He helped his country win an Olympic gold medal, and is considered by many the greatest Swedish hockey player ever, but one of the things Mats Sundin is most proud of during his career is being a Toronto Maple Leaf.
Sundin announced his retirement Wednesday at a news conference at Stockholm’s Grand Hotel.
“It was a tough decision,” said the former Leaf captain. “It’s sad to tell you today that my career as a pro hockey player is over.”
The 38-year-old said he can’t imagine what direction his career would have taken if he had not been traded to Toronto from the Quebec Nordiques in 1994.
“I had no idea at the time that it was going to end up being the best thing that could have happened to me,” Sundin told radio station AM640 in Toronto.
“I have a tough time explaining in words what that whole era with the Toronto Maple Leafs has meant to me and my family. I’ll take that with me the rest of my life.”
Sundin was the longest-serving European captain in NHL history and he gave special thanks to the Maple Leafs organization.
“Toronto is, and will always be, my second home,” he said.
Cliff Fletcher, who was Toronto’s GM at the time of the trade, didn’t hesitate when asked about Sundin’s contribution during 13 seasons wearing a Leafs’ jersey.
“He was such a great Leaf, he had a great career, he could arguably go down as the greatest Leaf player ever,” Fletcher told The Canadian Press.
Former Leaf coach Pat Quinn agreed.
“He certainly was the best athlete on our team, the best player in Toronto, in the length of time I was there,” said Quinn, who is now coach of the Edmonton Oilers.
“I can tell you he was the most important player, yet a real good team player for that organization.”
Sundin said helping Sweden win the gold medal at the 2006 Turin Olympics and playing in the NHL playoffs were the highlights of his career.
“It was a special experience,” he said. “The NHL? All playoff games and reaching the semifinals twice.”
In 1990, Sundin became the first European to be the top pick in the NHL draft. The eight-time NHL all-star is first among Swedish players with 564 goals, 785 assists and 1,349 points.
Known as “Sudden” in Sweden, he also won three IIHF World Championship titles with Sweden in 1991, ’92 and ’98.
The one trophy missing is a Stanley Cup.
“It would have been fun, but I’ve experienced so much,” he said.
Leaving the game he’s loved won’t be easy.
“There is going to be a big hole the rest of your life,” Sundin said. “There’s nothing better than skating out in front of 20,000 people and playing a hockey game at the highest level there is in the world.
“Performing in either an Olympic tournament or Stanley Cup playoffs, there’s nowhere I’m going to get that kind of feeling and excitement the rest of my life. I understand that.”
Sundin’s skills may have diminished by the time he joined the Vancouver Canucks midway through last season. He scored nine goals and 19 assists in 41 games, adding three goals and five assists in eight playoff games.
Only occasionally did he show his old flashes of brilliance, but teammates still praised his game savvy and work ethic.
“You never think you are going to get a chance to play with a Hall of Famer,” said centre Ryan Kesler. “He was a special player for me.
“He brought my game to the next level. He led this team. He improved our power play and improved our faceoff percentage. In the dressing room, he was one of the nicest guys, but one of the hardest workers I have ever seen.”
Henrik Sedin, a member of the Swedish Olympic team in Turin, said it was special playing with Sundin in Vancouver.
“It’s a big thing for us Swedes on the team to play with maybe the best Swede to ever play the game,” said Sedin. “We learned a lot from him. His work ethic, the way he came in every day and worked extremely hard in the gym and in practice.”
Calgary Flames forward Fredrik Sjostrom said Sundin was an icon to many young Swedish players.
“He was the first Swedish (player) to get drafted No. 1 overall,” said Sjostrom. “He kind of showed that he’s a guy to follow. He was a superstar in Toronto, probably the toughest place to play.
“He showed strong character and I know he’s an idol for many Swedish kids, including myself, growing up.”
Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said Sundin was always professional, even during adversity.
“He’s had a tremendous career . . . and helped build a good reputation for Sweden,” said Alfredsson. “He handled himself very well throughout his career and has been a good ambassador for the game.”
Sundin was criticized during his final season in Toronto when, with the Leafs out of the playoffs, he refused to wave the no-trade clause in his contract at the trade deadline.
Fletcher, who had returned as the Leafs’ GM, defended Sundin’s decision.
“I went to Mats and said ‘if you are interested in taking a shot at the Stanley Cup give me two or three teams you would go to,”‘ Fletcher said. “He came back and said he had no interest in going.
“He had that right, it was in his contract, and I was fine.”
Sundin, who was recently married, isn’t sure how involved he will be in hockey in the coming years.
“I don’t know if I’ll be involved in hockey in the future,” he said. “But I will always have a close relationship with hockey. My love for hockey will always be there.”
With files from Chris Johnston in Toronto, Robin Brownlee in Edmonton, Chris Yzerman in Ottawa and Laurence Heinen in Calgary.