Q&A: Mats Sundin talks Alex Ovechkin, Maple Leafs captaincy

Former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin seen here speaking at the Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Toronto in 2012. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – Whenever Mats Sundin returns to the city he called home for more than a decade, it’s all smiles.

The former Toronto Maple Leafs captain hadn’t been back to his old stomping grounds since the 2016 World Cup of Hockey when he served as an advisor with Team Sweden, but he returned this week for The Mats Sundin VIP Hockey Experience presented by LeoVegas.net.

It’s an opportunity for the Hockey Hall of Famer to meet fans, play a few pick-up games with VIPs, invitees, contest winners and fellow NHL alumni, all while raising money for his charity.

We sat down with Sundin on Thursday to talk about the event and much more.

Sportsnet: You’re a popular guy around here, so it must be a pleasant time whenever you visit Toronto. What’s your favourite part about coming back to the city?

Sundin: Well, it’s a mix of a few different things. I think meeting people in Toronto, like fans that have been watching me play through my years with the Toronto Maple Leafs and also meeting former teammates, friends that you met and you had over the years playing here in the city, so it’s a bunch of different things, but always when I come into Toronto when I land at the airport always feels like coming home. It’s my second home now after living in Stockholm.

SN: Is there a specific spot in the city that you say ‘I have to eat here. I have to go here,’ when you’re in town?

Sundin: There’s a few different places. I took my wife, we went for a walk, we walked by the old Maple Leaf Gardens. I showed her where I played the first few years being a Maple Leaf and we went by where I had my first apartment when I stayed in Toronto. We walked by there and I showed her the lobby and the foyer in there. That’s what makes it feels like you’re coming home too. You lived here for 13 years so there’s always spots recognize and some restaurants too.

SN: So, this Mats Sundin VIP experience. Have you done anything like this before?

Sundin: I’ve been part of different fantasy camps before but this is the first time [with LeoVegas]. It’s a great partnership with Leo Vegas and NHL Alumni and it’s a fundraising event. These events are great because us as former professionals it’s fun to go out and play scrimmage games, but also great to have people that come on board, our VIP winners or someone that gets invited to be part of the tournament always becomes a great mix of players. Different levels [of skill] but a great environment for everybody to hang out and have a good time.

SN: And it raises money for your charity too, right?

Sundin: I have a charity (The Mats Sundin Foundation) where we donate money for research the first for the first 2000 days of a human’s life. It’s a research program with the University of Toronto and the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

SN: How long have you been involved in that kind of charity?

Sundin: I decided when I retired—or actually when they raised my banner at the ACC in 2012. We named the first two fellows and we raised a million dollars and the goal is now to raise another million dollars this year and we’re going to name two more fellows that are going to receive the Mats Sundin Fellowship this fall. I always look for a way to give back to the city of Toronto where I spent most of my career but also to Stockholm where I grew up and I was raised, and this program does both of that at the same time.

SN: It’s a great cause but it also it seems like a fun weekend. Looking briefly at the itinerary, I notice there’s a whiskey and wine tasting. Are you a big drinker?

Sundin: [Laughs] I wouldn’t say I’m a big drinker but it’s supposed to be a complete weekend where I think us as former players and also winners that get invited to this tournament will have a good time. We’re going to have fun on the ice. We’re going to have some dinners. There’s going to be some wine and stuff and we’ll just enjoy the weekend and have fun with it.

SN: I’ve met a few hockey players in my day and I know they like going out after games. Who were some of the best teammates of yours to go out on the town with? I assume it wouldn’t be a guy like Gary Roberts, unless you guys were doing shots of wheatgrass.

Sundin: [Laughs] Well, you know, during the seasons—and I’m sure it’s the same now as when I played—it’s limited when you actually go out. I think guys go out for dinner. I think it was an important part of bonding as a group as players when I was captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs as well. But going out, going out to nightclubs and staying out too long. I think was limited during the seasons.

SN: Which of your former teammates are also going to be participating in some events this weekend?

Sundin: Well, there’s a few of my old teammates. Steve Thomas and Gary Roberts, Curtis Joseph, Tie Domi, Nik Antropov I think is going to be there. [The games] are going to be competitive. It always is. Once you drop the puck, it’s always competitive. So guys will have fun.

SN: Wayne Gretzky once said that when he hadn’t been playing for a while he noticed the first thing to go were his hands. Have you found that to be the case whenever you lace them up?

