Loyalty is a product of perception. It can be gauged — how far one needs to go to reach self-satisfactory fulfillment, how much is demanded from someone to prove its existence — and it has its limitations.
Mats Sundin was loyal to the Toronto Maple Leafs. He wanted to win a Stanley Cup for the city and its fans. He wanted nothing more than to achieve that honor as a Leaf, playing amongst friends.
Toronto was six points out of a playoff spot at the 2008 NHL Trade Deadline. Had they qualified for the tournament, it wouldn't have been as a team with a realistic shot at the championship. They needed to reload and rebuild. The best way to kickstart that process? Trading one of the top scorers of the last 18 years to a contender for a package of picks and prospects.
Only Mats Sundin didn't want to go, and had a no-trade clause that allowed him to reject any deal.
Sundin's number will be honored Saturday night at Air Canada Centre, becoming the 16th individual in franchise history to have a banner in the rafters. It's a time to remember the Hall of Fame career he put together in Toronto. It's also time to remember that he was loyal to a fault.
In Feb. 2008, the 37-year-old center was asked by GM Cliff Fletcher for a list of teams as trade destinations. TSN's Darren Dreger reported that suitors like the Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Vancouver Canucks were lining up for him; the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators were also in the mix.
Sundin refused to waive. Here's a sense of the media swarm that caused:
The criticism arrived swiftly, especially from those outside of Toronto. From a plucky columnist named Wyshynski on AOL FanHouse:
Should the Leafs even welcome him back? Sundin has placed his own personal comfort ahead of self-sacrifice for the franchise he so dearly adores. The asking price was only going to rise as Tuesday's deadline grew near; there's no telling what improvements to next year's Leafs their captain just pissed away because of his nihilism toward the "concept of a rental player." Ice Junkies believes this decision is the epitome of class; I couldn't disagree more.
Fletcher should immediately strip Sundin of the captain's C. Then, Fletcher should make it very clear he will not re-sign the unrestricted free agent this summer or strongly recommend to the next full-time GM that Sundin not be re-signed.
After all, what kind of role model is Sundin if he refuses to commit the ultimate act of leadership by helping the team he professes to love get better? What kind of leader would prefer not to go to a contender and stay with a team that has no hope to make the playoffs and is already in a much-publicized rebuilding phase? Is this a hockey leader, a player worthy of the captaincy, or is this a man who simply enjoys the prospect of an early trip to his cottage or vacation in Spain every April? Think that's harsh? Get over it.
The Leafs captain had suddenly be recast as selfish. This label was superficially reinforced over the next few months, as Sundin dithered about his hockey future before joining the Vancouver Canucks for a inconsequential career coda.
Sundin was given a no-trade clause, and had every right to spike a trade request. But this wasn't Dany Heatley dictating his future with an NTC because he didn't give a rat's ass about that the Senators were getting back for him. This was a player that professed loyalty and love to a franchise, and then refused to help that franchise at the end of his playing days because "I just don't think I can go to another team if I don't want to play for another team."
It was a moment in which the concept of loyalty was blurred for many in the NHL.
Had he earned the right to say "no"? Was it hypocritical to trumpet one's dedication to the franchise and then not assist it with an act of self-sacrifice? "I understand the business part of it," said Sundin; did he?
Today, as his number ascends to the rafters, Sundin has reflected on all of this. From the CP:
"My strength and maybe my weakness is that I'm a loyal guy," the former Leafs captain said Friday. "I felt that you spend so much time in an organization and in Toronto, I always saw myself winning the Stanley Cup in Toronto. I wanted to do that and also (realized) it would never feel the same doing it somewhere else."
"When you're 22 or 23, it's kind of just about winning the championship," Sundin said. "And as you grow older, it's a cliché, but you're enjoying the journey, the travel and the grind of getting together as a group in the fall and just build up for a goal in the spring. It was kind of the thing that was great, the long-term commitment."
Perhaps that was the great misconception about Mats Sundin's loyalty.
It was to the fans, to the city, and the "group building up for a goal in the spring." It wasn't to management, or the players wearing the Leaf after Sundin was no longer on his journey.
Some fans, most media and Leafs management perceived that his loyalty should include an appetite to help rebuild a franchise he proudly led for 13 seasons.
Mats Sundin perceived loyalty, and commitment, quite differently. And his legacy with the Leafs will forever carry that awkward footnote.