Dion Phaneuf reaches his moment of truth

The determined Toronto Maple Leafs captain vows that this year will be different. Fans definitely hope he’s right.
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Dion Phaneuf signs an autograph for a fan following an RBC charity hockey game in Toronto, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012. Jesse Johnston/CP

Hockey’s emotions run counter to the seasons. For the 700 NHL players on the 29 teams who don’t win the Stanley Cup each year, spring starts with the death of the dream. They clean out their lockers, say their goodbyes and head home to stew. Whether their failure is cemented in early April or mid-June doesn’t much matter.

Autumn, on the other hand, is the time of promise: the hope that months of gruelling off-ice workouts has left them stronger, faster or, preferably, both. A training camp where at least some roster spots are written in pencil, there for the taking by raw rookies, minor league journeymen or comeback veterans. And a schedule that remains as unblemished as freshly flooded ice, every game a potential win, the route to the big victory parade still clear of all obstacles.

“I think the key word is anticipation,” says Dion Phaneuf. “You start feeling it in the middle of August, when the weather is changing in Canada—that hockey is right around the corner. Whether it’s your first year, or your 10th or your 15th, it’s always there. It’s pretty exciting to know that you are going back to work. You get those butterflies in your stomach.”

Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs know that queasy mix of hope and nervousness, too. Heading into their 48th year without an NHL championship, they long ago learned to prefer the unrealized fantasies of fall to the dashed expectations of springtime: the idea that a fresh player, coach, or even CEO might make the difference, or that old dogs can indeed learn new tricks. There’s a shared certainty that the drought will end—eventually—and that, as partisans, they might speed on the rains by willing them just a little bit harder.

When Phaneuf arrived in a trade from Calgary in January 2010—with Fredrik Sjöström and Keith Aulie in exchange for Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Ian White and Jamal Mayers—many hoped he was the saviour they had been waiting for. A hard-hitting defenceman with a heavy shot, Phaneuf had made an immediate impact when he arrived in the NHL in the 2005-06 season, scoring 20 goals on his way to 49 total points, and becoming a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. He was named an all-star in his sophomore year and, in his third, when he scored a career-high 60 points, he was in the running for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best rearguard. The Flames made the playoffs in all four of the full seasons he played in Calgary.

The Toronto honeymoon was passionate. Less than three months into his Leafs tenure, the Toronto Star labelled him a “godsend,” and declared the trade to be a “long-term success.” That June, Brian Burke, then the club’s president and general manager, made Phaneuf the 17th captain in team history, praising his vocal contributions on the ice and in the dressing room. “Our practices—it was like going to a church service before he got here,” said Burke. Then just 25 years old, the six-foot-three, 214 -lb. D-man represented a new start, and a far more truculent future.

Phaneuf still counts the “C” he wears just above his heart as the greatest honour he has ever received. “When you play for the Toronto Maple Leafs and you represent this franchise, you realize that it is a brand that has so much history,” he says. “The following that this organization has—it’s special.”

But even he must admit that the last four years have had more downs than ups. The team finished well back in the pack in 2010-11 and 2011-12. And when they finally made the playoffs—for the first time in a decade—at the end of that next, lockout-shortened season, it ended with a heartbreaking collapse, as the club surrendered a three-goal lead late in the third period of Game 7 against the Boston Bruins. Then, last year, just when the Leafs seemed poised for another playoff berth, they swooned down the stretch, losing 14 of their final 20 games, and finishing 23rd overall. “We got into a rut and we couldn’t get out of it,” says Phaneuf. “It just seemed to snowball.”

