VANCOUVER, B.C. – The jersey was different and his teammates were new, but what mattered most for Mats Sundin Tuesday was the old feeling he got when he stepped on the ice again.
The former Toronto Maple Leaf captain, who practised for the first time with the Vancouver Canucks since signing as a NHL free agent prior to Christmas, said his passion for the game has returned.
“Last year was frustrating,” Sundin told a packed news conference at GM Place. “The way last season ended, and the way things happened at the deadline, I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue playing.
“I think the time I had this summer and fall helped me mentally get the hunger back for playing and competing.”
Sundin admitted it was strange walking into a new dressing room.
“It’s a different feeling for sure,” he said. “I haven’t been in a locker room for almost nine months.
“It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to play this season again, to get back into a dressing room and get back on the ice and compete against the best players in the world. It’s a great day.”
Sundin ended months of speculation when he agreed Dec. 18 to play the rest of the season in Vancouver. He will earn around US$5.625 million.
The big centre contemplated retirement this summer after a frustrating season where the Leafs missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season. Sundin was criticized by some for not waving the no-trade clause in his contract so the team could try to add new talent at the trade deadline.
“Last season, the way it ended, it was tough,” he said. “It was a lot of fun to play hockey but we struggled.
“When I look back, I really enjoyed playing. I felt I was strong on the ice and playing good. Hopefully I can pick up where I left off.”
When exactly Sundin will play his first game in a Canuck uniform remains a question. Coach Alain Vigneault said his new star player won’t be rushed.
“We’ll let him get ready physically and mentally . . . then we’ll make those decisions,” said Vigneault. “We’ll let him get in shape and ready to play.”
Sundin wasn’t scheduled to be in the lineup for Tuesday night’s game against Philadelphia. He will remain in Vancouver while the team travels to Nashville and Atlanta for games Thursday and Friday.
It’s unlikely Sundin will play in a Jan. 4 game in Vancouver against Dallas, which makes his most likely return Jan. 7 in Edmonton.
The 37-year-old knows returning midway through the season won’t be easy. Defenceman Scott Niedermayer didn’t return to Anaheim’s lineup until December last season and admitted he struggled.
“I don’t underestimate the challenge,” said the six-foot-five, 231-pound native of Bromma, Sweden. “I realize all the players are in mid-season form.
“I would look at myself as being in going-to-training-camp type of shape. The thing missing for me is the skating and the up-tempo NHL practises and games.”
Television cameras and photographers were crammed around the arena glass when Sundin stepped on the ice for his first practice. The big Swede skated slowly around the ice, taking in the building, before taking his turn in the various drills. He smiled and chatted with some of his new teammates during stretching exercises.
Defenceman Kevin Bieksa said there should be no problems with Sundin fitting into the dressing room.
“I don’t think much will change,” said Bieksa. “He’s quiet right now but I’m sure, as he get more comfortable, he’ll start participating in the inside jokes we have going on.
“We’re just trying to make him feel welcome, introduce him to everybody, get him used to the way we do things around here.”
Vigneault said having a player like Sundin makes the Canucks better.
“Any time you add a leader to a good leadership group it helps,” he said. “Any time you add a good person to a good group it helps.
“Any time you add a good player to a good team it helps.”
Sundin was assigned a spot in the dressing room with Swedish twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin on one side, and former Toronto teammate Kyle Wellwood on the other. A pair of hockey gloves and a Canucks baseball hat sat in the locker, a pair of shoes rested on the floor.
Heading into Tuesday night, the Canucks were second in the Northwest Division with a 20-14-3 record for 43 points.
The Canucks signed Sundin to add some more scoring punch to a team that is already defensively sound. Vancouver missed the playoffs last year, but Sundin wasn’t making any guarantees about a trip to the Stanley Cup final.
“We all know it’s a long season,” he said. “I am going to try and do everything I can to try and help this team get into the playoffs.
“It’s a very competitive league and we all know there are a lot of good teams out there. That’s the most important thing, to try and secure a playoff spot.”
The nine-time all-star scored 32 goals last year with Toronto. He is the Maple Leafs’ all-time leading scorer with 987 points (420 goals, 567 assists) and was the team’s captain in 10 of his 13 seasons in Toronto.
Sundin didn’t give any hint on whether he will play next season.
“I’m sure the Canucks are going to evaluate my performance at the end of the season and so will I,” he said. “I’ll sit down and analyze how I feel.”
Meanwhile, Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo, out since late November with a groin injury, also skated for about 10 minutes Tuesday for the first time since Dec. 10. Luongo was hurt Nov. 22, began skating with the team again Dec. 1 but suffered a setback on Dec. 10.
The Canucks captain said there is no timetable for his return.
“It was a good day today and I was happy I was able to get on the ice and it felt great,” said Luongo. “The most important thing is to be ready for the last stretch and the playoffs. Right now I want to make sure once I do get back its for the rest of the year.”