It is amazing how quickly things can change in Toronto.
Two days after the Toronto Maple Leafs stunned the Boston Bruins with a 6-1 victory, captain Dion Phaneuf made his way off the ice and toward the dressing passing a horde of reporters and camera operators standing in the corridor.
“How ya doin’ fellas?” a chipper Phaneuf says with a smile.
Flash forward five days and the Maple Leafs have just been embarrassed 9-2 by the Nashville Predators. Phaneuf is in the media room verbally sparring with a reporter who has questioned his defensive play in a few recent defeats.
No smiles from the captain on this night. No friendly banter.
Fans don’t often get to see the charming side of the Toronto Maple Leafs captain. When he is in front of the camera, he is usually all business. And when it comes to spewing clichés, he’d give Bull Durham’s Nuke Laloosh a run for his money.
I can’t fake it when I come off the ice and I am still feeling the intensity of having just played in a game.
While the Maple Leafs most talented offensive weapon, Phil Kessel, rarely grants the media an audience, the captain of the team is expected to be available daily. Last season Phaneuf ducked the media after a particularly bad game and was roasted. He has not made that mistake again.
If you have only seen Phaneuf in media scrums, you may believe he is a sourpuss. Nothing could be further from the truth, Phaneuf insists.
“It is a misconception when people say I don’t smile much or I don’t seem to joke around or have much of a personality,” Phaneuf says. “That is extremely false because I do love to joke around. I enjoy my time with my teammates and we have a great group of guys here. The thing is, when the cameras are on after a game and the emotions of the game are still flowing, I tend to be caught in the moment in terms of still having that intense side of me.
“I can’t fake it when I come off the ice and I am still feeling the intensity of having just played in a game,” Phaneuf adds.
Being the captain of the most visible team in the NHL comes with inherent responsibilities. No team receives the coverage the Maple Leafs get, and it doesn’t take much for fans to fall off the bandwagon.
“When you are winning the fans and the media see you as a great leader,” says Maple Leafs legend Darryl Sittler, the team’s captain from 1975 to 1980. “When you are losing and things are not going well, they look at you as the fall guy. I was fortunate to have a strong supporting cast of leaders like Lanny McDonald, Tiger Williams and Borje Salming to help me in terms of leadership.”
Doug Gilmour, who was the Maple Leafs captain for two and a half seasons, says filling that role is more difficult nowadays.
“I think times have changed with social media and everything else that goes on,” Gilmour said. “My first three years here Wendel (Clark) was the captain and then when I was captain you just had to address the media and do the little things expected from a captain. The role is more intense today.”
If fans question Phaneuf’s leadership, his teammates do not.
“He’s a leader on and off the ice,” says David Clarkson. “I was very fortunate coming into the league to have great captains like Jamie Langenbrunner and Brian Gionta who really showed you what a leader meant to a team. It teaches you the rest of the career what a leader is and what a leader is supposed to be.”
Adds Phaneuf’s defensive partner Cody Franson: “He’s a guy that people respond to in the room. When he speaks people listen. He knows when to try to keep the mood light and when to try to snap guys back into attention. He manages the room well.”
Phaneuf was born in Edmonton, Alta., in April of 1985. A few months later the Edmonton Oilers won their second Cup in a row and would win three more in the next five years. While Phaneuf was too young to absorb exactly how great and dynamic those Oilers teams were, he was certainly influenced by their rise to prominence.
“The Oilers were my favorite team and Wayne Gretzky was my favorite player,” Phaneuf says.
So it could have been devastating when on June 21, 2003, the rival Calgary Flames made him the ninth overall selection in the NHL’s Entry Draft.
“At first all my friends gave me a hard time, but they changed allegiances pretty quickly,” Phaneuf says. “To be completely honest as soon as I was drafted by the Flames my allegiance changed, too. I was proud to be a Flame.”
Phaneuf was an instant success in the NHL, scoring 20 goals and 49 points in 82 games in 2005-05. He was named to the NHL’s all-rookie team and was a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie along with Sidney Crosby and the winner Alexander Ovechkin.
In the next two seasons the hard-hitting, free-wheeling Phaneuf put up back-to-back seasons of 17 goals with 50 and 60 points respectively. There was plenty of talk about Phaneuf one day being a Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s best defenceman.
Based on 54 goals in three seasons, that seemed inevitable.