Sundin: I’ve always said when you’re playing the National Hockey League, you’re like a Formula 1 car. You know, small changes make a big difference at that level. But, but he’s right. Obviously, except for your conditioning and all that you lose at the highest level, also your hands and coordination, I think the last 10-15 per cent takes a long time to get back but to get up to that underneath there is pretty easy I think and that’s a lot better than most other people can do on the ice [chuckles].

SN: Back to your former teammates for a sec. I’m curious, you scored a lot with Alexander Mogilny and Gary Roberts. You had great chemistry and a dominant cycle game with Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Who is one linemate or teammate—whether it’s a Leaf or someone from the Nordiques, Canucks or Swedish national program—that you feel is super underrated. One player that never got the credit they should have for how talented they were?

Sundin: Well, that’s an interesting question. There’s a lot of good players. I would say Mogilny, early in his career, got the credit for being the player he was and scoring [76 goals in the 1992-93 season] but at the end of his career I think he was underrated when he came to us.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to play with him early in his career. We played together late [in our careers]. He already had problems with his hip. He was 36 years old, but I didn’t realize how good he was until I actually skated with him in practice. Playing games with him, he was fantastic. He’s probably the most talented player I played with, I think. You look at him on the big spectrum of the National Hockey League, people probably don’t think of him as maybe one of the best that ever played but he’s right up there for me.

SN: Do you think it’s maybe because he didn’t have quite as many highlight-reel goals as a guy like Pavel Bure or other comparable stars?

Sundin: Yeah, or he didn’t have the [consistency]. He didn’t score 50 goals or 40 like every year over of a long period of time. He was a superstar at the start of his career and he kind of found different positions maybe down in the pecking order on teams as his career went on.

SN: I know you’re asked about the current edition of the Leafs often but it’s rather unconventional for a team to go this long without having a captain. I’m not going to ask who you think their captain should be, but you wore the ‘C’ for a long time. At what point in your career did you feel you were ready to be a captain?

Sundin: First of all, I think that’s all natural. The Toronto Maple Leafs today is a group of young, very promising players. They have done a great job building a foundation. Fans are going to have a great team for a long time so they’re doing the right thing.

Second of all, I think just wearing a letter on your chest doesn’t mean that you’re a leader. I mean, it has to be someone that really thrives under the pressure of being a captain or assistant captain. I think also when you have this young group of guys I don’t think there’s a problem with not having a captain short-term. I think within management and within the group…these guys are so young. They’ll grow older and it will establish who are the leaders in the room and they’ll get to wear the letters on their chest.

SN: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, the team’s core forwards, they all have their first big contracts coming up. You’re no stranger to signing long-term deal. Just in relation to the stability of a franchise, how much peace of mind can locking up your core players long-term bring to a team?

Sundin: You’re saying it. Locking down your core is very important. Obviously, it’s more difficult nowadays with salary caps and there’s so many other factors that you can’t control but as a Maple Leafs fan, you would like to see them be able to lock up all their young talent that they have right now.

SN: It’s been 25 years since the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, and we just ran a big feature on them and the team they beat in the first round that year was the Nordiques. It was your last year in Quebec. You set a career-high 114 points that season if I’m not mistaken. There’s now talk about Quebec possibly returning to the NHL. Do you ever think back to that season because you guys had a really good team and what a win that year might have done for the history of that franchise?

Sundin: Yeah. It’s a great hockey town. You look what Winnipeg has done with their new franchise. There’s no doubt Quebec could do the same thing. There’s such an interest for the game of hockey up there. I would be a great fit if they would be able to get a franchise there again.

SN: You’re known for being a Maple Leaf and you call Toronto your second home, but do you ever go back to Quebec City?

Sundin: I haven’t been back there a lot, no. It was early in my career and I haven’t really been back.

SN: If you did go there, could you just walk down the street and blend in? You can’t really do that in Toronto.

Sundin: [Laughs] I think so. No one’s gonna recognize me. I played there four years, but I was young, I had long blond hair, so it’s a long time ago.

SN: What have you thought about the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year?

Sundin: I’ve been watching quite a lot. It’s been fun to watch. It’s really interesting to see how the game has changed from clutch-and-grab era in the mid-90s and how the league has been trying to get rid of the hooks and holding and giving room for the smaller players and hockey skill to develop and grow up on the ice and you can see in the playoffs. There’s a lot more room for the skill guys to operate and you look at Vegas. They have four lines. Everybody can skate. They can pass. They have hockey sense really deep throughout the lineup and that wasn’t the case mid-90s, late-90s.

SN: How would your style translate to today’s game? If you were just placed in today’s NHL as a young version of yourself would your stats be better, worse? What do you think?

