DiManno: Mats Sundin returns for Maple Leafs tribute with no regrets

Mats Sundin laughs at a Friday press conference to announce a $1 million endowment, to fund research into  maternal and early childhood health issues at the University of Toronto and Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Sundin is paying a third of the cost and will help with future fundraising.

(Toronto Star) Mats Sundin laughs at a Friday press conference to announce a $1 million endowment, to fund research into maternal and early childhood health issues at the University of Toronto and Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Sundin is paying a third of the cost and will help with future fundraising.

For someone so exquisitely deft with his hands, Mats Sundin is suddenly all thumbs.

He jabs clumsily at the keypad of his smarty-pants phone. It’s been buzzing incessantly. Swedish TV is demanding an on-camera interview. Officials from the University of Toronto need to confirm details for a press conference. Former teammates from out of town want to coordinate arrival times. Friends are checking in. There’s a speech to write, nearly two dozen relatives and intimates to corral — the Sundin Travelling Posse from Sweden — and a wife, Josephine, who can’t be ignored.

It’s chaotic, this being honoured stuff.

And Sundin is, essentially, a simple man. Complications have never rested comfortably on his strapping 6-foot-5 frame. Some of us spent years searching in vain for layers of nuance, emotional clutter, concealed psychodrama, rather than accept there were no still waters running deep, no Scandinavian murk.

Sometimes, we simply fail to recognize sincerity.

A boy who just wanted to play hockey. A man who just wanted to play hockey in Toronto even when Toronto was done with him, 13 years for No. 13 and here’s your hat, what’s your hurry.

He won’t dwell on that now.

“Look at this,’’ he howls, reading his latest text message. “A journalist is telling me if they don’t get an interview today it will be a CATASTROPHE!’’

That cracks him up. But he will try to accommodate everybody. That’s the thing about Mats — he’s always tried to please.

Did he? Does that even matter anymore?

Strolling along Yorkville, Sundin goes unrecognized, toque pulled down over his forehead, coat flapping open, as dishevelled as ever. There’s a lot of hoser in this European.

He’s a pseudo Canadian and forever Maple Leaf. Saturday evening, his jersey gets raised to the legends stratosphere at the Air Canada Centre. “To have my sweater honoured, up there with Darryl Sittler and Doug Gilmour, Borje Salming and Johnny Bower, that’s awesome. It’s going to be very emotional for me.’’

It’s odd the franchise has fast-tracked Sundin to the rafters, a mere three years into retirement from the NHL. He certainly has no explanation for the pronto tribute and was gobsmacked when the team approached him about it late last summer. “Surprised but flattered, happy, and deeply honoured,’’ he says. “Just to be part of the history and tradition of this club. When I first came to Toronto, I had no clue, to be honest. It’s something I came to learn and appreciate.

“People ask me all the time: Are you bitter about not winning a Stanley Cup? Of course I wish that had happened. I wish if for myself and for the city. But the best thing that ever happened to me in my life was coming to Toronto. It’s something you really don’t realize until you’re retired — the career that you’ve had, what you’ve been a part of.

“I wouldn’t change it for the world. I wouldn’t trade in my 13 years as a Leaf, even for a Stanley Cup ring.’’

That’s the other factor to understand about Sundin — the value he places on allegiance and fealty. “I’m loyal. It’s maybe my strength and maybe my weakness too.’’

Blocking a trade that would have brought Toronto draft choices the franchise coveted was right for him and right by what Sundin believes he owed his teammates. “This was something I realized after winning the Olympic gold. It’s not just about a medal or a championship. It’s about the journey that you make with a group of guys. That’s the thing you love, not just standing there with a medal in your hand. You can go places to try and win a Cup to end a career, jump around hoping to hit the right team, but it’s not the same as getting there, all the effort that you’ve shared with the same guys.’’

That brief exit sojourn in Vancouver, only a half-season in harness after dithering endlessly like a Hamlet on skates, to be or not to be something other than a Leaf — his heart wasn’t in it. He’d left it here. But Sundin won’t speak an ill word about that management of the day. “That was just business, nothing personal.’’

