If you’re a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, you probably didn’t like the way captain Dion Phaneuf performed the other night against the St. Louis Blues. He was too soft, too mistake prone and he admitted as much on a local radio station the next day.
A lot of people also didn’t care for the way he ducked the media post-game, choosing not to face reporters amid the club’s horrible slide. He was criticized roundly for not manning up.
But not by me. If we’re to take him at his word – that he was too emotional following the contest and was worried about saying something he’d regret – I think it showed considerable maturity and leadership. Loose canons have a way of shooting and injuring themselves, sometimes mortally. An out-of-control passion purge might have come off as sour grapes, a victim-like sob session that wouldn’t have done anyone any good.
A more measured rant, on the other hand…
A Toronto Maple Leafs team that is careening out of playoff contention needs something to galvanize it. If a post-season berth means everything to the franchise, then times are indeed desperate. And we all know what desperate times call for.
In 1972, when Team Canada was being embarrassed by the Soviet Union in the Summit Series, Phil Esposito stood his ground and protected his teammates. He had a lot to say, but was under control, direct and convincing.
In 2002, when Team Canada stumbled through the early games at the Salt Lake City Olympics, Wayne Gretzky delivered his famous diatribe. Like Esposito, he picked his moment, thought through his words and everyone noticed.
“Am I hot?” Gretzky said. “Yeah, I’m hot. I’m tired of people taking shots at Canadian hockey.
“We’ve got a proud bunch in our locker room. I know the whole world wants us to lose, except for Canada and Canada fans and our players. And we’ll be there. We’ll be standing.”
In both cases, the great leaders fostered an us-against-the-world mentality that helped rescue sinking ships. Admittedly, the stakes for the Maple Leafs and their fans aren’t nearly as high and the theater is not nearly as large. The Summit Series, in particular, was so ideologically charged, the parallel has its flaws.
Still, Phaneuf has a decision to make. Continue to do what he’s been doing and have faith that things will change organically. Or step up to the microphone and prove to his teammates he’s willing to show the world he’ll take a bullet for them. In return, they’ll likely do the same for him.