Sundin: I don’t know but I would love to play today’s game being 25 years old. [Laughs] I was a good skater and I had hockey sense and I could score. So, you look at the way the game is being played today and I think anyone that played in the league with skill and was able to skate at the highest level and have hockey sense would have a lot of fun the way the game is being played.

SN: One player that has those skills: Alex Ovechkin. He became the talk of these playoffs. It’s not like he wasn’t going to be in the Hall of Fame one day but what would a Stanley Cup championship do for his legacy?

Sundin: I think it’s important. I’m so happy for him if they end up doing it (they did) because him together with Sidney Crosby have been the two names the NHL has built their legacy around for the last 10 years. You look at not only him but also the management in Washington has done a great job building depth into the roster. It’s not only Alex. There’s five, six guys are carrying the load of that team.

SN: Another Caps player you’re very familiar with is Nicklas Backstrom. He’s usually overshadowed by Ovie but he’s so consistently great. I covered Team Sweden at the World Cup and your management team and the players all raved about him. With the Sedins retired and Henrik Zetterberg’s career winding down, does it now fall on Backstrom to become the leader of Sweden’s forwards internationally? Or maybe a guy like Filip Forsberg? You’ve been involved in the program so I’m curious to get your thoughts on the next generation of Swedish forwards.

Sundin: Backstrom, you look at the World Cup in 2016 and last year Sweden won the world championship. He would be the No. 1 if you look at the forwards in the National Hockey League today. I’ll rank him up there. Now, he has had problems with the injuries this year and even in the playoffs so his numbers in the playoffs haven’t been where they can be but he’s for sure up there. But I think you look at Swedish hockey and the program right now is doing really well. We have a lot of depth right now in this program. Sweden won the world championships last year and also this year with only three guys from [2017] being part of the [2018] team. There’s a lot of young forwards and defence coming out of the Swedish program right now that can be great players.

SN: Is that the biggest change from the time you were coming up in that program? Depth of talent across the board.

Sundin: Yep. For sure, you’re right on. There’s more players playing in the National Hockey League nowadays out of Sweden. And there’s more players having big roles on different teams as well, so we are doing a great job developing new talent and bringing them into the elite level.

SN: I find Swedish players, maybe even more so than players from other countries, have really soft hands. Backstrom in particular might have the softest hands of all. His backhand saucer passes are a thing of beauty. It’s one of my favourite little minor plays in all of hockey to watch. What’s one type of little play like that you love? Like, the sound of a puck going off the post and in. A breakaway goal? A saucer pass? What was the most satisfying little specific play that you liked making?

Sundin: Yeah, I agree with you. I think you appreciate it and I think to appreciate that pass that Backstrom does you have to understand how difficult it is. So I agree, anything offside where you—Sidney Crosby is one of the best at that—taking and giving passes with your backhand as good as your forehand. The game nowadays is so fast, so all those small-scale moves and also lifting the puck in short passes off the backhand I love watching that. It takes a lot of skill to be able to do that at high speed in tight situations where you have guys around you.

SN: You were kind of known for your backhand. I loved watching your backhand, especially on breakaways. You had basically two moves. You’d either shoot high glove or you’d draw it back and deke with a high backhand shot and I was always fascinated with the curve of your stick. Don’t know if stick curves are something you pay much attention to but you really had a unique heel curve at least for the time. I’m curious how long it took for you to settle on that type of curve?

Sundin: It developed over the years. At the start of my career I played mostly on the wing and had a little bit more of a curve and as I start playing more centre I needed to be able to play the puck a little more and also take faceoffs. I went and took down my curve a little bit, went more to a straighter curve, but then you want to have a little bit of a hook to be able to shoot more, so for me it became more of a heel hook. Then I could still be good at the draws and the battle and passing backhand but still have a good shot so it evolved over the years, my stick.

SN: That’s awesome. One last one for you. Going back to Ovechkin for a second. He made some headlines these playoffs with his epic pre-game meal. It’s a lot of carbs. Pasta, chicken, sauces. A whole lot of beige on the plate. Did you have a go-to or favorite pre-game meal?

Sundin: I think they were pretty similar. You know, I think you look at the all the studies that have been done, if you ask the real professionals that know anything about diet and what to eat when you’re a professional athlete, I think you need carbs you need protein and you need vegetables and all that. So it was different but chicken and pasta and vegetables. I think a lot of players nowadays also they go into certain diets where there’s really no research. You need to get carbohydrates into you and you need to get the right amount of calories into you, so Ovechkin can keep doing what he’s doing [laughs].

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