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Authors: Roy Macgregor

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There was not much to cheer about at the Winter Classic Alumni Game. Once the introductions are done with, interest in old-timers playing shinny drops as quickly as the puck at the opening faceoff.

In Pittsburgh, however, they came out ten thousand strong in the early morning to cheer the player who saved the franchise so many times he now owns it. They cheered as, toque replacing helmet, Lemieux made his way out from the football stadium locker room to the outdoor rink where Saturday's much-hyped “Classic” game will
be played between his Pittsburgh Penguins, featuring Sidney Crosby, and the Washington Capitals, with Alexander Ovechkin.

They cheered when hockey's former superstar won the opening faceoff and cheered again when, predictably, he floated into the opponents' end, sailing more than skating, and promptly set up the first goal of the game.

“Some things never change,” chuckled his long-time friend and one-time teammate Paul Coffey.

They would have cheered even louder had the NHL shown the common sense to send the dreary alumni game to a shootout when it ended 5–5—a move that would have allowed Lemieux the chance at one more hockey heroic, even if rather meaningless compared to all the others.

It has been a long journey for the one they called The Magnificent One. I met him first in 1985 at the world championships in Prague, where his play as a teenager was the talk of the tournament. He was shy, reluctant, and spoke little English. His personality transformation over the years has been almost as remarkable as his on-ice accomplishments. He once refused to play for the Canadian juniors because he did not like the coach. He refused to shake the hand or don the jersey of the NHL team, the Penguins, that drafted him. He learned English, but rarely bothered talking, preferring to duck out the dressing room's back doors than to face the press.

His on-ice brilliance was undeniable. From that goal on the first shift—stealing the puck from the great Ray Bourque, no less—he chased Wayne Gretzky through a decade of NHL records that still stand. He won every trophy available. He scored that most brilliant goal during the 1987 Canada Cup. He purposely let that puck slip through his legs to Paul Kariya during the 2002 Winter Games as he captained Canada to Olympic gold. He battled remarkable health issues—back operations, cancer—retired from the game, was chosen for the Hall of Fame, and came back not only to play again but to star.

However, he changed his personality when he had to sell the
game, not merely play it. When bankruptcy threatened to destroy this franchise and take the millions of deferred salary he was owed with it, he somewhat reluctantly became an owner and today, with a brand-new rink for his team, seems at ease in his new life.

Lemieux sat on a stool after the shinny match, microphone in hand, and talked about whatever subject was raised. He was asked about Crosby, the youngster Lemieux took into his own home and who is now on his own, captain of the 2009 Stanley Cup champion Penguins and leading scorer in the NHL this season.

“Incredible,” Lemieux said. As for the twenty-five-game scoring streak Crosby recently put up, incredible doesn't even begin to measure it. “It's not the same as it was twenty years ago,” Lemieux said in considering his own remarkable forty-six-game streak of 1989–90. “What he's doing now is much more impressive than anything I did. It's tougher to dominate the way the league is today.”

He then talked about how the rivalry he had with Gretzky might compare to all the current talk concerning Crosby and Ovechkin. Hard to say for sure, he mused, as the game has changed so dramatically, particularly in terms of overall speed and in the skating ability of today's defence. Gretzky, he said, liked to hold the puck and had a signature play of curling back with it to buy a little extra time. “You can't do that anymore,” he said.

He said nothing of his own style. He didn't need to. As former teammate Luc Robitaille once put it, “A fire hydrant could score forty goals with him.”

Ovechkin, Lemieux said, has an extraordinary physical presence and, of course, that “shot.” Crosby, on the other hand, is “more controlling” out there, seeking out pucks and using incredible speed and strength to create opportunities in a game that, today, seems all about speed.

“Two different styles,” he said, “two different eras.”

