Mats Sundin.

Today was a special day for me in a lot of ways because Mats Sundin, the man who was far and away my hero growing up, was honored by the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight for his accomplishments over the span of a 13 year stay in Toronto. Sundin is in the eyes of many the most talented player in the history of the Maple Leafs franchise, and I’d be hard pressed to argue that. It was a fitting tribute to the man who was the face of the blue and white for a little over decade.

My first ever live hockey game was played at Maple Leaf Gardens between the Leafs and Dallas Stars. The Leafs lost (insert your Leafs always lose joke here) but the memory I still carry with me to this day is how awestruck I was by watching Mats Sundin and Doug Gilmour and the acquired-that-week Dave Gagner on one line. While the cast of characters changed every other time I took in a Leafs game, I’ve still never been able to wrap my head around how bloody good Mats Sundin was at hockey.

He wasn’t always the most popular player in the team’s history. In many respects he was a total lightning rod for their most frustrating moments during his tenure. Sure, he didn’t drop the gloves at a moments notice like Wendel Clark did, or have the missing teeth and bloody jersey of Gilmour. But to fault him for the fact he went about things differently than his predecessors is ludicrous. He was a one man wrecking crew on a team that would have been nowhere near the caliber it was without him. And for someone who does not play for a team to speculate on a person’s “leadership” is outrageous. To a man, every one of his teammates will vouch for what a leader Sundin was, and there aren’t many better mentors for players yet to come into their own. Don’t believe me? Just ask the Sedin twins. They have been unstoppable since they played with Sundin during his brief stint in Vancouver.

Let’s also not forget the trail he blazed for European players everywhere. He doesn’t have the distinction of being the first player over here, but he was practically the first at everything else. He was the first European to be drafted first overall. He was the first European player to be named the captain in the history of the Maple Leafs and second European player to be named a captain at all. Someone would have achieved both of these honors at some point, but Mats did it first and that just seems right.

Here are some highlights from his ceremony:

Thanks for the memories, Mats. Only a Cup could have made it perfect.