Saturday, August 27, 2005

 

Your Weekend Berger Fix!

Now for you Leafs Fans, the ever popular Berger Fix....


LEAFS/SUNDIN MARRIAGE WON’T LAST FOREVER

BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto

Mats Sundin’s career with the Toronto Maple Leafs has spanned the exact number of years that yours truly has been covering and traveling with the team on a full-time basis for The Fan-590. In fact the radio station was still known as The Fan-1430 when I began following the Leafs from city to city during the lockout-shortened season of 1994-95. And, I have crystal-clear memories of a shy, reticent young man, only 23 years of age, with a full head of wavy blonde hair, lining up for his first physical as a Toronto player.

The Big Swede of September, 1994 bore no resemblance to the confident, well-spoken veteran we know today, as he nervously fumbled for words to answer questions about “replacing” the monstrously popular Wendel Clark, for whom he’d been traded three months earlier. Perhaps the best thing that ever happened to Sundin was the postponement of that initial campaign. The 103-day work stoppage allowed him precious time to observe the intensity of the hockey atmosphere in Toronto, and he seemed far better prepared to handle the daily toil when the NHL returned in the third week of January, 1995.

From that point on, Sundin has been no less than the second-most important hockey face in Toronto. For just more than two years, he shared the brightest spotlight in Maple Leaf land with Doug Gilmour, and when the “Killer” was traded to New Jersey in February, 1997, Sundin assumed the leading role. For all but one season, he has been the club’s leading scorer, and he begins the 2005-06 campaign within reasonable striking distance of Darryl Sittler’s team records for goals (389) and points (916). He is also the third-longest serving captain in Leafs’ history, starting his eighth consecutive season with the ‘C’. Only George Armstrong (12 seasons) and Hap Day (10 seasons) held the role longer, and Sundin has done it for more years than Ted Kennedy, Dave Keon and Sittler.

Unfortunately for No. 13, however, it appears all but certain that he will finish his Maple Leaf career with “Marcel Dionne” stigma – an outstanding individual talent devoid of a Stanley Cup ring. Sundin has two years remaining on his contract, and you can bet the house he’ll bolt to another team if the Leafs aren’t solidly in position to contend before the summer of 2007. At 36 years of age, Mats – if healthy – will probably still have three or four years of hockey left in him, and he’ll almost assuredly seek out the best opportunity to fill his championship void.

Two years, then, is all that remains for the Leafs to prove to one of their greatest all-time performers that they can legitimately challenge to end their Stanley Cup famine.

While Sundin has a knack for saying all the right things – and mesmerized followers of the Blue and White gobble up every word of encouragement that comes out of his mouth – he is neither delusional nor overly content. His annual proclamation that he is “sick of losing in the playoffs” has become a mantra, and he admitted earlier this week that the second-round loss to Philadelphia in 2004 pushed him close to the edge. Another season or two falling short of the Cup Final will undoubtedly send him over the cliff, and it will come as anything but a surprise if he chooses to finish his brilliant career elsewhere – perhaps in a place where he won’t have to continuously answer for his team’s shortcomings. Putting on a brave, smiley face in front of cameras, notepads and microphones is tolerable for time, but Mats has done it far longer than anyone should reasonably expect.

There isn’t a professional athlete on earth who has responded to his city’s sporting climate in a more consistent, accomplished manner. When Sundin is questioned about the demands of playing hockey in Toronto; about the endless years of coming up short in the playoffs, and whether he’d honestly like to try his luck elsewhere, the affable, always-patient Swede insists there is no better place to come to work. At times, he appears to do so through clenched teeth, and who can blame him? But, his remarks always reflect favorably on the Leaf organization and the crazed hockey atmosphere in southern Ontario.

The Leafs have paid him handsomely to portray that image, and to perform at an optimum level each night. While he struggled for a half-decade or so, in the minds of many, to attain the brilliance expected of him (and to re-discover the dynamism of his early NHL years in Quebec City), Sundin has been unfailingly dependable since the late-‘90s. He is a rock-solid, supportive teammate, who never attempts to hog the limelight. Whether he scores a goal, or another Leaf player does, he’ll show the same level of excitement and enthusiasm. He abhors losing, and is not able to hide his consternation like he used to after a disappointing game. The older he gets, the hotter his fires rage to play on a championship team, and his devotion to the Leaf organization has been unquestioned, to this point. Given his druthers, he would love to win that elusive Cup as a member of the Blue and White.

But, Sundin is also a practical, intelligent person who knows that his chances in Toronto are running out. Leaving, therefore, increasingly becomes an option. Not being married, Mats has no concerns about uprooting a family. He could easily move on and take his chances in another city, and you have to think the Leafs are fully aware of that. Sometime in the next 12 months, it seems logical that GM John Ferguson will approach Sundin’s agent, J.P. Barry, about a contract extension that would allow the veteran centre to finish his career in Toronto.

The offer will be tempting to a loyal Sundin, but it says here that Barry, among others, will convince him to think long and hard before committing. And, that Mats will ultimately choose to see what the open market bears in the summer of ’07. Undoubtedly, a large segment of dyed-in-the-wool Leaf zealots will read this and consider it nothing more than fiction. Like so many did the “nonsense” during the 2001-02 season that Curtis Joseph would leave Toronto if not re-signed before the July 1st cut-off date.

Mats Sundin has given more of his soul to the Leaf organization that Cujo, or any other player in the past decade. He has entirely earned the right to choose, sometime relatively soon, if Toronto is the place to live out his ultimate dream. And, no one should either begrudge him, or be taken by surprise if the Big Swede decides to skip town before hanging them up.



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