Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said Mats Sundin was not present for his statue unveiling on the Maple Leafs’ Legends Row in 2015. He was there.
SOLLENTUNA, Sweden — If you want to find Mats Sundin, all you need to do is take a commuter train about 20 minutes north into the suburbs from central Stockholm.
From there he’s only about a 10-minute walk away, unmistakably captured mid-stride in a rush up ice for the Toronto Maple Leafs by a life-sized mural mounted on the wall of a modest red-brick arena.
This is where “X” marks the spot on a career that brought him considerable fame on two continents.
Fresh off the 520 bus from his home in Viby, it was here where a young Sundin started laying the foundation to become one of the greatest all-time players for an iconic NHL franchise, back before either of the two rinks on the grounds of the Sollentuna sports center was even covered by a roof.
Back when he was still developing a powerful skating stride with the help of extra ice time on the bandy rink, too.
Today, Sundin keeps an incredibly low public profile. Since retiring from the NHL, he has rarely returned to Toronto, preferring to live beyond the spotlight as a husband to Josephine and father to Bonnie, Nathanael and Julian.
This week in Stockholm was a different experience for Sundin and his family. There were red carpets, ceremonial faceoffs and appearances at Leafs practices and in the dressing room — all chances to reconnect with fans, players and the franchise where he became a captain and a superstar.
The game rink at Sollentunavallen is plastered with Sundin’s photos, including a large one inside the main doors that features a vintage shot of him wearing a Tre Kronor sweater and lists his point-per-game career totals in both international and NHL play. Hidden away in a back office, there’s a visor-less helmet bolted to the wall that was once worn by Sundin as a member of the Leafs and a framed blue sweater he wore as a kid representing Sollentuna Hockey.
Sundin returns occasionally to the arena where he earned that spot on the wall of fame when his middle child needs to be shepherded there for a game.
“He’s a great driver,” said Niklas Kronwall, the former NHLer who is one of three coaches in charge of the SDE under-10 team that features Nathanael Sundin wearing No. 13.
Kronwall gravitated naturally to coaching the kids after he finished a 15-year career with the Detroit Red Wings in 2019. He says he’d simply have too many opinions about what’s happening on the ice to happily remain in the stands like Sundin, who pulled some strings to get the SDE U10 boys into Hovet Arena for Saturday afternoon’s Maple Leafs practice but doesn’t otherwise get too involved in the running of the team.
In fact, Sundin has only skated with them once — for a parents vs. kids game last season.
“He looked like he could still play,” said Kronwall. “He was just flying out there. Some guys never lose it.”
While everything about Sundin remains incredibly understated and humble, the pride in his accomplishments is undeniable in the place where it all began.
Patric Hörnqvist has deep roots here, too, after willing himself from being the 230th — and final — pick in the 2005 draft to someone who twice lifted the Stanley Cup during a 901-game NHL career. He still lives in this suburban municipality that overlooks a beautiful inlet of the Baltic Sea.
But there is only one hockey player with his picture hanging outside the rink. There is only one Sundin.
“He’s up there with Nick Lidström and Peter Forsberg for being the best players that ever played from Sweden,” said Rakell.
Sundin’s NHL career began in Quebec and ended in Vancouver, but for him it was always about Toronto.
He spent 13 years with the Leafs — 11 of them wearing the captain’s ‘C’ — and on the occasion of his induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame he expressed a measure of regret about the final half-year he spent with the Canucks after a sour ending to his tenure in Toronto, where he was asked to waive his no-trade clause in the middle of a playoff chase and refused.
“It was a good experience (in Vancouver) but I wish I would have finished my career as a Maple Leaf,” Sundin said in 2012.
It never sat right with him that the organization wanted to throw the captain overboard when there was still something to fight for. He had sweat and bled for the Leafs, twice helping the team reach the Eastern Conference final, and repeatedly shouldered a heavy load without complaint while tasked with propping up garden-variety wingers.
As the years went on, Sundin came to feel that a Stanley Cup won elsewhere wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying as the one he was chasing in Toronto. That’s why it never felt or looked quite right when his negotiating rights were traded to Montreal at the 2008 draft or when he played those 49 games for Vancouver rather than getting a 14th season with the Leafs.
And as much as this may all seem like long-and-buried history now — Sundin last played for the Leafs during the 2007-08 season and announced his retirement on Sept. 30, 2009, in the same luxury hotel where the team stayed on Stockholm’s waterfront for the Global Series this week — he’s always been a man whose actions spoke louder than his words.
Those actions hinted at a disconnect.
Sundin was the only living player included on the NHL’s 100 Greatest of All Time who didn’t attend the gala in Los Angeles when that list was announced in January 2017, and he wasn’t inside Scotiabank Arena a few months before that when the Leafs formally retired the numbers of 16 players — including his No. 13.
And there was at least one occasion where Sundin attended a Leafs game in a private box and wasn’t even shown on the scoreboard for recognition by the fans.
Even for an intensely private guy, it didn’t make much sense. He’s the all-time leader in goals, assists and points for the franchise. And he always referred to Toronto as his second home.
