Wouldn’t it be nice if, just once, a hockey player decided to actually go out on top the way Brett Favre did after this past season?
For example, Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin, who said during the very public trade deadline ugliness surrounding the Leafs that he doesn’t know whether he’ll play next season or not.
Based on the history of hockey players and the way they’re wired, don’t count on it. Favre has had a far more decorated career and had a season far more phenomenal than Sundin’s resurgent 2007-08 campaign, but still managed to bring himself to say at his retirement news conference yesterday, “I know I can play, but I don’t think I want to.”
In hockey, almost nobody ever goes out on a high. With a few notable exceptions, most of them play until they fade into a level of play that almost embarrasses them. For example, did you realize Wayne Gretzky, the greatest goal-scorer in the history of the game, had nine goals in the last season of his career? Jari Kurri was a shell of his former self by the time he retired. And Paul Coffey didn’t hang up his skates until he had played for nine different teams.
So don’t look for Sundin to retire anytime in the near future. A one-goal, two-assist performance in an 8-2 win over the Boston Bruins Thursday night gave Sundin 30 goals and 74 points in 69 games. The way he has played down the stretch in a desperate (and likely ultimately fruitless) attempt to get the Leafs into the playoffs, it’s conceivable Sundin could end up with 90 points this season.
He stands to make too much money to turn his back on the game after a season like that. As it stands, the highest-scoring player to retire was Jean Beliveau of the Montreal Canadiens, who left the game after scoring 76 points in the 1970-71 season. The big difference there was Beliveau’s team had just won the Cup and to accommodate any more Stanley Cup rings, Beliveau would have had to start putting them on his toes.
It remains to be seen whether or not Sundin will be returning to the Maple Leafs next season because that all depends on who is hired as the team’s next GM. If the organization’s history is any indication, Sundin will most certainly be back in Toronto because that would be the easiest, most convenient and least bold decision the team could possibly make; and the Leafs have a history of taking the easiest way out in these types of things.
The more difficult decision would be for the new GM to resist the temptation to sign Sundin and use the $6 million on a player 10 years younger. Or he could always risk losing Sundin by forcing him to take a hometown pay cut to remain a Leaf, like somewhere in the range of half the salary he’s making now. After all, Sundin will have earned more than $74 million over his career by the end of this season, so if it’s really about making the team better, it shouldn’t be about money with Sundin anymore.
Of course, the Leafs could very well have played hardball with Sundin at the trade deadline, and here’s how: Forget about ripping the ‘C’ of his sweater. Cliff Fletcher could have simply told Sundin if he didn’t accept a trade, Fletcher would buy him out of the rest of the last season of his contract. But in order to do that, he would have had to put him on unconditional waivers, which means any one of the other 29 teams could have put a claim in on him and the team lowest in the standings would have gotten him.
So instead of choosing a destination, Sundin would have been forced to either retire or go to a far less desirable destination. If he hadn’t been claimed, the Leafs would have paid out the rest of the season on a buyout.
But I digress. This is about next season. It might be nice to see a player actually go out on top instead of doing what Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer did this season. Don’t look for Sundin to do that. It’s not his style. And it goes against what he said at the deadline about players needing to be there from training camp on to truly feel a part of the group.
That’s why he’ll either retire or come back with a full commitment. I’m betting on the latter.
Ken’s blog will return March 18.
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