TORONTO -- As Mats Sundin and Joe Sakic stood side by side Monday wearing their Hockey Hall of Fame jackets, one couldn't help but wonder just how history would have been rewritten had they never been split apart.
Imagine for a moment if instead of dealing Sundin to Toronto in June 1994 that the Quebec Nordiques held tight and brought the Big Swede to Denver in the summer of 1995 along with a rising team led by Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote and (eventually) Patrick Roy?
"They had a great team anyway, so it wouldn't have mattered," Sundin chuckled Monday at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
And yes, I know that with Sakic and Forsberg at center, you wonder where Sundin would have fit in. But I've always maintained that Sundin could have easily had just as impactful a career playing on the wing instead, given his size and strength and ability to cut to the net.
"You could only imagine what it would have been like if he was on our team [in Colorado]," Sakic said Monday. "We haven’t talked too much about that. But he came to Toronto and had an outstanding career here and what a tremendous captain. I’m very proud to have a chance to have two guys who basically grew up in Quebec City to be here the same weekend. That’s very special for me."
On the one hand, you have to imagine it has crossed Sundin's mind at some point, as he saw his old Nordiques teammates parade around with the Stanley Cup in 1996 and 2001, how much fun that would have been. But I believe him when he says he would never have wanted to have it any other way.
In Toronto, he found his destiny. It might not have included a Cup, but he became one the best captains in the history of an Original Six team. Hard to beat that.
"I was fortunate," said Sundin. "I came to a great team. That trade for me was still the best thing that could have happened in my career. I’m still happy about that."
Of course, Sakic nearly rewrote his own career path in the summer of 1997 when he signed a three-year, $21 million offer sheet with the New York Rangers. The Avalanche matched it, but it was certainly a few days in between in which Sakic wondered where his career would resume.
"I was in a win-win situation, really," Sakic said. "Obviously, I still live in Colorado, it’s a great place to play and I’ve always enjoyed it there. But if it would have been New York, I would have had a chance to play with Wayne Gretzky. It was really win-win for me either way."
Neil Smith was the Rangers' GM when the controversial decision was made to make Sakic an offer sheet. As Smith reminded ESPN.com when reached on the phone Monday, Mark Messier had just left town for Vancouver and Smith said there was pressure from Rangers ownership to go after Sakic.
Deep down, though, Smith said he knew the Sakic offer sheet would not work.
"Honestly, that really wasn’t what I wanted to do," Smith said. "Of course you want Joe Sakic, who wouldn’t? He was one of the very best players in the league. ...
"But if I had been head cook and bottle washer, I don’t think I would have done it because my gut instinct was saying not to do it because it wouldn’t work."
Offer sheets were few and far between in those days, and the money was big for that period.
"The league was really mad at us for doing this," Smith said.
Smith said when the Sakic bid failed, ownership wanted him to go after Paul Kariya with an offer sheet as well, but he held firm in his belief not to.
Still, it's hard not think what could have been for the Rangers had they landed Sakic in his prime.
"I had been with Joe at the 1996 World Cup [with Team Canada] and I got to know him well," Smith said. "He was such a nice person. What is there not to like about Joe Sakic? It would have been phenomenal to get him."