In his fourth year with Calgary, Phaneuf’s numbers took a dip. He scored 11 goals and 47 points, which are decent numbers, but he was trending in the wrong direction. Then in his fifth season, when he had 10 goals and 22 points in the Flames first 55 games, he was traded to Toronto.
In that 2009-10 season, the Leafs traded away two first-round and a second-round pick to the Boston Bruins for Kessel on Sept. 18, 2009, and then made the deal for Phaneuf on Jan. 31, 2010. These two young and gifted players, who their original teams gave up on in their early 20s, were now the centerpieces for a struggling franchise that had not gone to the playoffs since the 2003-04 season.
Phaneuf says there were no hints leading up to the trade that he’d be on the move. Calgary GM Darryl Sutter was travelling when the deal was made and left a voicemail on Phaneuf’s phone.
“I was extremely shocked at the time,” Phaneuf says. “There wasn’t much talk about me possibly being moved at the time, but that’s the business. I was traded to Toronto and as soon as I talked to Burkie, I was extremely excited about coming to Toronto.”
Not long afterward, GM Brian Burke made a bold move naming the 25-year-old Phaneuf the Maple Leafs captain.
Phaneuf says he never thought about turning down the opportunity even though he knew he’d be right in the sights of angry fans if things didn’t go well for the team.
“I was completely honoured to be named captain and it still is a huge honour to be the captain of this franchise,” Phaneuf says. “There is a lot of responsibility and a lot of pressure, but I enjoy that.”
TIMELINE: Key moments in Dion Phaneuf's career
The Maple Leafs teased their fans by making the playoffs in 2012-13 and taking the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Boston Bruins to seven games before bowing out in the first round. It was a series they could have – and should have – won.
Toronto was up 4-1 in Game 7 with 14:31 remaining and wound up losing 5-4 in overtime. It was a cruel blow to Leafs Nation, but it could at least be argued the team was moving in the right direction.
Or so it seemed.
The Maple Leafs seemed well on the way to making it two years in a row going to the playoffs last season until the wheels fell off. When starting goalie Jonathan Bernier was hurt and backup James Reimer took over between the pipes, the Maple Leafs won just two and lost 14 of their final 16 games. It was not all Reimer’s fault.
Phaneuf had been cruising along nicely at plus-21, but was minus-19 in the team’s final 20 games. Kessel, who has yet to produce a 40-goal season, had just four goals in the last 20 games.
It is now eight seasons in nine without playoffs and fans are angry.
“We didn’t have a good year last year; we had three-quarters of a good year and that’s not good enough,” Phaneuf says. “We know with the group that we have, the guys who have returned, it is not acceptable. The bottom line is it is a new year and I like the way our team is playing. Sometimes you have to go through the hard times to learn from them. We have had our struggles, but we have also done some good things, too in our game.”
It is early, but so far the 2014-15 season has had its share of ups and downs. Through 18 games Toronto was clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference at 9-7-2 and on four occasions they dropped back-to-back games.
Three times this season fans have tossed Maple Leafs jerseys onto the ice at Air Canada Centre to protest a losing effort by the team and booing is commonplace.
“The fans have every right to boo,” Phaneuf says. “We want to win and the fans want us to win. When we don’t play well in front of our fans they let us know it, but we want to win for them. We want to make them proud.”
The Maple Leafs added a pair of veteran defencemen in Stephane Robidas and Roman Polak to help take some of the pressure off Phaneuf.
Though he has been taken off the first power play unit, Phaneuf still averages about 23 minutes of ice time per game. He has a goal and 10 points through 20 games, is a plus-6 and leads the team in penalty minutes with 40.
“Dion chews [up] a lot of hard minutes,” says coach Randy Carlyle. “And for us he’s a competitive guy who enjoys coming to the rink and enjoys the game. His arrival in the NHL came with a lot of fanfare and it is still maintained. He seems to be able to handle it and the leadership role is something that puts a lot of pressure on an individual.”
Phaneuf says he is dedicated to turning the team around. In the meantime, he says he loves playing for the Maple Leafs and living in Toronto.
He was married to actress Elisha Cuthbert in 2013 and the couple have a new dog they enjoy taking for walks in the city. Phaneuf insists fans treat him wonderfully when they bump into him away from the rink. He’d like to pay them back.
“Getting a taste of the playoffs and seeing how the city embraced the team was unbelievable,” Phaneuf says. “Not only in the building, but in Maple Leaf Square with all the people outside. As a player, it’s something I will never forget and that is where we want to get back to. We owe it to our fans.”