He polarizes fans and doesn’t dazzle the media, but that’s not critical to Dion Phaneuf. He has the admiration and respect of his teammates as he strives hard to lead them to glory. Adam Proteau explores Dion’s two sides in this longform feature pulled from the pages of THN.
As it goes with just about everyone you’ve ever met, Dion Phaneuf isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. He isn’t publicly vulnerable, doesn’t do the social media thing and will only be named to the NHL’s All-Interview Team when every other player removes his name from consideration. He’s arguably not even the ideal guy to be the captain of the Maple Leafs: alternate captain Joffrey Lupul is just as much of a leader in Toronto’s dressing room and is more of a polished and engaging media presence.
That said, Phaneuf is the 18th captain in Leafs history for good reason. He’s not a perfect hockey specimen, but he occupies the seat of power in hockey’s biggest fishbowl environment because of a relentless desire to see this team achieve its mission. If he’s not Toronto’s heart, he’s absolutely its spine. He made that clear at the news conference announcing his seven-year, $49-million extension.
“It’s an honor to be a captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs with the history of the organization,” Phaneuf says. “I’ve said it many times. I’ve definitely grown into the role and I’ve learned a lot. I’d be lying if I sat up here and said I hadn’t. I’m very comfortable in the role. It’s an honor to be the captain of such a storied franchise, but I’ve definitely learned a lot and I feel that I’ve grown as the leader of our team.”
It matters not whether you want to be the president of his fan club or lead the mob trying to drive him out of town. He’s been given a job and intends to see it through. And after the team rewarded Phaneuf during the 2014 Winter Classic festivities with a new deal to keep him in Toronto, it became obvious Leafs management believes he’s the right person to remain in the role.
“We signed Dion to this deal because he deserved it,” says GM Dave Nonis. “He’s going to play at this level or beyond for seven years, maybe beyond that. You look at his numbers – people love looking at numbers these days and I would tell people to look at them. Look at where he stacks up for minutes played, points, who he plays against. He’s done a lot of good things for us.”
All right, let’s look at those numbers. Critics of Phaneuf’s game will argue he’ll never be a perennial Norris Trophy candidate, but really, how many players can you say that about? There isn’t a Norris finalist on every team. But when it comes to the Leafs, Phaneuf is without doubt their most complete blueliner, a workhorse averaging more than 24 minutes per game, nearly three more than the next most-utilized Toronto player, and he’s on track for his best plus-minus mark since joining the franchise in a blockbuster trade four years ago. He’s second on the team in hits and blocked shots and has cut down his turnover ratio. And he’s done it all while coping with a lifestyle that affords him precious little personal time.
Maybe that’s why Phaneuf, who turned 29 in April, is still one of the more guarded personalities in the NHL. He makes himself available to the media hordes on a daily basis, but there’s still a wall of significant height and depth behind his eyes. The cocky, energetic person you hear about behind the scenes is nowhere to be found when cameras and microphones are drawn. For public consumption, he’s all business. But when he’s alone with teammates, he’s far different. It would be impossible for him to lead and encourage his fellow Leafs players if he were that vanilla.
We all got a small glimpse of Phaneuf in private when HBO’s 24/7 program chronicled the team leading up to the Winter Classic. There he was, verbally jousting in a playful way with Phil Kessel while playing ping-pong, chiding himself (“C’mon, Dion!”) when he missed a shot. It’s something that happens often, according to other Leafs.
“Him and Phil are always competing, whether it’s in ping-pong or on the ice,” says Carl Gunnarsson, Phaneuf’s defense partner. “It’s fun to watch, especially the ping-pong, because they’re both good players. You see that competitiveness. He brings that on the ice and in the dressing room every day, just trying to keep the group going. I love it.”
Adds defenseman Cody Franson: “He’s a very competitive person, but he likes to have some fun. He’s one of those guys who likes to joke around every day, get guys a little edgy and see if he can get them going that way. But it’s all fun and games and he’s a joy to have in the room.”
It feels odd to the ear to hear Phaneuf linked with the word “joy.” He doesn’t want to be a joy to play against and doesn’t care which opponent or fan base loathes him for it. The only people who are going to see who he is are the ones with whom he steps over the boards. And he’s more comfortable being himself and Toronto’s captain than he was when receiving the honor in June 2010. That’s in part due to his mental maturation and grasp of what it takes to operate as a Leafs star, but it’s also because he now has more of what all above-average NHL captains have: leadership support from other veterans.
That group begins with Lupul, but it also includes centers Jay McClement and David Bolland and its assistance in lightening Phaneuf’s load is noticed by the team.
“You can’t look at one guy to be your leader,” Franson says. “You need a supporting cast and it’s up to everybody in the room to follow that select group. Neuf’s a good leader and he’s got a good supporting cast in ‘Lupes’ and ‘J-Mac,’ among other guys.”
Where there once were questions about Phaneuf’s character during his four-and-a-half seasons with Calgary, there are none on a much bigger stage in Toronto. He married actress Elisha Cuthbert last summer and represents the team at a vast array of corporate and charitable events. He has done things the right way.
To underscore the point, Phaneuf’s contract negotiation never entered the public sphere, never degenerated into a nasty war of words with management, never became about him pressuring Nonis into getting a deal done. If you think he’s overpaid, you simply don’t have a proper grasp of the dearth of minute-munching defenseman of his caliber. Though he could’ve demanded an extra year be tacked on to the seven-year extension and almost assuredly could have received more money in another weak unrestricted free agent class this off-season, Phaneuf opted for the straightforward, businesslike approach that allowed him to focus on his on-ice duties.
After his deal was officially done, he sounded like someone who was finally enjoying a sliver of personal and professional serenity after a sizeable stretch of tumult.
“I feel I’m a better player today than I definitely was when I started and in my time in Calgary, that’s for sure,” Phaneuf says. “A big reason why I’ve re-signed is because I believe in the group that we have and the pieces that we have in place. Obviously, we’re going to add pieces to our group, but I believe in the group that we have. It’s an exciting team to be a part of. We’ve grown a lot together and there is obviously room to grow.”
Toronto’s team struggles after a strong October demonstrate that the room to grow will include some exceedingly unpleasant moments. Though there are no guarantees Phaneuf will remain a Leaf for the life of that new contract – it includes only a limited no-trade clause that doesn’t kick in until next season – Phaneuf appears to have turned a corner with his confidence and consistency.
He long ago stopped trying to be everything to everyone. He learned he couldn’t survive as a whirling dervish of pro wrestling cross-body blocks and attempted (and often-failed) Bobby Orr rush impersonations. He now has no qualms at all if he never appears on a highlight reel. He doesn’t need to be the highest-paid defenseman in the game or even the highest-paid player on his team. The only thing that matters now for Phaneuf is the larger group. He and the other veterans are conscious of the temperature in the dressing room and attempt to nip any personnel conflicts in the bud before coach Randy Carlyle has to step in. On such a young Toronto squad, that self-reliance shouldn’t and doesn’t go unappreciated.
Go ahead and hate Phaneuf until your heart turns black, but understand it’s not fair to judge him solely through the eyes of his enemies and/or detractors. Go talk to his teammates and the people he sacrifices for. They’ll tell you a much different story. They’ll talk about him in all the ways you want an NHL player to talk about their leader.
“I love playing with him,” Gunnarsson says. “When he’s on his game, it’s huge for the team. He’s a great leader and I can’t say enough good things about him.”