Commentary

Hands, history could do in Sundin

Updated: January 8, 2009, 7:30 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

EDMONTON, Alberta -- The appeal, quite clearly, was in the eye of the beholder. Or, more specifically, it depended on how one views the conclusion of hockey's longest-running soap opera.

Or was it the beginning?

As soaps go, of course, Mats Sundin's months-long dance of reluctance was hardly a gripping exercise. It wasn't even emotionally draining. Just boring, really.

In fact, when Sundin finally hit the ice with his new team, the Vancouver Canucks, on Wednesday night at the Rexall Centre against the Edmonton Oilers, those in attendance seemed less inclined to cheer and more inclined to boo, at least for the first half of the game.

Why? What had Sundin ever done to offend the people of Edmonton? Well, that wasn't clear. He hardly fits hockey's definition of a bad boy. He's no Todd Bertuzzi, nor Sean Avery, for that matter.

[+] EnlargeMats Sundin
Andy Devlin/NHLI/Getty ImagesMats Sundin had 32 goals and 46 assists in 74 games last season with the Maple Leafs.

But in a city that has worried about the long-range viability of its hockey franchise from time to time -- and one where NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently helped start the campaign for public money to fund a new arena -- there seemed to be a level of annoyance with the 37-year-old Swede as he emerged from months of Garbo-like seclusion. This was a city that regularly used to lose its best players to the big markets in the bad, old pre-cap days and thus remains sensitive to the smell of mercenaries.

Sundin is too nice a guy to hate, too much of a gentleman athlete. But gee willikers, the fans seemed to say, did it really have to take you so long to make up your mind to play again when any one of us (or our brothers, or our fathers) would give everything to play even a shift in the NHL?

Folks take hockey that personally in the Great White North. There's no shortage of young men -- or old men -- who would tell you, but for a mean coach or a bum knee, by gosh, they were good enough to make it to the big time. They just didn't get the chance.

To them, a man like Sundin -- who had made more than $75 million since being the first European ever selected first in the NHL draft way back in 1989 -- was just flaunting his absurd talent and wealth by sitting around not playing for weeks, then months, as he considered his NHL future.

Of course, back in Sundin's former hometown of Toronto, there's outright anger, with many bitterly claiming either that Sundin owed the Maple Leafs the right to trade him for future assets last winter (he refused, invoking the no-trade clause in his contract) or that he was a hypocrite for arguing he didn't want to be a rental player at last season's trade deadline ... only to sign with Vancouver on Dec. 18.

It was the Brett Favre story played out in a slightly different way, in a Canadian way. But this story yielded similar emotional responses, both positive and negative.

"No," Sundin said when asked whether he would have changed anything about his departure from the Leafs, who actually conditionally traded him to Montreal in June in a transaction that ultimately amounted to nothing when the Canadiens couldn't sign him either.

It's a pretty sweet deal he has with the Canucks, whose rookie general manager, Mike Gillis, held open a huge chunk of salary-cap room with the intention of luring Sundin to the West Coast as the club's third saviorlike figure in the past 20 years. Here's how Gillis figured it: Sundin would be a great addition to the roster, but just as important, he would be a symbol that Vancouver could be a destination for topflight free agents and a message to his young team that striving for the ultimate prize this season was the organization's goal.

This is a team, you see, that has never won a championship, that figures the curse began in 1970 when it lost the spin of the wheel for the right to pick first in the NHL draft and that seemingly hasn't had a lucky bounce since. The Canucks have been to the Stanley Cup finals twice and made it to Game 7 of the finals in 1994 against the New York Rangers, but they have never won it all.

That was supposed to change in 1989, when Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov, two members of the Soviet Union's famed Green Unit, jumped to North America as the old Soviet empire was crumbling. Larionov was to many the Russian version of Wayne Gretzky, and Krutov was a mini-tank with a scorer's touch.

Instead, Krutov became Sydney Greenstreet on skates and ate himself out of the NHL after one season. The sophisticated and smooth Larionov, meanwhile, still had his skills, but he seemed too exhausted to be a difference-maker. He left after a few unsuccessful seasons to play in Switzerland, then returned to play with several clubs before winning multiple championships with the Detroit Red Wings and earning a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Savior No. 2 came in 1997, when Mark Messier, who had led the Rangers over the Canucks in 1994, agreed to join Vancouver as a free agent. The debate over Messier's impact on the club is ongoing, with some claiming he made a definite imprint and others focusing on the fact that not only did Messier not help the Canucks take the next step, they didn't even make the playoffs with him.

Now, in comes Sundin, a gentleman like Larionov, a former captain like Messier, a champion in international hockey (gold at the 2006 Olympic Games in Torino, Italy) but not in the NHL. Just two years after trading him in 1994, the Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver and won the Stanley Cup as the Colorado Avalanche.

In Toronto, Sundin was part of two conference finalists but nothing close to a championship team, despite attempts to buy a winner with players like Alexander Mogilny, Gary Roberts, Ed Belfour and Brian Leetch.

