EDMONTON – After nine months on the sidelines, Mats Sundin took to the ice Wednesday night to open the next chapter of his NHL career.
To a smattering of boos, the 37-year-old former captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs jumped on the ice just over a minute into the first period as his new team, the Vancouver Canucks, faced off against the Edmonton Oilers at Rexall Place. The Swedish-born centre skated between wingers Kyle Wellwood and Mason Raymond.
Sundin signed with the Canucks as a free agent on Dec. 18, but hasn’t played since the end of the regular season last year.
Earlier Wednesday, after the morning skate, he said it was time to stop practising and start playing.
“I feel good, the body feels good, so I’m ready to go,” he said.
The Leafs’ all-time leading scorer, Sundin left Toronto last spring under a cloud when he refused a request by the team at the trade deadline to waive the no-trade clause in his contract.
He said then he didn’t want to be a “rental player” for a team making a playoff run, but he smiled when asked Wednesday if he feels his pro-rated half-season deal with the Canucks – worth about US$5 million – would also qualify as a rental.
“I don’t know,” he said. “To me if I wanted a chance to play this year, this was my only way to approach it.”
Sundin admitted there would be a few butterflies when the puck dropped.
“If you don’t get nervous playing the games, you’re not going to perform the way you have to, so yeah, there are going to be some nerves for sure,” he said.
Sundin is slated to make his home debut Friday when the Canucks host the St. Louis Blues and will play his first game against his old teammates when Vancouver visits Toronto on Feb. 21.
“It’s going to be emotional,” he said of the Toronto game. “Toronto’s been my home for 13 years.
“I’ll always have a home there, but right now I’m focused on Vancouver.”
Edmonton defenceman Sheldon Souray said the Oilers hoped to offer Sundin a proper NHL welcome.
“He’s a big guy, he’s a strong guy, he doesn’t lose many battles for the puck and he makes good plays, (but) like most good players they need a little bit of extra time with the puck to make those good plays,” he said. “For us, it’s a matter of taking away his time and being physical on him.”
Sundin is expected to take some of the scoring load off the first line of Pavol Demitra and twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
The native of Bromma, Sweden, spent 13 seasons with Toronto after being acquired from the Quebec Nordiques. He has recorded 555 goals and 1,321 points in his NHL regular-season career.