But still the same game—and always better for a top-notch rivalry. Gretzky and Lemieux. Crosby and Ovechkin. Someone else tomorrow …

In the real game that followed, Crosby was hit by Washington's David Steckel—perhaps by accident, as Steckel maintained—and likely suffered the concussion that was exacerbated a few days later when hit by Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman. The absence of Crosby from the game begat a debate over headshots that would come to dominate the NHL's 2010–11 season. When a brawl broke out between the Penguins and the New York Islanders in February, Lemieux spoke out, calling the game “a travesty” and saying if such action reflected the state of the NHL, he needed “to rethink whether I want to be a part of it.” Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero became one of the strongest advocates for cleaning up headshots and, later in the year, when the NHL suspended Penguins forward Matt Cooke for the remainder of the season and the first round of the playoffs for just such a hit, the Penguins not only accepted the suspension but applauded it

The Globe and Mail
, February 5, 2007)

e may be the loneliest star the game has known. His name links with no other player, not even with any very special team. Lemieux and Jagr. Hull and Mikita. Lindsay and Howe. Sittler and McDonald. But unlike them, his name automatically rings no other bell.

Esposito had Orr back on the blueline. Gretzky found himself maturing with Messier, Coffey, Kurri, Fuhr. Lafleur had Lemaire and Shutt and the best defence in all of hockey to feed up the puck. Henri Richard was so lucky that, when he retired, he found he had more Stanley Cup rings than fingers.

Even today there are combinations people speak of in some awe: Lecavalier and St. Louis, Spezza and Heatley, Crosby when he is on the power play with Malkin.

But no name has ever connected for long with that of Mats Sundin. And it begs the question: How good was—and, to a degree, still is—the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Sundin is now thirty-five years old. He has lost every golden hair that shone that day in 1989 when he became, at eighteen, the first European hockey player ever to go No. 1 in the entry draft. He has played for only two teams: the Quebec Nordiques, who traded him before they headed off to Denver and the Stanley Cup, and the Leafs, who have been poor to middling to not-quite-good-enough in the dozen years that he has been, by far, the team's most consistent player. He has never won a Stanley Cup, never played in a Stanley Cup final.

He scored twenty-three goals as a solid six-foot-five rookie and has scored twenty goals or more every single season since, a remarkable record given the teams he has suffered and the certainty of injury in today's NHL. When he scored his twentieth last week—the game winner against the New York Rangers—he set a new Leafs record for consecutive twenty-goal seasons, surpassing the likes of Darryl Sittler and Dave Keon. He played his twelve hundredth game that week and, a month earlier, had recorded his twelve-hundredth point—again, the picture of consistency.

Saturday night in Ottawa, he scored the second Toronto goal on a calm and deliberate pause move that had Ottawa goaltender Ray Emery helplessly sliding out of the net and out of the way. And then, when overtime still ended in a tie, he scored on a magnificent backhand in the shootout to give Toronto the chance to win, which they eventually did. All in a night's work, with no one in particular to play with. This night it was Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov, two forwards who benefit hugely from playing with him but are otherwise unremarkable. When they were injured earlier, it was at times Alex Steen and Jeff O'Neill, both of whom saw their games pick up thanks to Sundin.

It is a curious story of bad luck. The best winger Sundin ever had with the Leafs was Alexander Mogilny, then near the
end of his glory days. When Sundin was with the young and rising Nordiques, the team decided to trust in centres Joe Sakic and newcomer Peter Forsberg, trading Sundin off to the Leafs for former Leafs captain Wendel Clark, two others and a draft pick.

The Nordiques became the Avalanche and, for a while, such an elite team that it seemed every star had a star to play with, while Sundin headed off to Toronto and a seemingly endless string of wingers simply not up to his level. Because he was replacing Clark, one of Toronto's all-time most popular players, Leafs fans warmed slowly to the big Swede and never have warmed as much as they would if he brought them a Stanley Cup. But, of course, they have yet to make the finals with him and, again this year, are middle of the pack.

Every few years, however, Sundin shows the hockey world that he stands among the best who have ever played. In World Cup play, he has been the best player in the tournament, though Sweden has come up short. In Olympics play, the same. In Salt Lake City in 2002, the Swedes were by far the best team, only to implode mysteriously against Belarus. In 2006, he finally led his country to the gold medal in Turin.

