was at the helm of the Anaheim Ducks one year ago as Scott Niedermayer was taking his time returning to the ice.

“There has been a lot of criticism of Mats Sundin for not making up his mind,” said Burke on November 29 as he was named Leafs GM. “Having been through this situation before, I do not agree with it. I’d rather have a guy who wants to make sure in his own mind of what he is doing, as opposed to a guy who plays half-assed just to collect a paycheque. ”

As justifiably impatient as hockey fans have been, the same people should also be respectful of Sundin’s decisions throughout this entire process that came to a merciful end last Thursday. Unlike other star athletes such as Niedermayer, or Jets’ quarterback Brett Favre, Sundin was not under contract when he procrastinated on his future. He had no obligations – contractual or otherwise – to anyone.

Based on his tenure in the game, and for what he has given to the sport – both at the NHL and international level – the patrons at Air Canada Centre should have but one response when their former leader takes to the ice on February 21 as a Canucks adversary.

They should thunderously applaud his career as a Leaf.

They should roll out the welcome mat. For Mats.

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