The Canucks started paying Sundin a $1.6 million prorated salary on Dec. 19 and on Jan. 15 will give him a $4 million bonus. He has committed only to this season, and this entire "Will he or won't he?" process theoretically could resume at the conclusion of this season. Wouldn't that be fun?

Whether Sundin will do for Vancouver what Larionov and Messier could not is open to speculation. There's no chance he will, for starters, unless Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo returns to full health from groin problems, and his return is still at least 10 days away.

Sundin didn't get shorter while he pondered his future, and his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame still makes him a daunting sight for enemy centers. He has been a durable player for his entire career, although he hasn't played a full season in his past six campaigns.

What's unclear, however, is where his hands are at. In his first game against the Oilers, Sundin skated 15 minutes and two seconds, often gazing longingly at the bench while on the ice as he sought to find the wind that once made him a player who seemingly could skate all night.

He got in a pushing match with veteran blueliner Steve Staios at one point, drew a holding penalty on Dustin Penner and was the same jumbo-sized pivot he'd always been.

Sundin had chances to both score and make plays, but none emerged as his hands and timing betrayed him. That's understandable after a nine-month layoff with only three practices under his belt, and most believe that in time, those hands, which have averaged almost a point per game during his long career, will re-emerge.

But what if they don't?

For skill players, that's what goes first. Not the legs, and only rarely the desire. It's the hands -- Gretzky scored only nine goals in his final season -- that ability to make quick yet powerful movements on skates in a sport that has seen its overall speed increase dramatically since the 2004-05 lockout. The rules were changed to open up the game, and although scoring is still not what many would like it to be, the pace is far greater than that of even 10 years ago, with a remarkable group of twentysomethings making the game even faster these days.

At some point, Sundin's hands will be gone. But could that time be now? Clearly, one game is not nearly the evidence required to make that determination, and we'll know a lot more by the end of January. That said, those who remember the first season after the lockout recall that players who didn't play at all in the 2004-05 season took months to get their games back in order, and some of the best in the game didn't return to form until the following season.

Sundin, by sitting out since March 29 (he missed the last few games of last season thanks to injury), essentially has put himself in that same position. Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne both pulled the same trick last season, and although both came back to play good hockey for Anaheim, the Ducks didn't come close to defending their Stanley Cup championship of the previous season.

The Canucks, who missed the playoffs last season, are a good team with visions of greatness. The Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, are the focal part of the Vancouver offense, and they have as many detractors as supporters. Forward Pavol Demitra is a clever attacker who has underachieved throughout his career. Young forwards like Ryan Kesler, Alexandre Burrows and Steve Bernier are promising but unproven as playoff performers.

The Vancouver blue line is talented but has a history of being brittle. Then there is Luongo, who was named captain of the team this season but has been out since Nov. 22 and didn't have a terrific 2007-08 after almost unseating Martin Brodeur as the game's best goaltender the previous season.

Gillis held on to coach Alain Vigneault and has sought to change attitudes and regimens. He has even instituted a sleep program for his team. But as a former agent, he has yet to demonstrate an ability to put a winner on the ice, and he has more than a few enemies in the GM fraternity after years of tough contract dealings.

So whether the Canucks win is about more than Sundin's play, just as the Leafs' failure to win with No. 13 was more than his fault alone. Still, Sundin could make a big difference, and despite his months of reluctance, he seems happy to be back.

"For me, it was just a pleasure to be out there in a sold-out arena, to have the feel of an NHL game," he said after the Edmonton game. "It's a feeling you don't get anywhere else as a hockey player."

Sundin played his first game wearing No. 13 -- youngster Mike Brown surrendered the jersey after being instructed to do so by Vancouver management -- between wingers Kyle Wellwood and Mason Raymond. But most figure it's inevitable that at some point, Sundin will be assigned to skate with the Sedins, his teammates on the Swedish championship team in the 2006 Olympics.

"Only way to get where you want to be is to start playing games," Sundin said. "I'm not sure how long it's going to take me to get back to being the player I was last season. It's impossible to say. I'm going to take it shift by shift."

Sometimes these big moves work, as in the case of Niedermayer's move to Anaheim. Sometimes (see: Favre, Shaquille O'Neal) they don't.

Not one for telling people what lies within his heart, Sundin did seem to indicate he found a new appetite for the game while he was away, and that it helped him train hard in December to arrive in reasonable shape for his tour of duty with the Canucks.

"More than anything, you realize that when you're in the mix of an NHL season, you don't appreciate the situation you're in," he said. "You're so involved in your next game, your next performance and where you are and how to improve your own game, that when you sit back and look at it from the outside when the guys are playing, it's only then that you realize how much you miss the game."

Only one player in NHL history, Gretzky, has scored more goals for Canadian-based teams than Sundin (555), who has never played for a team in the United States. But Sundin is becoming a Ray Bourque-like figure, a top player who never could win until he arrived in a specific situation, and after he finally did win, was gone again.

Maybe that's the scenario of Sundin's dreams, and perhaps it will even pan out that way. Maybe that's why the people of Edmonton booed. It would have been their dream too, and seeing another pursue it with such apparent casualness, such a lack of urgency and desperation, drives them utterly mad.

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.