A Champion in Blue-and-White
TURIN-Four years ago, there was a Maple Leaf head coach who came back from Salt Lake City with a gold medal.
Two years after that, Team Canada won the World Cup in Air Canada Centre, the first championships featuring NHL players won in Toronto in 37 years.
Yesterday, the captain of the Maple Leafs, Mats Sundin, was adorned with a gold medal as captain of Team Sweden, thus ending for all time, one should think, any debate over his suitability as a captain.
For the future, you can argue whether Sundin is a good enough player to lead the Leafs.
But he's proven he's a good enough leader. He has proved that in a tournament featuring the best players on the planet, he could wear the "C" on the winning side.
You can't debate that. You can't take that achievement from him, ever.
From 2002, 2004 and 2006, then, the Leafs have been associated with championships, yet they remain anything but a championship team.
Sundin's gold is the result from the 2006 Winter Olympics that should most benefit the club in the final quadrant of the NHL schedule as they desperately fight to qualify for post-season play.
They start Tuesday night out of the 16-team dance, so the job ahead will have to be a come-from-behind effort.
As well as Sundin, the club has a gold-medal winning back up goalie in Mikael Tellqvist. Defenceman Aki Berg won silver with Finland, something that may ease criticism of his play as a Leaf and give him a confidence boost. Nik Antropov's Olympic experience with Kazakhstan lasted only a few games, but he was an important player in those games.
On the down side, Quinn is no longer bathed in a golden hue, and he will be judged harshly if the Leafs can't make it to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Being associated with the golden Team Canadas of 2002 and 2004 were the greatest achievement of Quinn's coaching career, but the disastrous seventh place finish of this year's Olympic squad will only add fuel to the debate over whether it's time for the Leafs to find a new man behind the bench.
For Bryan McCabe, the Olympics didn't bring glory. Instead, it delivered the harsh judgement that, even as a spare, he wasn't up to the Olympic level challenge. He won't get another chance to be part of another best-on-best Team Canada, as age will work against him now and there's no World Cup on the calendar in the next two years to give him another opportunity to prove himself.
As with Tomas Kaberle, the Leafs can reward McCabe for his best NHL work this season with an oversized contract that will keep him off the free agent market this summer.
But, as with Kaberle, paying McCabe a salary commensurate with a star player won't make him a star. This team has to understand some day it can't use whopper salaries as a means of enhancing its roster.
While Vancouver will resume the NHL schedule without Sami Salo and Mattias Ohlund due to the injuries suffered during the Olympics, and likewise Ottawa won't have Dominik Hasek, the Leafs who participated will return unscathed.
They will join their teammates including an aged but rested starting goaltender and various players who, if the Leafs are really committed to winning, have used the past two weeks to prepare themselves for spring success.
It'll be tough for Sundin, Tellqvist, Berg and McCabe to get rolling again. The travel from Italy will be tiring, and switching gears to a different style and level of competition won't be a simple thing.
But this team can't wait. It has 25 games to make the playoffs, not 25 games to get warmed up.
Sundin has just been touched by gold. But there is no time to savor and enjoy the moment, only to use this achievement to somehow drive his Leaf teammates to achieve a lot more in the final part of the NHL season than they did in the pre-Olympic portion.