Too Good To Not Remember Well
Mats Sundin is in a rare position for an athlete.
The longer the distance grows between the last time he laced up his skates as a Maple Leaf, the greater his legacy becomes.
To some degree, that's because Leaf fans now surely understand the treasure they had in Sundin for all those years, if only because of what has followed. There isn't a Leaf on the roster now that holds a candle to him, not a Leaf who looks like he'll follow in Sundin's Hall of Fame steps. Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel aren't even close to what Sundin was as captain and best offensive player when he wore the blue-and-white.
Beyond the ice, Sundin's pure class from the moment he arrived in that famous trade with Quebec has yet to be replaced. He always said the right thing, never embarrassed the team, never found himself emerged in scandal or the slightest trouble, never was accused of not caring or not giving his all.
That there were critics of Sundin, vicious ones at times, now seems absurd, looking back. We have prominent players in town now, from Jose Bautista to Chad Owens and Ricky Ray to Andrea Bargnani, but none compare to the graceful Swede in terms of his consistency, durability and productiveness over more than a decade.
Some didn't like the fact he wasn't a fiery captain. Perhaps he wasn't a perfect one. But look at the trials and tribulations the team has experienced finding a new one since he left. Phaneuf wears the "C" today, but not with any particular comfort, not with any sense he earned it or was the natural successor to Sundin.
Was Sundin fully appreciated? I'd say he was, perhaps not as much as he would have been had he led the club to a Stanley Cup, and one is always mystified by those players who are deified as Leafs and those who can't ever earn their due. He accomplished more than any Leaf since Darryl Sittler, and he probably accomplished more as a Leaf than Sittler.
The ending wasn't perfect, but you only have to have a conversation with Sundin to understand how much he loves and appreciates our spectacular but athletically underachieving city - would you rather have an undesirable city and winning teams? - and given the long stream of athletes and coaches who have decided they'd rather be somewhere else, that's rare.
He was an outstanding player and an ambassador for the franchise and the city, and the longer he's gone, the more powerful the void he left behind as athlete and personality seems.
Maybe only Frank Mahovlich was quite like this in Leaf history, and with the Big M, it was because he went on to bigger and better things.
Not Sundin. He was at his best and gave his best to the Leafs. Quebec City and Vancouver experienced a little bit of him, but not even close to what Toronto got.
Someday, another like him will come along. But it might not be soon.