He was, in many ways, the ultimate Maple Leaf — intense, inclusive, committed and reliable.
“He was a great leader,” said Glenn Healy, who played four years with Sundin in Toronto and now runs the NHL Alumni Association. “He didn’t speak a lot. He wasn’t the rah-rah, non-stop chatter in the dressing room type. But when he spoke it carried a ton of weight and you listened.”
Dallas Eakins, who both played with and coached Sundin with the Leafs, remembers the legendary workouts he’d urge teammates to join. They included a circuit of weights and an intense three-minute push on the stationary bike, and came to be known as the “captain’s workout.”
Praised as a guy who made sure no one was left behind when dinner plans were being made on the road, Sundin was the Leafs’ leading point producer in 12 of his 13 Leafs seasons. His 72 points were second to Alex Mogilny’s 79 in 2002-03.
“On the ice, talent-wise, he was almost unstoppable,” said Healy. “What attribute didn’t he have?”
Walking the red carpet amid a who’s who of Swedish celebrities and Hockey Hall of Famers attending the world premiere of the Börje Salming docuseries at Södra Teatern last Tuesday, no one drew a bigger crowd than Sundin.
It took him nearly an hour to inch through the swarm of reporters in the lobby and climb the staircase toward the theatre while Josephine waited patiently at his side.
Brendan Shanahan, a contemporary of Sundin’s as a player and now the Leafs president, was also in attendance for the premiere a few hours after the team’s charter flight touched down in Stockholm. He spoke of how much this trip meant to an organization with a rich history of Swedish stars and added: “We’re going to get to spend a lot of time with Mats here.”
They squeezed a couple years’ worth of visits into five days.
Sundin was on the ice at Scotiabank Arena with Salming a year ago when the defenceman received a massive pregame ovation days before he died of ALS, but hasn’t had a direct connection to the Matthews/Marner/Nylander era of the Leafs anywhere near the level we witnessed here. Being around the group brought back memories of his own trip to Stockholm as a player on the team during training camp in 2003.
“We had a great year that season playing in the league,” he said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for a team to bond.”
He was in the middle of the bonding.
When the team found itself with an off day Thursday, Sundin and Josephine joined Sheldon Keefe’s coaching staff and members of management for a dinner at Brasserie Astoria. Some old war stories were swapped there.
“It was good chatting with him,” said Keefe. “He’s a proud Maple Leaf, first of all, you can see that. But also he just loves the game and I think he was enjoying being around everyone and telling the old stories.”
The following night he was invited into the Leafs dressing room to call out the starting lineup before a 3-2 victory over Detroit. He named four Swedes and Max Domi — the son of his close friend, Tie, who counts Sundin as “family” — and urged the team to make everyone proud.
It was not an overly theatrical performance on Sundin’s part, but it left an impact on players who had no idea he was stopping by.
“That’s a legend walking in those doors,” said Calle Järnkrok.
On Saturday afternoon, Sundin sat in the stands with Kronwall and a couple other parents inside Hovet Arena while his son and their teammates chanted throughout Leafs practice. The kids climbed over seats and mugged for selfies with William Nylander and Auston Matthews while Sundin looked on with a smile and later joined Nylander for a fan appearance at Kungsträdgården.
Afterward, Sundin returned to Avicii Arena to watch the Leafs close out their Sweden trip with a 4-3 overtime win over Minnesota on Sunday afternoon — performing the ceremonial faceoff with his children at his side and pumping a fist in excitement before presenting Morgan Rielly, the longest-serving Leaf, with a Rolex for being selected as the player of the game.
With respect to Rielly, that selection was an eyebrow-raiser. Nylander was the star of the entire week and had just frozen the clock with an end-to-end overtime rush that produced his fifth point of this two-game trip. He’s unquestionably the Leafs’ biggest Swedish star since Sundin and he’s produced at least one point in all 17 games this season.
In Sundin’s eyes, Nylander has elevated his game.
“We all know that William is a great hockey player,” he said. “It’s great to see him get off to such a strong start this year. Knowing Toronto is such a great team, hopefully he’ll continue like that and Toronto will have a good chance in the spring.”
What felt like a natural question at the start of the week seemed downright silly by the end of it.
Do you still follow the team?
“I do,” Sundin said Tuesday, from the red carpet at the Salming premiere. “I watch the games. I watch the games.”
From afar, before now, and from a front-row seat in Stockholm.
Sundin is still busy raising a family and says “we’ll see” when asked if a role with the Leafs would be appealing, but on this Swedish adventure it became clear that a bridge back to Toronto may yet be rebuilt for the franchise icon.
On Sweden’s Viaplay broadcast of the game on Sunday, Sundin said the events of the past week had his pulse rising.
“Toronto’s management and coaches have taken me in, and it has been incredibly nice,” he said. “Toronto has meant so incredibly much to my career; I was there for 13 years and the captain. Toronto is my second home; we live in Stockholm, but when I come there, it’s like coming home.”
Rob Rossi contributed to this report from Pittsburgh.
(Top photo of Mats Sundin and his children preparing to drop the ceremonial faceoff on Sunday: Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)
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