TORONTO – As Mats Sundin prepares to make his first ever appearance at Air Canada Centre with a visiting team, it’s worth remembering that he never wanted to make such a return in the first place.
It was just about this time a year ago when the stressed-out Swede was telling anyone who would listen that he couldn’t imagine playing for any NHL team other than the Toronto Maple Leafs. Interim GM Cliff Fletcher wanted Sundin to waive his no-trade clause but the team’s longtime captain couldn’t bring himself to do it.
That tumultuous period is believed to have damaged relations between Sundin and the team, opening the door for him to eventually sign in Vancouver after several months of soul searching.
So now he returns Saturday as a member of the Canucks, and insists there are no lingering feelings of bitterness.
“Not really,” Sundin said after practice in Ottawa on Friday. “It’s an unfortunate situation at the deadline and it wasn’t a fun thing to go through it, but that’s a part of this business.
“We’re in a winning industry and when you’re not winning, there’s going to be all kinds of stuff going on. So that’s part of the game.”
The rebuilding Maple Leafs are still forging an identity without Sundin, who served as captain for 10 of his 13 seasons.
Some of his former teammates still wonder if things should have played out differently in the Sundin saga. Matt Stajan, for one, thinks too much was made of his reluctance to waive the no-trade clause.
“He deserved the right to make his own decisions,” said Stajan. “Maybe he could still be here if things worked out differently and last year didn’t happen the way it did.
“That’s just the way it played out. I think it got blown out of proportion a little bit.”
His return to Toronto might end up in the same category. Anticipation has been growing all week.
The Canucks are clearly sensitive to the extra attention that awaits and decided to remain in Ottawa for practice on Friday. There was considerably less hype to be found there.
In Toronto, there was a feeling of excitement around the Leafs as they looked ahead to a game that has as much buzz as any other this season.
“It’s almost like he’s playing on our team,” said forward John Mitchell. “Everybody’s kind of getting excited. It’s almost like he was on injury for a long time and he’s coming back in to play.
“It will be exciting for sure to be out on the ice.”
With all the attention on Sundin, a few other storylines are certain to be lost. Canucks forward Kyle Wellwood is also making a return to the city and Leafs executive Dave Nonis will be watching the Vancouver team he helped build.
The evening will begin with a short ceremony honouring the 10th anniversary of the Air Canada Centre. Sundin has been there for almost every Leafs game played over that time and will be wearing a visiting jersey for the first time ever.
Even he acknowledges that it will be strange to go into a different locker-room.
“It’ll be interesting,” said Sundin. “It’ll be tough to go past the Maple Leafs dressing room. I think professional athletes, you get adjusted. We’ll have to see when we get there.”
If Sundin’s tenure in Toronto is any indication, he’ll likely remain stoic on Saturday evening.
However, those that got to know him personally believe that he’ll be feeling something very different inside.
“There’s no doubt it’s going to be emotional,” said Stajan. “He may not show it as much as you guys may think, but definitely I don’t see how it wouldn’t be.
“I’m sure he’s going to take it all in and enjoy the moment.”
There has already been much discussion about Sundin will be received by the fans.
The team has yet to name a new captain – coach Ron Wilson says: “we don’t have a captain I personally believe on the team” – and remains without a fan favourite. In many ways, the Maple Leafs and their fans are still moving on from the break-up.
Sundin’s former teammates have a clear idea of how the night should play out.
“I think there’s only one way that you can (greet his return) – applaud the guy,” said forward Jason Blake. “For what he’s done for this organization, what he’s done for the city of Toronto.”
Added Stajan: “He deserves a standing ovation. A long one.”
-With files from Chris Yzerman in Ottawa