An open letter to Mats Sundin
All right, listen up, you. I know you’re arguably the greatest Toronto Maple Leaf in history, if not on the ice, then at least on paper. You’re first all-time in goals and points scored in the long history of the franchise, after all. You’re a model of consistency, good for at least 70 points a season. And the way you scored your 500th career goal as a shorthanded overtime game-winner to complete a hat trick? Simply legendary. And that’s to say nothing of the stats I’ve personally racked up with you in the EA series of NHL video games. No doubt about it, you’re a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame.
Sure, you may not have won a Stanley Cup, but that really can’t be held against you when it’s time for the voting. For one thing, it’s a team award, not an individual one, and some of those years, you hardly had a team around you. There’s not a lot you can do with Jonas Hoglund and Garry Valk on your wing, after all. Plus, it’s a lot harder to win the Cup in a 30-team NHL with league-enforced parity. It’s not like the days of the Original Six, when only three of those teams were any good anyway. There’s like 10 times the competition now. You’ve never really had a fair shot at hoisting the Cup. Except, you have. You had a chance to win it this past season, in fact. We had a plan. The Leafs were sadly out of contention, for the third year in a row, and you were coming to the end of your contract. As team captain, you’d grudgingly accept a trade to the Detroit Red Wings at the deadline for the good of the organization in return for a good prospect or two and a late first-round draft pick. They wanted you. And you’d have liked it there. There’s lots of fellow Swedes. And you’d look pretty good with the winged wheel on your chest. Then, when you became an unrestricted free agent, we’d have resigned you to a much-improved Leafs lineup, and you could’ve run out the clock on your playing days here and retired a Leaf, just as you always said you wanted to.
And it totally would have worked too. The Red Wings won the Cup last season. You could have lived out your dream of being the first European captain to win the Stanley Cup. Well, vicariously of course. Nicklas Lidstrom now holds that honour. But you’re the longest-serving European captain and his old national teammate — with Peter Forsberg, you guys are the so-called three crowns of Swedish hockey. I bet he’d have handed you the Cup to be the second to hoist it. Maybe he’d have even let you hoist it first, like Joe Sakic did when he handed it to Ray Bourque. Remember that, when Bourque, a career Boston Bruin, was traded to the Colorado Avalanche to finally win his one and only Cup? They didn’t resent that back in Beantown. They were so happy for him they threw him his very own Stanley Cup parade, in fact. I guarantee we’d have done that for you too. We love parades in Toronto. We start planning them every time we win a playoff round, or even two games in a row.
But you hemmed and you hawed or a while before eventually deciding not to bite. You said you’d never believed in the concept of a rental player. Believe it or not, but they do exist. Lots of people don’t believe in the concept of evolution either, but that doesn’t stop it from being a scientific certainty. You yourself are concrete proof of a missing link between Homo sapiens and the Red Skull from the Captain America series of comics, for instance. (Seriously, if they make another movie, go out for the part. It wouldn’t exactly take a Rick Baker makeup job.)
We grudgingly accepted your decision not to grudgingly make a hard decision. You said you wanted to retire a Maple Leaf and that was that. Again, though, we’d have been happy to resign you. We love bringing back old Leafs for nostalgia’s sake. Look at Doug Gilmour. He got a career-ending knee injury on his very first shift back, but we’re just happy he got to retire a Leaf. We just brought back Curtis Joseph too. Hell, septuagenarian Cliff Fletcher is back too. You may remember him as the general manager who originally brought you here in a trade for fan-favorite Wendel Clark (who also came back later, of course.) And just look at how many times we’ve brought back Yanic Perreault. We squandered Brendan Bell and a second-rounder to bring Perreault back for all of 17 games in his third stint with the team. Don’t worry about Bell, though. We’ll probably bring him back when he’s 35, and overpay to do it.
But now you’ve backed off this line about wanting to retire a Leaf. In a way, it’s understandable. Fletcher seemed visibly furious by his failure to trade you and the rest of the so-called Muskoka Five at the deadline, and he seems dead-set on busting up the gang now. He’s already bought out Darcy Tucker, and I don’t know what he’s planning to do about Bryan McCabe’s refusal to waive his no-movement clause, but he’s obviously bent on running him out of town too. Brendan Shanahan’s a free agent now; maybe he’ll sign him specifically to sleep with McCabe’s wife. Or maybe he’ll just lock himself in a room and yell at him like a crazy old man until McCabe gets sick of it.