What’s deeply personal is the fellowship endowment announced Friday by Sundin, U of T and the world-renowned Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, home of the Nobel Committee for physiology and medicine. Sundin is kicking in a third of the $1 million to launch the undertaking and will continue to raise funds for it over the coming years. One post-doctoral candidate from each institute will be selected annually for advanced study in the areas of maternal health and how early life experiences — “the first 2,000 days’’ — help determine future sickness, health, learning ability and overall well-being.

“It’s not only genetics, it’s the environment you live in,’’ Sundin explains. “I was looking for something where I could give back to the community over the long-term.

In the audience Friday, beaming, were Mats’ parents, Tommy and Gunilla, his wife and two brothers, among the 20-plus friends and kinfolk who’ve made the trip from Sweden for the sweater-honouring ceremony, all flown here and put up at a posh hotel by the Leafs.

Sundin’s own early development was no different than that of most Canadian kids, with parents who schlepped Mats and his brothers — Patrick and Per (Mats is the middle child) to early morning hockey practice, games and tournaments across the country. “I grew up in a very normal Swedish family outside Stockholm,’’ says Sundin. “Our parents gave us an opportunity to do whatever we wanted. They drove us all around, for hockey and all kinds of different sports — bandy, soccer, tennis.”

It all began for the Sundin boys on the frozen pond alongside their parents’ home 20 minutes north of the capital.

“And we played on the driveway, too, of course,’’ recalls Per.

Their dad, a former goalie, would assume the position in net. Early on, it was evident there was something exceptional about how little Mats played. “You knew, right from the beginning, when he was 14 or 15, that he had a real talent for hockey,’’ says Per.

Sundin was just a teenager when he became the first European player selected first overall by the Quebec Nordiques in the 1989 entry draft. Traded to Toronto — Wendel Clark went the other way — in 1994, he would eventually become the first foreign-born captain of the Leafs, setting just about every franchise record in the ensuing years, including most goals (420), points (987), game-winning goals (79) and tied for the NHL record in overtime goals (15). On the fly, cutting across the circle, few could match Sundin’s flair, his strength on the puck, and his signature backhand was a thing of beauty.

There were two trips to the conference final though no further, a hockey halt for which many continue to blame Sundin, as if he should have carried the team on his shoulders to greater things. Simultaneously, particularly as the Leaf with the “C,’’ Sundin became the face of the franchise, media point man — “a big responsibility’’ — eventually so fluent in English that he even began to think in that language. This past week, he stopped speaking in Swedish even with his wife, to brush up on his conversational skills.

Back home, the couple — they wed in 2009 — is building a new house outside Stockholm (“not a monster home, just a normal house’’). Sundin is concentrating on learning the intricacies of financial investment. “During my career, I had people to take care of all that. Now I’m trying to understand it myself.’’

Mostly, he’s satisfied to luxuriate in idleness, though keeping himself physically fit. He looks terrific. Retirement has not been a difficult adjustment. He doesn’t pine for the glory and the cheers. As Per notes: “I don’t think he misses hockey that way. I think he enjoys the life after hockey.’’

The memories are strong, though, and more keenly appreciated from a distance. “You can never replace that feeling of stepping on a fresh sheet of ice, in a playoff game, in the conference finals, Game 6 and everything is on the line, or playing for gold in the Olympics. I can never replicate that feeling somewhere else.’’

He doesn’t pick a favourite goal or a most memorable game. What he will acknowledge is the worst moment ever. “The night Bryan Berard got his eye poked out in Ottawa. I was standing right next to him. I took the puck from (Marian) Hossa and his stick went up. Bryan bleeding on the ice . . . it was the most frightening thing I’ve ever seen.’’

It’s a shame that his own kids — when he gets around to having them — will never have witnessed their father as a hockey virtuoso. “I guess they’ll have to watch old films,’’ he laughs. “They’ll say, ‘Did you used to play hockey dad? Why yes, as a matter of fact, I did.’ ’’

He does retain some connection with the game as ambassador for the Swedish Hockey Federation. Sweden, with Finland, is hosting this year’s world championship. He also sits on the federation’s marketing committee, but he doesn’t contemplate a future in coaching or management.

He’s only a spectator now and a contented man. There are no regrets.

“I’ve received way too much for regrets. How can you have regrets for that or wish for something else? I’ve lived my childhood dreams.’’

Fonte: Toronto Star

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