The Leafs honoured Mats Sundin last night–then promptly dishonoured him with a flaccid 5-0 loss to the Montreal Canadiens. But no matter: the pre-game ceremony was the most important thing about last night, and both the Leafs and Sundin himself nailed it to the wall.
In the name of full disclosure, I watched the ceremony alone in my living room…and I absolutely stood up and applauded when Sundin was introduced. (It was also–how should I put this?–a little bit dusty in there.) I’m thirty-one; I’m too old for “favourite” athletes anymore. Last night, then, was a postscript for one of my life’s phases. Mats Sundin is the last favourite athlete I’ll ever have, although I’ll presumably never lose my capacity to enjoy watching certain athletes play for my favourite teams (Ryan Giggs, for instance, or Adrian Peterson). But in terms of irrational fixations on a few particular sporting heroes, Sundin’s the last in a relatively short list that started with Wayne Gretzky, briefly included Kelly Gruber, Theoren Fleury, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and finished with Sundin, Daunte Culpepper, and maybe Randy Moss. It’s a select group, and its membership’s all the more puzzling since few of them won my teams a championship (Gruber was a bit player for the ’92 Blue Jays; Solskjaer was rather more than that for some great United sides including the 1998/99 treble-winning team. Gretzky, for obvious reasons, doesn’t count.) But none meant as much to me as Sundin, who scored the first goal in my very first Maple Leafs game. Later, I was lucky enough to be inside the Air Canada Centre for two of Sundin’s career milestones (it’s still odd that the former preceded a Leafs elimination, so ecstatic was the reaction to Sundin’s late, late heroics). Oddly enough, given my predilection for lists and whatnot, I can’t remember the last time I saw Sundin play for Toronto; the last time I saw him wearing an NHL uniform he was scoring a game-winning goal for the Vancouver Canucks against Brian Boucher and the San Jose Sharks (it should go without saying I never blamed Sundin for refusing to waive his no-trade clause; he’d earned it, and Sundin was never going to abandon the Leafs like that anyway). It’s nice to know I’ll be able to see his banner whenever I’m back at the Air Canada Centre–a reminder of being sixteen and sitting up in the greys at Maple Leaf Gardens, of being twenty-six and seeing him beat Mikka Kiprusoff for career goal #500, of being twenty-one and watching Mats Sundin bring me and 20,000 other Leaf fans as close to total ecstasy as anyone’s ever brought us in four decades.
Thanks for the memories, Mats.