Now you’ve made noises about wanting to test the free-agent market, so Fletcher made arrangements with the Montreal Canadiens to have the rights to discuss a contract with you. Montreal seemed like somewhere you might want to go. The team’s a contender. The city is lovely. But you dithered endlessly about that until the deadline ran out. By that time, we’d obviously gotten attached to the idea of receiving Mikhail Grabovski in compensation. We got rid of a similar asset in Kyle Wellwood, after all. And now we had to trade more assets to get Grabovski instead of getting him in return for losing you, which we now will probably do anyway. You wouldn’t sign in Montreal. You wouldn’t sign anywhere. Vancouver offered you a two-year, $20-million-dollar contract to come play with those nice Swedish twins they’ve got, which would have made you the highest-paid player in the league. Don’t you know it’s every man’s dream to play with Swedish twins? But you just sent out a letter saying thanks, but no thanks to all your suitors and that you were flattered by the attention but wouldn’t be making a decision about your foreseeable future in, well, in the foreseeable future.
I swear, the last time I saw a Scandinavian so racked by indecision, it was in the play Hamlet. I wouldn’t be surprised to see you hold aloft the skull of Börje Salming and launch into an existential soliloquy. I guess Börje would be a little surprised to see this, though, since he’s not dead.
To sign, or not to sign? There’s really no question. It’s not like you’re slowing down. You’re still as good as you ever were. You can clearly still handle the grind, so if you’re signing somewhere, it ought to be before the season starts. You can’t take half the year off like Teemu Selanne and Scott Neidermayer did last year; that would contradict your statements about the importance of being part of a team from the beginning, right from training camp. And you’d better sign soon before everybody’s spent their free-agent money.
But where to sign? If you were all about winning, you’d have surely signed in some place like Detroit or Montreal. And if you were all about the money, you’d have gone to Vancouver. Hell, if you were all about the money, you could defect to the new KHL and rake in a stupidly high payday from Russian oil billionaires and mobsters, like Jaromir Jagr just did by accepting two years of exile to Siberia for $35 million. You’re clearly not about getting richer, though. At least, you shouldn’t be at this point. According to The Hockey News, you’re the third highest career salary earner of all time among active players. (Number one? That greedy Jagr.) Plus, taciturn Scandinavian that you are, you’ve got prudential money management written all over you. You’re not stuffing all your earnings up your nose and into slot machines like, say, Darren McCarty.
So what are you all about anyway? Do you even know? Some people think you like taking early summer vacations and playing golf most of all. Say it ain’t so, Mats. If you pop up in EA’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 instead of NHL 09, I guess I’ll know for sure.
You’ve given us many years of faithful service, and we thank you for that. (We’ve thanked you by making you the third highest career salary earner of all time among active players, in fact.) But after all this dithering and dicking around, we Toronto fans are starting to lose our patience with you. And if you leave now and we get nothing for it, we sure are going to be pissed. You’ll get booed you off the ice. Well, not literally — that would take a lot of booing to generate that amount of sheer sonic energy, and the Air Canada Centre is actually notoriously quiet. but you know what I mean.
So, here’s the plan. Yeah, I know I don’t work for Maple Leafs Sports Entertainment, even though I toss around the words “we” and “us” a lot. On the other hand, my girlfriend is going to teachers’ college, and since the majority owner of MLSE is the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, when she gets out, she’ll kind of be your boss in a way. And that makes me your boss too, since I’m the boss of her.
So here’s the plan: You sign with us now for a one-year, league-minimum deal. (Hear me out on this.) The players’ union won’t like this, but screw ’em. We’re only three years out of a labour lockout, and salaries are already ballooning out of control again. (Even newly signed Leaf Jeff Finger is amazed he got $3.5 million a year. I’ve been making the joke that he’s only worth a fifth as much as Tony Hand, but the only people who really appreciate that one are fans of the British Elite League, and there aren’t that many of them.) You’ll sign with us, but you won’t play for us. We’re actually trying to stink up the joint this season, and your consistently excellent play will hurt us more than it helps. Instead, we’ll trade you to the team of your choice for a high return, something on the order of a couple of good prospects and a first-round draft pick; at your salary, they’ll be getting a bargain. I suggest you pick Detroit. Not only are they poised to repeat as champions, but Detroit isn’t even that far away from your house here in Toronto, yet they play in the Western Conference where you won’t have to bump into us that often, which you might find awkward. You play the season with them and win your Cup, and we’ll try to come in last and draft John Tavares to replace you as our future franchise player.
Then, next season, you can sign with us again. Play the whole season or play just one shift, and then retire as one of the most beloved Maple Leafs of all time. Then, and here’s where you get your payoff, we’ll sign you to a management deal, which won’t count against the salary cap. I know you’ll want to move home to Sweden when your playing days are done, so let’s nominally sign you up as a Swedish scout, say, for two years at $10 million? MLSE has money to burn, after all. You won’t even need to do any scouting if you don’t feel like it. You can just sit in your pile of money and admire your Stanley Cup ring.
Sound like a deal? What do you say?
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