Natural leader Phaneuf faces tough Toronto test

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

TORONTO – Both players hesitated to tell the story. It happened long before their junior teammate had become captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs and, well, who wants to tick off Dion Phaneuf(notes)?

“Uh,” said Derek Meech(notes), a defenseman in the Detroit Red Wings' organization, “he’ll probably be unhappy with me.”

“I feel bad selling him out,” said Maple Leafs winger Colby Armstrong(notes).

But sorry, the story was too good not to tell. It was just a little incident that illustrates the personality behind the man wearing the 'C' in Toronto. Phaneuf is a confident, competitive, talkative guy with his teammates and opponents. That can make him a target, but he can take the shots.

First, Meech’s version: When Phaneuf broke into the Western Hockey League with the Red Deer Rebels, he made noise immediately.

“Usually 16-year-olds are a little bit soft-spoken,” said Meech, who played three seasons with Phaneuf in Red Deer, often as his defense partner. “The rookie comes in and kind of sees what’s going on first before he starts really vocalizing. But Dion’s not that kind of guy.”

One day, the Rebels played paintball to bond as a team. Phaneuf didn’t exactly hide in the bushes.

“He was kind of running his mouth a little bit at the older guys – not anything disrespectful or whatever, but he was just kind of having fun,” said Meech with a smile. “Guys were like, ‘OK, let’s see how he likes this.’ ”

The older guys lured the young buck into a trap at the end of the game, then surrounded him and unloaded. When the Rebels boarded the team bus, on tromped Phaneuf, covered in paint.

“All the guys were laughing,” Meech said.

All the guys except Phaneuf. When Meech’s version was relayed to him, Phaneuf looked down as he listened. He stayed silent. Asked if he remembered that, he looked up without a smile.

“Yeah, definitely,” Phaneuf said. “They ganged up on me.”

* * * * *

Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke is a bold, outspoken man. He has talked often about eradicating what he calls “blue and white disease” – the complacency of players who, whether or not they win, whether or not the franchise’s Stanley Cup drought still stretches to 1967, are deified in Toronto simply because they play the holy game of hockey. He wants to build a team that is intimidating, that is tough to play against, that needs to win and will do whatever it takes.

On Jan. 31, the Leafs acquired Dion Phaneuf from the Calgary Flames, and on June 14, they named him captain. The Leafs hadn’t had a captain since Mats Sundin(notes) left in the summer of 2008. Now, as they open the season Thursday night against the Montreal Canadiens, they feel they have someone who fits the profile.

“It’s the whole package as a player, of hostility and truculence and all the things I value,” Burke said. “He’s also a really good player with a cannon for a shot, but it’s more leadership skills. There are a lot of good players that don’t make good captains. This guy’s got leadership skills.”

Phaneuf’s star rose quickly in Calgary, where he went from the ninth overall pick of the 2003 draft to the runner-up for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman in 2008. He put up big numbers, as many as 20 goals and 60 points, and used his 6-foot-3, 214-pound frame to knock opponents through the boards. He was touted as the next Scott Stevens. He started dating actress Elisha Cuthbert.

By 2010, though, he was trade bait. Some thought he had gotten too much, too soon. His numbers declined, and he needed work in his own end. There were reports of conflict with teammate Robyn Regehr(notes) and Jarome Iginla(notes), indicating a downside to his intensity.

“He would seem to get into it with everybody,” said Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brad Stuart(notes), who played 27 games with the Flames in 2006-07, Phaneuf’s second season. “He wasn’t afraid to try to get in the face of the older guys and try to get them off their game. Games, practice, he’s an intense guy when he gets on the ice. Sometimes it can rub people the wrong way, but I think he has good intentions.”

The Leafs researched the situation in Calgary and felt the reports were overblown, and they felt Phaneuf made a positive impact as soon as he walked into their dressing room. Suddenly, the volume went way up on the stereo (Phaneuf’s favorite kind of music is loud music), ping-pong got serious (Phaneuf has his own fancy paddle) and the pace picked up in practice.

“I think maybe before in practice the tempo wasn’t as good as it could be,” said Leafs defenseman Luke Schenn(notes). “Guys were feeling a little bit down on how we were playing, and he kind of brought the energy up a little bit. Whether it’s a pass or calling for a pass or trying to hit the net, he’s always kind of keeping an eye and holding you accountable.”

