Commentary

Mats to Canucks! Riots? Hatred between provinces? Um, hardly

Updated: January 4, 2009, 5:33 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

It wasn't exactly "Dewey Defeats Truman." No sir.

True, there had been at least two breathless reports out of Toronto earlier this week that Mats Sundin had agreed to terms with the New York Rangers, but everyone even peripherally associated with professional ice hockey understands every rumor and slice of hockey news that comes out of that city is as dependable as a Nick Saban promise.

Sundin's signing by the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday was no shocker, no unexpected stunner that caught a continent napping. The news just sort of slid out Thursday night around the dinner hour like Jello onto a plate. Well, it actually was midafternoon Pacific Time, leaving satisfied Vancouverites enough time to call family and friends and organize celebratory gatherings that undoubtedly included toasts to IKEA and lasted well into the West Coast morning.

The reverberations were felt more in other parts of the hockey-mad country of Canada than in New York or any other port in the United States. In Canada, there's added meaning to such things, of course. People in Vancouver love to sneer at other parts of their country from the safe refuge on the other side of the Rockies, while people in the rest of Canada greet news out of Vancouver the same way families greet the latest oddity from a loony uncle.

There also wasn't any overheated Boston Red Sox-New York Yankees element to the Canucks outmaneuvering the Broadway Blueshirts for the free-agent services of Sundin, 37. Sure, the two teams competed in the 1994 Stanley Cup finals and, yes, Orland Kurtenbach played for both franchises and, true, Mark Messier did bolt the Big Apple for Mark Gastineau's football Elba in 1997, but they've otherwise had little to do with one another since Vancouver joined the NHL in 1970.

There's no hate-on between these hockey towns, nor is there likely to be one now. No construction worker tried to bury a jersey of Gilles Villemure in the footings of GM Place when they were poured more than a decade ago.

If anything, the Canucks won Sundin's services through quiet, dignified patience, and that's a beauty pageant in which Manhattan just doesn't compete. Vancouver GM Mike Gillis identified Sundin during the summer as the player he needed to have, left all kinds of salary-cap room just sitting there to accommodate the veteran center as the 2008-09 season progressed and thus was able to offer more money than other interested teams when Sundin ambled back into the NHL's corral after a long, snoozy walk in the wilderness.

Gee, imagine that. "Professional Athlete Accepts Largest Financial Offer." Undoubtedly, Captain Louis Renault would be "shocked" to hear of such a result.

We should tell you there are folks in Toronto who are a lot angrier about this than anybody in New York might be, for it was with the Maple Leafs that Sundin toiled for 13 seasons, and it was just last winter that Sundin refused to waive the no-trade clause in his contract to allow the Leafs to realize a package of prospects and draft picks for him as the team stumbled to a third straight nonplayoff finish.

Sundin said he didn't want to be a rental player and was interested only in joining a Stanley Cup contender in time to enjoy the experience from training camp all the way through to the end of the playoffs.

To some in Toronto, then, Sundin is some sort of hypocrite, and his months-long dance of professional reluctance was pure torture.

To those folks, we say get over it. The guy was a free agent with tens of millions of dollars in his bank account, some of them from the first pro contract he signed, friends will attest. And people do have the right to change their minds when it comes to their professional lives. Sometimes, it works out for them; sometimes, it's Tom Selleck turning down the role of Indiana Jones to shoot more episodes of "Magnum, P.I." It wasn't like Sundin pretended not to have a cure for cancer, then turned out to have it secretly tucked in his desk drawer all along.

Having Sundin waffle over his future for months was portrayed in some corners like some great national nightmare, like a hockey Watergate, but that would be an enormous exaggeration. In an age in which the only thing better than high-speed Internet service is supersonic-speed Internet service, people were less bothered by the Sundin wait than fidgety and anxious to know the end result.

Even between Vancouver and Toronto, there won't be too many bad feelings over this transaction. Other than occasionally meeting in the Grey Cup -- the Argonauts beat the Lions the last time they met for Lord Grey's pigskin chalice back in 2004 -- there isn't a lively rivalry between the two cities.

Edmonton and Calgary, yes. Wolfville and Antigonish, when it comes to Nova Scotia university football, absolutely.

