On Monday evening, legendary Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mats Sundin was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Sundin’s enshrinement means many things to Leafs fans. He was an inspiration for years, whether he was on the ice that night or not. Whenever Sundin smiled at fans and reporters, supporters of the blue and white took it as a sign of appreciation. In truth, Sundin was the one who was really being thanked.
While he never led the Maple Leafs to a Stanley Cup, Sundin acted as a community leader, a man who could raise spirits simply by indirectly greeting those who waited for hours in long lines just to catch a glimpse of him.
“Leaf fans that filled the Air Canada Centre to cheer us on, I will never forget what you have given me,” said Sundin during his Hall of Fame speech.
For Toronto hockey fans, Sundin represented hope. As a franchise that hasn’t won a championship since 1967, the Leafs are considered losers by many. Even their own fans knowingly and willingly turn on them. Not necessarily because they prefer other teams, but because they’re tired of seeing their favourite club fall below expectations each season.
During Sundin’s days donning the blue and white jerseys – and don’t forget about those classic, green St. Patrick’s Day sweaters – he was the face of the franchise. Considering he’s never led a National Hockey League squad to a Cup, it’s more impressive than casual fans may believe.
“I knew I had to be as good as I was before the C and better afterward,” Sundin told the Toronto Sun regarding the pressure of being named the team’s official leader.
Sundin was selected first overall in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft, when the Quebec Nordiques made him the first European-born player to ever be the number-one pick.
When a trade sending Sundin to Ontario’s capital saw Wendel Clark, Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson and Toronto’s 1st round choice in 1994 go the other way, Leafs fans were, to put it nicely, not too thrilled.
But oh, how things changed. Who knew Sundin would grow into one of the most popular Leafs in history? When he came in and led the team in scoring his first season in Toronto, it was a hidden sign of things to come.
The big Swede would go on to record 564 goals, 785 assists, and 1,349 points in 1,346 regular season NHL games, the majority of them while being cheered by passionate Buds fans.
Walk around the streets of Toronto, and ask a Leafs fan who his favourite former Maple Leaf is. Most will give the answer of Sundin, and they probably won’t have to think too hard about it.
“He just wanted to be the guy when it counted,” former Toronto linemate Steve Thomas told the Sun. “When we played together on the Leafs, we were also in competition for most career overtime goals. Mats would be like me in overtime, standing up on the bench, wanting to be out there and get the winner.”
When Sundin walked through the Hall of Fame and signed his name to officially become a member of the Hall, fans chanted his name aloud. The others inductees were cheered as well, but the support became the most vocal when Sundin’s face appeared.
The admiration fans had for the man is unbeatable; outside of Canada, it’d be tough to find a group so passionate about a former player who never lifted the Stanley Cup. Yet, anyone who’s a legitimate Maple Leafs advocate will say it doesn’t matter that Sundin never won hockey’s most hallowed prize.
Sundin didn’t need to prove anything, and he still doesn’t. He’s one of the greatest European players of all-time, but he won’t tell you that. Nowadays, he’s a caring father whose daughter isn’t quite old enough to fully understand her father’s significance in Canada’s largest city.
Though Sundin was a quiet leader, fans and members of the media alike will never forget what Sundin did for hockey in Toronto. Scoring goals and winning games were great, but it was his inspiration and leadership that constantly made Leafs fans smile.
Someday, a new figure will rise as Toronto’s uplifting hero. Until that time, Sundin will continue to be one of the most appreciated athletes hockey has ever seen.