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IN WHAT could be the most curious uniform switch since Benedict Arnold decided he fancied red coats, Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin is pondering how he might look in bleu-blanc-rouge. The Canadiens acquired the exclusive rights to negotiate with the 37-year-old Sundin until the start of the July 1 free-agency period, a development that roiled the NHL entry draft last Friday and dropped the Lightning's selection of forward Steven Stamkos at No. 1 and the Coyotes' trade for Panthers captain Olli Jokinen into the category of "... and in other news."
There have been various unseemly migrations of sports personnel to hated rivals, of course, including manager Leo Durocher's switching boroughs during the 1948 season, when he joined the New York Giants after leaving the Brooklyn Dodgers; and outfielder Johnny Damon's signing with the New York Yankees 14 months after helping Boston exorcise the Curse of the Bambino in 2004. But Damon was merely a (bearded) face of the Red Sox franchise, not the face of an organization, as is Sundin, a steadfast figure through 14 years of psychodrama in Toronto.
"I hope it's not the Babe Ruth hex [for the Maple Leafs]," Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford says of the idea of Toronto's career scoring leader playing in Montreal. "They don't need extra help [in the hex department]."
Toronto has not won a Stanley Cup since 1967 and certainly won't in Sundin's hockey-playing lifetime, one reason the Swede should stop dithering like a Dane—stay in Toronto, move on, retire, not retire ... the guy plays Hamlet almost as well as he plays center—and take the two-year deal Montreal is likely offering. The Canadiens, who led the NHL in goals last season, also acquired left wing Alex Tanguay from the Flames last week, which would give Sundin scoring options unimaginable in Toronto. Sundin's looming presence would also allow Saku Koivu to drop from Montreal's top line to the second or third, relieving the burden the Canadiens have placed on their undersized captain for almost a decade. At week's end Sundin hadn't commented on the Canadiens' courtship, which began when Montreal G.M. Bob Gainey called him in Sweden last Thursday for an hourlong introductory chat.
The Maple Leafs could get a player back if Sundin signs with Montreal before July 1 (they'll get nothing if he signs elsewhere after that); of course, had Sundin agreed to waive his no-trade clause and accept a deal before the deadline in February, when several teams were hoping to acquire him, he would have brought the Leafs a better return. But as interim Toronto G.M. Cliff Fletcher says, "That's history." This is Fletcher's final stab at extracting value for a player who, with 78 points in 74 games last season, never shortchanged the Maple Leafs on the ice. Said Fletcher, who as Leafs G.M. in 1994 traded captain Wendel Clark to get Sundin from the Quebec Nordiques, "We were talking contract with him, but finally we said, 'Look, do you want to try somewhere else?' Montreal has always been of interest to Mats."
Next week, Larry Bird admits he was always intrigued by the idea of playing for the Lakers.
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