October 12, 2007

A Night to Remember...

Last night in Toronto, Mats Sundin scored his 390th goal and 917th point as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, making him the franchise's all-time leading scorer. And I was there.

After the laugher of a hockey game the Maple Leafs played on Tuesday night - it's a stretch to even call it a game since the Leafs didn't bother showing up - I was looking extra-forward to last night's visit from the New York Islanders. Yes, those same Islanders who stole the eighth and final playoff spot from under our fingers on the last day of the regular season last year (no, I haven't forgotten). More importantly, I was interested in seeing how the Leafs would respond after the severe poundage they received on Tuesday. Only four games into the season, and it was gut check time. You don't lose 7-1 on home ice and not come back in a nasty mood for your next game. Little did I know I was going to be witness to Toronto Maple Leafs history.

Actually, little did I know I was even going to be at the game. A colleague of mine offered me a pair of Air Canada Club tickets at 5:00pm. She couldn't make it, and she was asking me to come off the bench and pinch hit. I was getting the proverbial tap on the shoulder. I was the chosen one. Who was I to let her down? It was simply an offer I couldn't afford to refuse. Especially since she was offering the tickets for FREE ninety nine. Free Leafs tickets, are you kidding me? I'm there. All day, everyday. Unfortunately, I didn't wear my Leafs jersey to work (I wonder how that would go over?), so I didn't have it. I'm now thinking about carrying it with me permanently in my bag, just for emergency situations like these. Anyways, the seats were tremendous, thank you Susanna Kelley. I owe you, big time, trust me.

I was looking forward to my first live glimpse at Leafs goalie Vesa Toskola. More importantly, I was looking forward to starting the "Ve-sa!! Ve-sa!!" chant. As I got to the arena I received a text message from my brother, whom I blessed with the second ticket. He was on his way downtown to join me, and was the bearer of some terrible news: Andrew Raycroft was getting the start in goal.

Talk about a swift kick to the nuts.

Raycroft makes me nervous. Every time the opposition has the puck I'm afraid they're going to, well, score. He is the human sieve after all. But not even Raycroft could ruin this night, my friends.

The Leafs came out flying and were up 2-1 after a spirited first period. Darcy Tucker assisted on both goals for Toronto and was finally on the board after a rough start to his season.

Then, seven minutes and 15 seconds into the second period, it happened. Tomas Kaberle scored a beautiful goal, patiently out-waiting Islanders goalie Wade Dubielewicz (Dubie!!) to make it 3-1 Toronto. The assists went to Jason Blake and Mats Sundin. For Sundin, it was his 917th point as a Toronto Maple Leaf, moving him past the legendary Darryl Sittler into first place all-time in Leafs scoring history.

In the excitement of seeing how the Leafs would respond after Tuesday's loss, and in the disappointment of hearing that Raycroft was playing, I forgot that Sundin, my heart and soul, was on the verge of the historic record. He had tied Sittler with an assist on Tuesday night. Now, the record was his. It was only fitting that I was there in the building to share it with my main man Mats.

Flashback: Back in 2003 I was on a business trip in Alberta with my brother. We had coincided the trip with the Maple Leafs schedule, who were visiting the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. It was March of 2003 and Sundin was on the verge of 1000 career points, a significant milestone, as he would become the first Swedish-born player to accomplish the feat. I think he was stuck on point number 999 for six or seven games, until he broke the record in Edmonton, where my brother and I had tickets in the first row behind the glass next to the Edmonton goal. Sundin scored point number 1000 right in front of me on a backhand off a scramble in front of the net. It was fascinating. He had a huge grin on his face and his teammates all hopped over the bench and came right in front of us to congratulate their captain. As Sundin skated back to the bench with the puck in his hand, I swear he looked me right in the eye. He knew his biggest fan was in the building. It was magical.

