Mats Sundin has 3 choices. We assume that the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings are no longer possibilities, leaving only Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. In order, those choices range from Good, to Bad, to Brutal. We wait, and we wait, and we continue to wait, as the summer gets hotter, and September gets closer, and we wonder where Sundin will begin his 18th NHL season. We also wonder, how Sundin's 18th season, and career, might end?
If what he is looking for is to end his career on a dignified and noble note, then there is really only one choice for Mats. This is a choice made with the heart only. It will be difficult to accept that a Stanley Cup run with Toronto is a near-impossibility, that even making the playoffs is remote, and the reality is that if Mats should return, likely his career will end without ever lifting the Holy Grail. Difficult to accept, yes, but the Cup is not the only reward for playing in the NHL. Mats and the Toronto Maple Leafs and it's fans have a relationship. It's not going so well at the moment, but there is, no doubt about it, a lot of love there on all sides. Last season was an especially difficult year for the Maple Leafs, and it's fans, but this is the year to make up for it. Expectations of winning have been put aside, dressing room distractions have (hopefully) been removed, and optimism for future success is replacing excuses for past failures. This is the year that we thank Mats for all he has done. Game in, game out, for 41 home games, but especially on Saturday April 11th, 2009, the last game of the season. We don't expect to win. We don't even expect to make the playoffs. None of that matters. All we expect is hockey played with pride and honour and joy. Mats-Sundin-hockey. Our only true desire for this team, ever, is to be able to cheer for them without shame. Mats, if he returns, will be the source of our pride this year. Maurice is gone, Raycroft is gone, JFJ is gone, and gone with them are the embarrassing excuses, the depressing incompetence, the frustration of under-achieving. With all of that out of the way, Leaf fans can properly focus on thanking our captain for all his class and the excitement he's given us these last 13 years. This season is between us and Mats. We both deserve it.
The Montreal Canadians offer Mats the best alternative, if he decides to move on. Guy Carbonneau says, "It's not all about the money with Mats". I believe that sentence is true, but winning obviously isn't everything to Mats either, otherwise he'd have signed with Detroit like Hossa did for the league minimum. Comfort will play a huge factor and some are suggesting that Mats might avoid playing for the Habs because, "he won't have to face his former team multiple times a year". I find that absurd. What kind of a coward would move to B.C., even though he really wanted to play in Montreal, just because Leaf fans might boo him more than once? Not a good argument. If he wants to go to Montreal, he'll go, and he won't care how we feel about it. He can take being booed, even by us.
Again, though, we wonder, how will it all end? Well, if Montreal wins the Cup, Sundin goes out like a Champion of Champions, with glory and honour and pride. How close is this dream to reality though? It's no sure thing, but the possibility is there. Still, chasing this dream, while courageous and bold, might end in heartbreak and burning police cars. When the Habs season ends without a Cup, but instead, with handshakes at centre-ice, will Montreal fans cheer directly for Sundin, thanking him for his gutsy decision this summer, for giving it his all in search of a Montreal championship? Or will they cheer politely, like they always do when their team loses its' final playoff game at home, eventually sending the players off the ice, singing "Ole-eeeey, ole, ole, ole, Ohhh-ley, Ohhh-ley". Or will they be checking their pockets for matches and lighters? Point is: Mats, they won't appreciate you in Montreal, not like we do. They only want you for your body (and your backhand). They'll celebrate you if you win Mats, but they won't respect you in the morning. With all of their past heroes, and sizzling-hot-french-hockey-passion, they may not even remember your name for long.
There is only one "wrong" choice Mats could make. Only if he chooses Vancouver, will fans label him a sell-out and a hypocrite. They don't love Sundin in Vancouver, they barely even know him. Their offer of 10 million a season for, not one but two seasons, is outrageous in the least, and reeks of desperation. The Canucks organization seems to be in the same shape the Leafs were in two years ago, and it might get worse there before it gets better. Without Sundin (or Naslund) the Canucks don't look like a playoff team. Even with Luongo there, why would Mats want to shoulder so much of the burden for success? Isn't he tired of that weight? I don't believe it's the hockey that Mats is hesitant to return to. I think it's the pressure and the responsibility. Finally, at the end of the season, if Vancouver misses the playoffs or goes out early in the first or second round, how will Vancouver's fans honour Sundin? A 7-minute standing ovation, or will they boo Sundin and the Canucks of the ice like they did the '72 Summit Series heroes? Montreal at least has a championship to aim for. Vancouver? They're just trying not to suck. Hopefully Sundin feels his legacy is bigger than that.
Sundin has three choices, with three different perceptions that will follow him based on the choice he makes. If he plays for the Leafs, then we know that Sundin appreciates his relationship with the fans, that it means as much to him as it does to us. He will retire as a Maple Leaf, and we will honour him with a standing ovation that lasts until he has left the ice and disappeared from sight. He will be remembered as the greatest Leaf to ever wear the Blue and White and will always be welcome in Toronto.
If he plays for Montreal: then we know that the love affair has ended, and that Mats' goal of winning the Stanley Cup is his heart's desire. Good for him, but bad for us, at least we can respect him. We might boo him in that first game in Toronto, but there will be some cheers as well. We will enjoy the new drama in our old rivalry, and we'll feel a sense of pride that the Habs owe their success to our guy.
If he plays for Vancouver: then he is a sell-out, a slut, a hypocrite, a coward, a loser, and he's all about the money. He will not be forgiven by Toronto fans, nor will he be warmly welcomed or remembered.
So, we still think that Mats will come back to Toronto. Neither Montreal nor Vancouver has anything close to what we have with Mats: Emotional Allegiance that cannot easily be broken.