Now the Leafs captain is staring down a fan and media mutiny. During this off-season, there was much speculation—and, in some quarters, open longing—that he might be stripped of his “C” or traded. The huge, seven-year, $49-million contract extension he signed just last December is suddenly being derided as one of the worst deals in the NHL. (Phaneuf is now the league’s third-best-paid defencemen, although he finished 46th in scoring among blueliners with 31 points.) And the Internet holds him directly responsible for everything from Toronto’s poor transition game to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

During the summer, Brendan Shanahan, the team’s new president, travelled to Prince Edward Island to share some seafood with his captain and discuss ways to help him—and the rest of the club—to succeed. There is talk about cutting down his ice time (Phaneuf led the Leafs, averaging 23:33 a game) and he will return to playing on his natural left side. Shanahan has brought in a number of veteran players, including Stephane Robidas, David Booth and Roman Polak, to help with what he termed “the burden” of leading a team in the league’s biggest and most scrutinized market. And he has publicly called on Phaneuf to elevate his game. “I think Dion, in many ways, is developing,” he said last spring. “I would like to challenge him to continue to evolve.”

Now 29, and entering his 10th NHL season, Phaneuf knows he’s at a crossroads. “I’ve got to be better,” he says. “I take responsibility for that. I have to be better and I will be.” It’s a nervous time of year for fans, management and players alike. Anything is possible. A few outcomes are acceptable. But there’s only one result that everyone is striving for.

Graig Abel/NHLI/Getty Images
Graig Abel/NHLI/Getty Images

There’s a truism about sports that it’s easier to change the coach than the players. The corollary is that it’s even simpler to change the dressing-room decor. After Randy Carlyle took over the Leafs’ helm in March 2012, he set about remaking the team’s home at the Air Canada Centre. A large granite boulder was placed just inside the polished steel entrance doors, right below a giant silver and white team crest. The old defenceman meant it as a physical reminder of his new “rock-solid” philosophy for the club. Up on the walls, he added a couple of inspirational mottos: “Make today count,” and, “Burn the boats.” The latter, he told the media, was a reference to a Viking practice of spurring on its raiders by depriving them of the means to get home. (There’s not much evidence that the Norsemen ever actually did that, but the tactic has been attributed to everyone from ancient Chinese generals, to the Romans, to Cortéz.) Two-and-a-half years later, the boulder remains, but those slogans are gone, replaced late last spring with a more pointed message. “Entitled to nothing. Grateful for everything,” it reads.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the large blue semi-Warholized photo of Dion Phaneuf, screaming and pumping his fist in celebration, at the far end of the room. Every night when he laces up his skates, Toronto’s on-ice leader is confronted by an outsized version of himself.

Carlyle, a former Norris Trophy winner who coached the Anaheim Ducks to the Stanley Cup in 2007, remains a strong supporter of his captain. “He’s done everything I’ve asked him to do,” he says, a firm believer that the pundits and fans who are piling on Phaneuf are losing the plot. “He’s been one of our top D. He plays the most minutes against the top lines. He’s a physical force. And, at one point last season, he was like plus-20,” the coach rattles off. “But Dion seems to get more recognition for the negatives than the positives.” The coach knows what he’d like him to change about his game, and it’s not the zone exits, or Corsi ratings that occupy the proponents of advanced statistics. “I think less is better,” says Carlyle. “I’ve been telling him to try to think about making the safe play every time instead of 80 per cent of the time.”

Carlyle’s captains during his tenure in Anaheim were the cerebral Scott Niedermayer, then the quick-tempered Ryan Getzlaf. Phaneuf, he says, is different, but in a good way. “He’s vocal, but not boisterous,” says the 58-year-old. “He’s a rah-rah guy who wants to win.”

There is little question of Phaneuf’s competitiveness. He led the team in penalties last year, and was second in hits, credited with 227 bodychecks. Even in a pre-season practice, he is prone to drop a cluster of F-bombs when he misses a shot, or stick out an elbow at a teammate who threatens to turn the corner on him. When HBO trailed the Leafs around for their 24/7 series building to last season’s Winter Classic with the Detroit Red Wings, their cameras captured an epic Ping-Pong match between the captain and Phil Kessel, the team’s star winger. On losing points, Phaneuf swears and kicks the table. His eventual victory—and retention of the team crown—is celebrated with a primal scream and what looks suspiciously like a brief jig.

