You know it’s an emotional night when you can feel it in the press box, where cheering and favoritism of any sort are traditionally verboten. But it was impossible not to smile and feel warm all over during Mats Sundin’s much-anticipated return to Toronto Saturday night.
Many wondered what type of reaction Sundin would get from the Maple Leafs faithful, some of whom feel he left their team in the lurch by refusing to waive his no-trade clause last season. But the reaction was pretty much what was figured around the office: a mixture of cheers and jeers, with the cheers outnumbering the jeers.
That is until the first TV timeout, when any bad memories were temporarily put aside by the 19,000-plus Air Canada Centre patrons as a video montage entitled ‘Thank You Mats’ played and the crowd stood to give Sundin an ovation that lasted the entire break.
The moment sent chills down my spine and gave at least one local scribe on press row the sniffles, as it did Sundin himself. When the game continued, the jeers returned whenever the 38-year-old Swede touched the puck. But with Sundin scoring the shootout winner and being named the game’s first star, the love returned as he left the ACC ice for possibly the final time.
But it wasn’t just Sundin’s homecoming. It was also Kyle Wellwood’s first time back in Toronto after five seasons with the Maple Leafs organization. One had to wonder, where the Wellwood love was. Where was his ‘Thank You Kyle’ video montage and minutes-long standing ovation?
“I was surprised (there wasn’t one),” joked Wellwood. “I’ve been in Toronto for a while and they always have special nights for guys.”
It was a rough week in general for Wellwood. On Tuesday, he took his first penalty since April 2006, breaking a streak that was starting to threaten Val Fonteyne’s unofficial NHL record of 185 games without a penalized infraction.
“I got my stick up (on Dion Phaneuf), but I don’t think I hit him,” Wellwood said when asked what happened to end his streak. “But it was enough to get the call.”
And the over-under on when his next penalty will be?
“It’s going to be pretty soon,” the owner of 16 penalty minutes in 240 career NHL games told THN.com. “It was a nice streak, but I don’t want to get labeled as somebody who doesn’t try hard, like I kind of was.”
The problem for Wellwood is he may have already earned such a reputation. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound center/right winger was chastised publicly and privately by Canucks coach Alain Vigneault earlier in the week.
“He’s a player you always have to push and challenge,” Vigneault told reporters. “In the last 10-15 games, every game he’s getting one, two, three grade-A scoring chances that, as a team, we need him to finish. I would hope on an open net, you’re going to put it in.”
Wellwood began his NHL season on a tear, after starting the year in the American League. He’s actually cleared waivers twice in the past six months, once when the Maple Leafs put him on in the summer and again before he was sent to the Manitoba Moose by Vancouver, ostensibly to get in shape.
But after being recalled Oct. 21, Wellwood potted 11 goals in 20 games. He has three in 30 games since.
“Things are going great; the team is winning,” Wellwood said quickly when asked to comment on his ups-and-downs this season. “I had a hot start at the start of the season and I think that helped the team get some wins. And now other guys are doing it and I’m just trying to work hard and battle and try to do the other things.”
Battle. It’s something Wellwood has been accused of not doing over his entire career with his lack of penalty minutes supposedly being proof. Wellwood would say his penchant for not taking penalties is about staying away from situations where you stop moving your feet or have to use your stick to slow players down.
But it’s nearly impossible to not take penalties if you’re playing in the hard areas of the ice – the crease, the corners – where contact and one-on-one battles win the day.
And with Wellwood saying he plans on heading to the sin bin more often, maybe he really is planning on tarnishing his reputation as a soft player.
Such a plan is definitely one way to earn more well wishes, from his new fans, teammates and coach.
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