“With the national team, he's tremendous,” says Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson, who has been Sundin's linemate over several of those tournaments. “He just dominates out there.”

At thirty-five and after sixteen seasons, it is likely that the best of Mats Sundin has been seen in the NHL—but also likely that the best was never allowed to be seen. Simply because of chance. Simply because, in careers as well as in games, the bounces sometimes go different ways.

“Sports is hard to explain,” Sundin said Saturday night in regard to another question. But it was also a good enough answer for a remarkable career that has been, pretty much, one man alone in a team game.

In the summer of 2008, unrestricted free agent Sundin was pondering retirement and turned down a two-year, $20-million offer
from the Vancouver Canucks. He later reconsidered, however, and signed a one-year deal in December. It was not a good decision, as he managed only 9 goals and 19 assists in 41 games, though he rose to a point a game in the playoffs. Sundin did retire this time, leaving with 1,349 points in 1,346 games, Hall of Fame numbers by any measure

National Post
, May 28, 2001)

The star thing just isn't me.—Joe Sakic, 1996

t still isn't. It is now five years since Joe Sakic, hockey's “Ordinary Joe,” won the Conn Smythe Trophy as he led his Colorado Avalanche to its first Stanley Cup.

A second is suddenly looming, thanks to Sakic's extraordinary play in Game 1 of this final series, in which he scored the winning goal, added a spectacular insurance goal and set up another in the Avalanche's 5–0 romp over the New Jersey Devils—a game also notable in that Sakic, the team captain, turned New Jersey captain Scott Stevens, last year's Conn Smythe Trophy winner, inside out and upside down and outside in as he quietly went about his business.

They are talking today about a second Smythe for the player with the early lead on playoff MVP honours. He is already nominated for the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player during the regular season, the Selke Trophy as the league's best defensive forward and the Lady Byng as the NHL's most gentlemanly player.

Not since 1991 has any player been nominated for three regular-season awards (goaltender Ed Belfour for the Hart, the Vezina as the top goaltender and the Calder as top rookie), and if Sakic were somehow to pull off a Tiger Woods–like sweep of four major awards—plus the Stanley Cup—it would stand as one of the best individual seasons the game has ever witnessed. Only Boston's Bobby Orr, in 1969–70, pulled off a similar feat (winning the Hart Trophy, Conn Smythe Trophy, Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's top scorer and Norris Trophy as top defenceman to go with the Bruins' Stanley Cup title).

Perhaps then they would spell his name right, as one paper here failed to do back in 1996 when he brought the Avalanche a championship in the franchise's very first season. Perhaps a few people might even start pronouncing his name correctly—“Sack-ich,” his parents claim, not “Sak-ic,” as it has become—and, who knows, he might one day even escape the only nickname he has in hockey, which also happens to be incorrect information.

“Burnaby Joe,” they call him in Canada. It should be “Vancouver Joe,” if anything. Born there, raised there—and only off to Burnaby to play his minor hockey and pick up the moniker that still somewhat irritates his parents, Marijan and Slavica Sakic.

Joe Sakic himself is unlikely to set the record straight. What he learned from his father, Marijan—a Croatian stonemason who ended up working in construction on the West Coast—is that “talking meant nothing,” and there is certainly ample evidence of this to be found in the thirteen years of reporters' notebooks that track his career. He does, actually, have one more nickname among the NHL press: “Quoteless Joe.”

Even in the heady minutes following Saturday night's impressive win over the Devils, Sakic was his usual librarian self. The Devils—frozen to the ice in the eyes of everyone else—were “a great hockey team” in the eyes of Joe Sakic. His lovely first goal, a quick snap shot between the legs of New Jersey goaltender
Martin Brodeur as Sakic flew down the right side, was the result, he claimed, of “a great pass” from Rob Blake to Milan Hejduk who then “just got it over to me.”

As for Sakic's second goal—in which he flew down the same side, curled, set Stevens in place as if he were more ice auger than defenceman, stepped into the clearing and blasted a quick shot to Brodeur's stick side, well …

BOOK: Wayne Gretzky's Ghost
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