Back to last night: As the puck was dropped at centre ice after Kaberle's goal, Maple Leafs announcer Andy Frost announced that Sundin had just broken the record, and the crowd went crazy. Everyone was on their feet, and chants of "Sun-din!! Sun-din!!" broke out. It was louder than loud, and Sundin was getting his due. Finally, after what seemed like ten minutes, there was a stoppage in play and a tv timeout, and the scoreboard showed a smiling Sundin on the bench. Once again, the crowd went nuts. Suddenly, the Star Wars theme song broke out on the speakers and a montage of Sundin highlights began to play on the video scoreboard. Everyone was on their feet clapping for Sundin as they watched the greatest moments of his 13-year career with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The goals, the hugs, the smiles, the overtime winners...it was magnificent. I had tears in my eyes. You couldn't slap the smile off my face. I could have stood and clapped in appreciation forever.

Thirteen years have gone by in a flash. Sundin arrived in Toronto in 1994 a young Swedish boy with a charming smile and a full head of hair. He's now a man and while the charming smile is still there, the hair is not, and who, really, can blame him? His job - captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs - is not an easy one.

I've been a staunch supporter of Mats Sundin since the day he arrived in Toronto and while people still argue that he is not a great captain, or a good leader, or the best Maple Leaf of all time, it was sweet justice watching him get point 917. Say what you want about the man, his numbers speak for themselves. He was more than deserving of the ovation he got last night, believe me. It was simply extraordinary.

After the Leafs went up 3-1, the rest of the game really didn't matter anymore, to be honest with you. I just sat in my seat with a beer in my hand and a perma-grin on my face. Nothing could bring me down.

Until public-address speaker Andy Frost, five minutes into the third period with the Leafs leading 6-1, announced an official scoring change - that Sundin in fact had NOT registered an assist on the Kaberle goal in the second period. He was still tied with Sittler.

Talk about another kick to the nuts. This time with a steel-toe boot.

The crowd boo'd and hissed their disappointment. I was shocked. Shagrinned. Distraught. How could it be? I was in the building. I was there for Mats. I was there to witness history and watch him become the greatest player ever to wear the blue and white. I couldn't believe it, and I think my brother couldn't believe how big a deal I was making of the whole situation. Deep down I wanted him to slap me and tell me to pull myself together. It just wasn't right. Who cares if Sundin didn't touch the puck? Just give him the assist! It was heart-breaking.

I was praying Sundin would somehow, someway get his name on the score-sheet in the last 15 minutes of the game. I felt it was meant to be. The tickets fell in my lap two hours before game-time and Sundin wasn't going to let me leave with breaking the record.

My prayers were answered. Five minutes after the scoring change announcement, Sundin came down the left wing and sent a pass towards the goal. It hit the skate of New York defenceman Brendan Witt and went straight into the net. There it was, baby. Goal number 390, to break Sittler's record of 389, and point number 917, to break Sittler's record of 916. Two bird's, one puck. Thank you, Brendan Witt. This time, there was no doubt. Sundin had just broken the record, and no one was going to change it. Once again, the crowd was on their feet. I led the charge. I was practically up in the rafters. Alex Steen handed Sundin the monumental puck and Sundin's teammates also stood on the bench and banged their sticks against the boards in honour of their tremendous leader and face of the franchise. It was another staggering standing ovation and Sundin raised his right arm in appreciation to the crowd.

Sundin is one of the classiest athletes to ever play in Toronto, and he proved it again last night, clapping to the crowd as they cheered him on. It's been a tremendous ride for Sundin here in this city, full of ups and downs, but last night proved that he has been appreciated. I've never been part of an ovation like that, and it's something I'll always remember for the rest of my days.

After the game, which the Leafs won 8-1, the organization made sure they recognized Sundin's accomplishment as well. He was named - in a classy move - the game's third, second and first star and came out onto the ice alone for another rousing ovation.

How can I complain? Three beautiful ovations for one hell of a hockey player, and the hockey love of my life. The scoreboard read "Go Mats Go" and I don't think you can put it any better than that.

I can't put it any other way - I was meant to be there last night. Sundin was to have broken this record last year, both the goal scoring record and the total points record. But he waited. He only scored one goal in the final 20 games of last season. He waited for me.

In the dressing room after the game, the selfless Sundin once again showered his teammates and fans with praise.

"My respect has grown every year as a player for this city, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the fans," said Sundin. "Hopefully, it's grown the same for me as a player."

Oh, it has Mats, it most certainly has. Thank you...