Mats Sundin – a Toronto Legend
The ice hockey legend can claim to be as much a son of Toronto as of his home town, Stockholm.
Few athletes are as recognizable and beloved in Sweden as Mats Sundin, who made his Tre Kronor debut as a 19-year-old, scored a spectacular World Championship-winning goal as a 20-year-old, and then, in 2006, as a 35-year-old, led Team Sweden to an Olympic gold medal in Turin, Italy.
Now, thanks to his 13 seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, ten of which as the team’s captain and leader, he’s just as beloved in Toronto, a town crazy about its “Leafs,” whose last Stanley Cup win came way back in 1967. Under Sundin’s leadership, the team made the Eastern conference final – the final four – twice.
Even though Sundin retired in 2009 as a Vancouver Canuck, he’s still regarded as “Mr. Maple Leaf.” His number 13 has been retired by the team, and it’s Toronto he calls his “second home.”
A family affair
“My wife and I are both close to our families, so it wasn’t a difficult decision to move back to Sweden, even though I had lived in Canada my entire adult life,” says Sundin, who was the first European to go first overall in the NHL draft when the Quebec Nordiques picked him in 1989.
The Sundins now have three children – a daughter and two sons, all under the age of ten – making life hectic at times. Mats is also a founder of “Institutet för människor i rörelse” that helps companies encourage their employees to stay physically active and healthy.
He’s also the founder and board member of another company, as well as the Mats Sundin Foundation that has set up a fellowship to support medical research exchange between the University of Toronto and Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. The research focuses on the first 2,000 days of life that have life-long consequences.
The next generations
And let’s not forget the Hockey Hall of Fame hockey camp he most recently ran in Sollentuna, Sweden, where his career started once upon a time.
“It was meant for kids who had never tried hockey before, maybe because they had recently arrived in Sweden from countries where hockey isn’t played, or because it had been financially difficult. I hope to be able to kick start that again. It was fun, and the kids loved it,” he says.
“That’s how the days fly by. Time goes fast,” Sundin says with a laugh.
While Sundin is keeping busy, he’s doing it mostly in private. He hasn’t appeared in TV shows, and, like many of his peers, he hasn’t re-entered the hockey arena as a coach or an executive.
“One thing that helped me cope with the pressure and stress was that I always knew where the line was between Mats the person and Mats Sundin, the hockey player.”
Now more than a decade removed from the everyday pressures of being a professional hockey player, Sundin says he can reflect on his active career and what he learned from it.
“I turned 50 a year ago, and it’s a milestone that made me think back a little. It’s a reminder of the fact that nothing lasts forever,” he says.
“When I was young, I was considered a big talent and I had to get used to the hard work you have to put in to go all the way,” he adds.
To get to play a sport for a living is a privilege, he adds, even when you’re under constant scrutiny and your every play and shot is analyzed.
Away from the spotlight
“One thing that helped me cope with the pressure and stress was that I always knew where the line was between Mats the person and Mats Sundin, the hockey player. On the ice, I always did my best and gave all I had, but I also tried to remember that it was a game, and that there had to be room for play, creativity and fun, even with 20,000 fans in the stands,” he says.
“Also, I had a pretty good on-off switch,” he adds.
When Sundin was off, he didn’t worry about hockey. But when he was on, he was ON. According to Alpo Suhonen, the first European NHL coach who was with the Leafs for two seasons in the early 2000s, Sundin was always good.
“I never saw him not be good. Neither in training nor during matches,” he says.
The effects of stress and well-being are close to Sundin’s heart and he’s concerned that people have trouble finding their own “off switch.”
“In today’s world, the line between work and private life gets blurred thanks to our digital tools. It can be hard to just put the phone aside and sit down and read a book or go for a walk in the woods. I know it’s more difficult for me with small kids,” he says.
“It’s important to relax and not be always on, so that you recover both mentally and physically.”
Every November, the Hockey Hall of Fame – based in Toronto – arranges an alumni game during the weekend when new players and builders are inducted. For Sundin, who was inducted into the HHOF in 2013, it’s a great opportunity to reconnect with the city of Toronto and some old friends.
“I don’t think many people appreciate what a big city Toronto is. With almost 6.5 million people from all corners of the world it’s like New York, with its Little Italy, Chinatown, Greektown and the financial district Bay Street,” Sundin says.
“It’s the people I miss most. And that big city buzz.”
Family: Wife, three children
– Olympic gold 2006, three World Championship gold medals (1991, 1992, 1998), two silver medals (1990, 2003) and two bronze medals (1994, 2001.)
– Swedish champion 1990.
– First European to be drafted 1st overall (Quebec Nordiques 1989)
– World Championship MVP 2003
– Hockey Hall of Fame 2013
– International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame 2013
– 1,346 NHL games, 564 goals, 1,349 points.
Text by Risto Pakarinen