EDMONTON—The reluctant hockey prince is finally ready to return to the rink.
Mats Sundin confirmed today he will suit up for the Vancouver Canucks tonight against the Edmonton Oilers, his first game in nine months and nine days after ending his career with the Maple Leafs by missing the last three games of the 2007-08 regular season with an injury.
“I am excited,” he said at Rexall Place this afternoon after taking part in a brief optional skate with his new Vancouver teammates, including injured goaltender Roberto Luongo.
“Only way to get where you want to be is to start playing games. I’m not sure how long it's going to take me to get back to being the player I was last season. It’s impossible to say. I’m going to take it shift-by-shift.
Sundin arrived today to find a white helmet with No. 13 on it above his nameplate in the visitors dressing room, sandwiched between the Sedin brothers, Daniel and Henrik. Mike Brown, who had the number before, has switched to No. 15, although Sundin said he wasn’t consulted and would have been happy to wear another number.
“I didn’t have anything to do with it,” smiled Sundin. “It was there when I got to the dressing room. It was very nice (Brown) gave up his number to let me have it. That was a nice gesture.”
He stood teaming with sweat despite just stepping out of the shower as he was surrounded by a large media scrum in the tiny visitors quarters. More than 100 media requests have been received for tonight’s game.
Sundin said he didn’t think it would feel strange to compete tonight without a Maple Leaf jersey on.
“Much of the uniform feels the same. Lots of blue and white,” he smiled. “When you play hockey your whole life you’ve been on lots of different teams and in lots of different situations, so I don’t think that part will be that much of a difference.”
His last game for the Leafs was against Montreal last March 29, and he hasn’t scored a goal in NHL competition since March 11. How quickly he gets up to speed and begins to contribute to a Canucks team that had lost five of seven going into tonight’s game will be intriguing to watch.
“I anticipate he will be effective right away,” said Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish this morning. “He’s a different element for us to prepare for now.”
Sundin signed with the Canucks Dec. 18, meaning it has taken him almost three weeks to prepare himself to play.
“He’s not going to have to rely on his open-ice game,” said MacTavish. “I’ve seen guys come back and play great right away, and other guys take three weeks to get up to speed. It’s hard to predict.”
The 37-year-old Sundin, drafted first overall by the Quebec Nordiques 20 years ago, has played 1,305 NHL regular season games, 981 of them with the Leafs. He has scored 555 goals, 420 of them with the Leafs.
The Leafs tried to trade him twice last winter, and it’s a curious coincidence that on the same day he begins his new career with Vancouver, the Leafs went out and acquired 37-year-old forward Brad May.
Vancouver players are excited to have Sundin join the team. He is expected to play on a line with Mason Raymond and ex-Leaf Kyle Wellwood.
“I’m excited to be part of this tonight,” said forward Jason Jaffray. “It’s a chance to play with one of the best players ever to play. He’s been very calm, very down to earth. He seems like a great guy off the ice.”
Sundin is expected to play three games in four nights right away, but said he’s very much aware the Canucks are scheduled to visit Toronto on Feb. 21.
“It will be emotional. Toronto has been my home for 13 years, and that’s going to be an emotional night,” he said. “Toronto will always be part of my home. I always have a home there, but right now I’m focusing on Vancouver.”
He said he’s not sure how well he will perform immediately.
"I feel good. The body feels good. So, ready to go,” he said. “It’s not a perfect situation coming into the middle of the season like this, it’s a big challenge for me. I have to work every game to get back to where I want to be.
“We’ll see how it goes. Keep it simple, you know, and try to play hard the times I’m on the ice."