Asked what Phaneuf had brought, defenseman Mike Komisarek(notes) laughed and said: “I sit next to him. Maybe a headache.”

“He talks a big game, but he goes out there and shows it every shift,” Komisarek said. “He definitely sort of turned things around immediately on his arrival. It’s just a matter of changing the culture. … Dion let it be known that we’re not going to take this. We’re not going to be a losing team. We’re going to turn things around. We’re going to be a playoff team. The biggest thing he’s brought is definitely the confidence and swagger, and I think that’s sort of spread throughout the locker room. It’s sort of infectious.”

Most of Phaneuf’s comments on the ice and in the dressing room cannot be repeated in public.

“Usually they’re profanity-laced – a lot of expletives, expletive and then the other teams, whoever we’re playing that night,” Komisarek said. “It usually goes something like that.”

Which partially explains why Phaneuf seems like a different person in front of cameras, microphones and notebooks. Unless HBO gives us a reality series on the Leafs – wouldn’t it be great with Phaneuf, Burke and coach Ron Wilson? – we’re likely in for a lot of long, thoughtful pauses and bland, say-nothing statements.

Phaneuf, 25, made headlines in Toronto when he set the playoffs as the goal for this season. But even though the Leafs finished second-worst in the NHL last season, it wasn’t that surprising. Every team’s goal is to make the playoffs, every team is optimistic this time of year and Phaneuf was just following Burke’s lead. He has given no penetrating insights about the trade, even though he was Alberta-born and forced to leave his home province. He isn’t going to show more than a snarl, a scowl and maybe an occasional smile, though others insist he has a softer side.

“He’s got a great heart,” Meech said. “People think he could be cocky at some points, but he’s not. He’s a down-to-earth guy, and he’s a good hockey player.”

This was about the best reporters could get out of Phaneuf on Wednesday.

“I definitely want to have a better season offensively than I did last year,” said Phaneuf, who had 12 goals and a career-low 32 points in 2009-10. “I didn’t put up numbers that I was happy with at all. But that’s the past, and you can’t do nothing about that. So I’m looking forward to a fresh start here.”

Asked if he had a benchmark in mind, Phaneuf said: “I have a number that I need to be at, that’s for sure.” Pressed for the number, he said: “Well, what’s the average been?” Told it was about 15 goals – it was actually 16.25 over his first four seasons – he added: “Yeah, from there and up.”

But the Leafs didn’t name Phaneuf captain to give colorful sound bytes, even though that made him the center of attention in a hockey-mad media market. A Toronto Star headline Wednesday proclaimed him “THE FACE OF THE FRANCHISE.”

“I would describe his style initially, when we introduced him as captain, as not uncomfortable but barely comfortable – barely comfortable,” Burke said. “His whole career in Calgary, they had Iggy (Iginla) there. He was never the face of the team. Here it’s Calgary plus double the load of cameras. I think he’ll grow into that role.”

* * * * *

Finally, Armstrong’s version:

“I have to say, Dion’s Dion,” said Armstrong, who played with Phaneuf for one season in junior. “He’s the same guy, chirping whatever, having a good time with the boys. But he’s, like, a phenomenal paintballer. I was blown away.”

Phaneuf wasn’t just talking a good game years ago in Red Deer. He was backing it up, and he was playing past the whistle.

“So the game’s over, and he decides he’s going to keep smoking us while we’re walking back to base,” Armstrong said. “Some of the guys got (ticked) and chased him into the trees. He, by the grace of God, tripped on a log, and the boys just pelted him from point-blank range.”

When Phaneuf climbed aboard the team bus, he was covered with more than paint.

“Those things hurt,” Armstrong said. “Five guys around you, just giving it to you, he was hurt. … His welts, they were so swollen that blood was oozing out. He had such a bad bruise, I actually felt bad.”

Did that shut him up?

“For, like, a few minutes, until the sting went away,” said Armstrong with a smile. “I think he plays like that, too. I think he plays the same way he is. He’s a great teammate, a good leader. I probably wouldn’t ever pin him down paintballing again.”