I hate to harp on the Sundin Saga yet again, but I woke up this morning with an epiphany, much like the one Mats will have to have if he's going to make a decision about his hockey future sometime between now and the Habs' bicentennial celebrations. Between all the discussions and endless debates about who's offering the better money versus the better chances for a Cup versus the comforts of the familiar, we're all forgetting one thing. It's the thing that should be the deciding factor for Sundin, if he hasn't forgotten it too. It's so obvious, and such an important thing to consider if you're trying to decide whether to play a kid's game for another season.
Without dragging the point on too long...it's FUN! Ask any hockey player to describe his best seasons and he'll say, almost without exception, that they were a lot of fun. Now, that may be due to the linguistic limitations of some hockey players, but I choose to believe the sentiment behind it is real. After all, it makes sense. Why would you subject your body to the rigours of an NHL season; the pounding, aching, injury-and-illness-inducing physical stress of it, if it weren't enormously satisfying to do so? And more importantly, what's left to motivate you to put yourself through that wringer after you've got all the fame and money and on-ice achievement you could ever have hoped to earn? I think the biggest inducement to play again at age 37 is the basic love of the game that the player feels when he's seven, and the most important part of his week is the morning he gets to go to the rink.
So, if you consider fun a vital factor in making such a decision, you have to ask yourself, where would a 37-year-old offensive-style player have the most fun this year? Of course, I'm biased, but I'd think it'd be Montreal. It would have to be tremendously fun to fly around the ice in the Canadiens' speedy, offensive system. To be just one part of a well-oiled scoring machine, rather than the main cog of a more offensively-challenged team. To work on the powerplay with the likes of Andrei Markov, Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev setting you up. To hear the ovations when you connect with your talented linemates on a special goal. I mean, let's face it, scoring is FUN, and no team offers a player more chances to score than the Canadiens. That's important because as Sundin knows better than anyone, it's one thing to wish for a chance at the Cup, but the reality of the regular season, which can be a long, joyless grind before the playoffs even start, is quite another. If a player is going to spend 82 games pushing for a playoff spot, it would be a heck of a lot more attractive an option if he knows he's going to have a great time doing it.
I look at the revitalized Kovalev from last season as an example of the difference the simple enjoyment of the game can make in a player's career. And I think of Mats Sundin, and the lightening of spirit he could experience if he played in Montreal where he wouldn't be facing the constant humourless questions about what's wrong with the team he's supposed to be leading. In Montreal, he could put all that aside and just enjoy the ride. Because if creating beautiful plays on the ice is fun, winning lots of games is even more fun. The Habs have the team to win many games this season. With Sundin, they'd have the weapons to win many more. To be part of that and contribute to it binds a player to his teammates faster than any team-building exercise, and that feeling of brotherhood makes a dressing room a fun place to be around.
I don't claim to have any insight into what Mats Sundin is thinking right now. But I know if I were a hockey player, and I already had enough money to set me up for life, if I were to pick a place to play another season, I'd pick the one where I'd have a great time. I'd pick the place where my skills would be complemented by fast, creative linemates, the place where I'd be winning much more often than not, and the place where my responsibility ends with my performance on the ice. I hope Sundin hasn't forgotten how much fun hockey can really be, because if he thinks about that, the decision is easy.