Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Mats Sundin: Leaf Number One

Leafs logoDespite having played in Toronto for the past 13 seasons and become the franchise's all-time leading scorer, Mats Sundin remains a bit of an enigma.

At the end of every season he retreats to the comforts of home in Sweden.

Mats SundinThough perfectly fluent in English with nary a trace of an accent and as obliging as any player is towards the media, it is well known that he is still quite shy. Sundin will segue into the stock cliches faster than most when giving an interview, always finding a way to deliver them with a thoughtful and genuine disposition.

One of the most popular and well-liked current and all-time Leafs players, there is still a small number of fans not completely enamoured of Sundin. This is mainly due to the absence of any Stanley Cups for Toronto during his tenure, his salary and his apparent "lack of emotion."

Criticism of any player is warranted, expected and quite often helpful. When you are number 4 in terms of cash raked in by NHL players (see "Fortunes Accumulated") over the last 18 years combined, that analysis naturally seeks out any and all possible vulnerabilities.

It's hard to get on Sundin for the lack of playoff success in recent seasons (especially the last two.) Though for some critics, not winning it all and Sundin's slightly less than a point-per-game production in the post-season warrant the barbs. Considering his relative lack of support in terms of team talent, the negative assessments don't gain much traction with the majority of fans.

It's the "lack of emotion" claims that you hear being spouted on occasion that I find the most unfounded.

A player lacking emotion wouldn't play for years surrounded by mediocrity and not ask to be traded. Make it even more basic than that. A player without that internal drive would never rack up such consistent totals over that time period.

My feeling is that most of these claims are based on a skewed perception. A perception that is largely cultural. When certain fans say that Sundin "lacks emotion," what they really mean is he doesn't display emotion. In that florid-faced, emoting, slightly cringe-worthy way that Canadians are known for.

Passive aggressiveness is an epidemic amongst Canadians in general. Scratch the surface of the placid, nonchalant persona of an average Canuck and they will turn into an abrasive, confrontational wacko thrilled at being granted the license to put on a public display. Not surprising that this is also an attribute seen as admirable in hockey players. I'm not referring to conduct within the flow of a game but after the whistle behaviour such as the little tantrums meant to show just how much the game matters. (For example, see Darcy Tucker's attempts to get at fans in the past couple of Leafs games. How convenient that there is always someone nearby to restrain him.)

I quite like the extra side performances at times as well. It adds excitement to a game, likely acts as a motivator for the animated, gesticulating oaf engaging in such tactics and probably even spurs his team-mates on to perform better, if only for the hope that it will prevent further antics and subsequent embarrassment.

It should be noted however, that different cultures around the world place a much higher premium on avoiding such behaviour, even when taking part in sports. The justifiable "losing it" that seems to be more accepted in North American culture is considered a weakness in many parts of the world. In those societies, strength is in not showing your true feelings to opponents. Based purely on my own anecdotal experiences, and in an attempt to nicely wrap up this collection of generalizations, I'm going to say that Swedes tend to fit into that category.

So, rip Sundin for his salary if you must and compare his performance to the Herculean efforts of other players who single handedly drove their teams to playoff success. But when talking about emotion, consider the superficial aspect of many such claims.

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