A hundred and twenty-one Habs' fans filled a small theatre in Newfoundland's provincial museum, The Rooms, yesterday. They clutched precious momentoes; hockey cards, magazines and jerseys, and they led little children, dressed in Canadiens' regalia, by the hand. As they waited for the guest of honour, questions vibrated among them. The query of the day: What's going on with Mats Sundin?
Bob Gainey, sharp in a navy suit, entered the room to a round of applause that swelled into a standing ovation. He was in St. John's to help launch the museum's Rocket Richard exhibit, and to talk about the Canadiens' Centennial season and his own history with the team. The fans in The Rooms came to listen, and to ask some questions of their own.
Alan Doyle, Great Big Sea frontman and Gainey's friend, introduced the Habs' GM and warmed up the crowd with humour and genuine affection for the man of the hour. The audience was rapt as Gainey talked about his early years with the club, about his surprise the day he realized how famous Canadiens' players really are, and about how much he learned from the great players and managers of the past.
As Gainey concluded his presentation with some discussion about building the team of today, he said there are no guarantees when it comes to winning a Cup, but that he's preparing the team to be the best it can be to celebrate the Centennial "the way the team and Canadiens' fans think it should be celebrated." When he finished, he invited his listeners to ask their questions. But he surprised the fans when, with a half-smile he offered, "But before you do, I should tell you I had a nice two hours with Mats Sundin in Toronto yesterday (Saturday). You people are the only ones who know that right now."
The room erupted in laughter and applause, but it took another ten minutes before someone finally got to the point. A fan said, "I've got two questions. The first one is, what did Sundin say?" To which Gainey deadpanned, "Second question?" Again, the appreciative audience laughed. Then the GM got serious.
Gainey said he has no concerns about Sundin's physical ability to play hockey this year. He's big and strong and can be ready to hit the ice pretty quickly. But Gainey described Sundin's "emotions" as being the problem. He talked about Sundin's state of mind, and about how the big Swede isn't sure he still has the level of passion he'd need to sustain him through another long NHL season. And he spoke of Sundin's difficulty in mentally leaving the team for which he played the majority of his 17-year NHL career behind.
As for the Canadiens' offer?
"He's interested," Gainey said. "I told him to make a decision. I said, if you feel like you want to retire, then retire. But if you're not sure, you should play and the emotion will come."
The conversation moved on from there, touching on issues like whether Patrick Roy would ever have a job with the team, to which Gainey replied, "Why not?" and if Sundin doesn't sign with Montreal whether Sergei Kostitsyn or Kyle Chipchura might be the new third-line centre. Gainey's answer: A smile and a "That's classified."
But the Sundin question wouldn't go away.
A half-hour after his talk, Gainey held court at a long table as a line of autograph seekers snaked its way across the third-floor museum lobby. Through the glass wall behind him, St. John's spread out in a glory of bright old houses, tall trees and harbour. As he signed one fan's Gainey jersey, the elusive Swede's name came up again.
"But do you think he'll come to Montreal?" the fan asked.
The half-smile pushing the outer limits of a real grin this time, Gainey replied, "He didn't say no."