But not Toronto and Vancouver. Vancouverites despise Toronto, while Torontonians might work up a mild dislike for Vancouver if they could only stop building condos that block the view of Lake Ontario for a second or two.

So Sundin will play for the Canucks and not the Leafs. Well, logical followers of Leaf Nation knew months ago that Sundin wasn't returning to the team that tried to trade him twice in the first six months of 2008, and since he didn't end up in Ottawa or Montreal, they can live with it. It's not as if Sundin could have been a difference-maker any longer for a Leafs team that is years away from contender status.

He was a durable, productive center for years with the Leafs, and he was the team's longtime captain. He was never overly popular, however; folks decried his lack of fire, and the team never went further than a conference final with him as its star.

When Wendel Clark was traded to Quebec City back in 1994 in the deal that brought Sundin to the Leafs in the first place, there were public protests.

This time? It's big news, for sure, but the hiring of GM Brian Burke late last month was bigger.

Given the choice between getting the aging Sundin back or having Burke set a new course for a franchise now looking at 42 seasons without a Stanley Cup, most Toronto hockey fans would pick Burke.

Sundin's time of relevance in Toronto, really, was over, and now it begins in Vancouver with a team that twice has been to the NHL's final two but has yet to sip champagne. He joins fellow Swedes Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Mattias Ohlund and Alexander Edler, copying in a small way the Detroit Red Wings' blueprint for last season, when the Wings rode Swedish horsepower to a championship.

The Canucks have been dying for a marquee center, having tried and failed to land Brad Richards when Tampa Bay made him available last winter. Sundin's arrival means the heat is off the Sedins, unsigned beyond the end of this season, and we all know how difficult it is to keep Swedish twins content.

But Sundin goes from being a Leaf who has never won anything in the NHL to being a Canuck who has never won anything in the NHL and a team filled with such players. His major successes have come from playing for his country, including at the 2006 Winter Olympics, where Tre Kronor captured gold. He's never won a scoring title or a Hart Trophy or scored 50 goals in a season, and few would assess his leadership skills as being on par with those of Steve Yzerman or Bobby Clarke.

For New York, to put things in perspective, this would have been less of a groundbreaking acquisition than the 2004 trade for Jaromir Jagr, who seemed to be fading at the time but did join the Rangers as one of the top points producers of his era and a two-time Stanley Cup winner.

What Sundin does bring to the table in Vancouver, meanwhile, is a 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame, a right-handed shot, an ability to score off the rush and 35 goals in 83 career playoff games. The Canucks are a team that has had outstanding wingmen and goaltenders as star players but rarely marquee centermen, so there's a symbolic element at play here, sort of a prophetic, W.P. Kinsella, "If You Sign Him, It Will Come" signature on this deal.

To those who still subscribe to the long-held hockey maxim that championship teams are strong up the middle, well, in goaltender Roberto Luongo and Sundin, the Canucks certainly have the names and reputations, if not previously won Cup rings.

The signing does alter the balance of power in the Western Conference, to be sure, and presents the Canucks, at least theoretically, as the likeliest Canadian-based team in the West to be the first team from the Great White North to capture the Cup since Montreal in 1993.

Then again, Calgary coach Mike Keenan, unceremoniously booted out of Vancouver a decade ago, would love to be the one to spoil the Canucks' playoff dreams in the spring. Other teams -- the Flames, Detroit, Anaheim, San Jose -- will react to what Vancouver has done, and those adjustments will begin in earnest after this month's NHL roster freeze ends now that Sundin has landed.

The Canucks might look like they've jumped right into the fray. But Luongo is out with a troubling groin problem, and if other teams add talent, Vancouver might be right where it was before adding Sundin, and that's as the fifth- or sixth-best bet to come out of the West.

Peter Forsberg couldn't come in midseason and make a difference for Colorado, and Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne couldn't help the Ducks win two straight Cups after spending the first part of last season on the sidelines in self-imposed exile.

It's not like Vancouver is getting Sundin circa 1999. He's near the end, only partly interested, hasn't played an NHL game since April and hasn't participated in postseason combat since 2004.

It's not exactly like Brett Favre going to the Jets, but there are similarities. Most importantly, if it doesn't work out, it'll be far from the hottest klieg lights the game has to offer.

Fewer people will notice. That might have been part of the idea.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.

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