The unsanded edges of his personality are often on display when the media is present. He describes his relationship with the large contingent of reporters and cameramen that fills the dressing room each night as “good,” and they are probably too frightened to disagree in his vicinity. But Phaneuf is not famed for his patience, and when he locks eyes with you, he blinks about as much as a snake. “The biggest misconception is that I don’t smile, or that, in my post-game interviews, I don’t show personality,” he says, as a sort of grin creaks across his face. “But I’m an intense guy, and when I’m just getting out of playing a game in the National Hockey League, where there’s so much emotion, I have a tough time shutting that off. I really do.”

Somewhere underneath, there does lurk a sense of humour. He and Kessel, his closest friend on the team, bicker and banter like an old married couple in a Neil Simon play, except with dialogue written by the Trailer Park Boys. If you are close enough to hear what he’s saying to his opponents on the ice, it is both schoolyard-pointed and witty. They hate him for good reason.

Toronto Maple Leafs' captain Dion Phaneuf walks past posters commemorating past Stanley Cup triumphs as he makes way to the ice at training camp in Toronto on Friday, September 13, 2013. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)
Toronto Maple Leafs’ captain Dion Phaneuf walks past posters commemorating past Stanley Cup triumphs as he makes way to the ice at training camp in Toronto on Friday, September 13, 2013. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

To play in Toronto is to swim in the NHL’s biggest fishbowl, but Phaneuf seems to like the public responsibilities of being Leafs captain. The fans are pleasant and respectful, he says, and he can go to the grocery store, or out to dinner with his wife, the actress Elisha Cuthbert, without much bother. “You don’t have to hide. That’s a big positive,” he says. Still, he’s mindful of the challenges that come with the market, and he tries to help the younger guys in the dressing room adjust to the spotlight.

Last season, when Morgan Rielly made the team straight out of junior, Phaneuf invited the 19-year-old over to his house for a chat and cooked him dinner. “He told me what to expect—the ups and downs of playing in Toronto,” the young defenceman recounts. The tutoring continued in the dressing room, where they had adjoining stalls. “There were a lot of things he taught me. He helped me grow on the ice and as a person off the ice,” says Rielly, who finished the year with 27 points.

Those concerns about his colleagues’ comfort may well remain, but, this year, the Leafs captain is vowing to keep the focus on accountability—for himself, and everyone else. “We played three-quarters of a good season. But that isn’t good enough and we know it,” Phaneuf says flatly. “We expect more.” It’s a matter of evolution. The once wet-behind-the-ears core of the team are creeping up into their prime NHL years. Kessel will turn 27 this fall, Jonathan Bernier is 26, James van Riemsdyk, 25, Jake Gardiner is 24, and soon, so will be Nazem Kadri. Joffrey Lupul is 31, David Clarkson, 30, and the captain is 29. The excuses of youth and inexperience are no longer viable— and the fan base is all out of patience.

In keeping with hockey’s bass-ackwards emotional clock, Phaneuf is filled with optimism as the fall progresses. He can hardly wait for the first game, at home, against the Canadiens. “Opening night is special,” he says. “There’s so much emotion built up, because you’ve been working and preparing all summer.” As the weeks progress, the milestones tick past—fitness testing, the start of training camp, the phony war that is the exhibition schedule. But when Oct. 8 arrives, it finally matters. “You have that feeling in your stomach that it’s for real,” he says.

All through the season, the Leafs captain likes to maintain a steady routine on game day in Toronto. He leaves his house at the same time and grabs a coffee at the same place. Once at the rink, there is an appointed hour for stretching, riding the warm-up bike and taping his stick. It never varies.

What Dion Phaneuf hopes changes is the finish. At the conclusion of this season, when he finally arrives at his P.E.I. cottage, he hopes it will be summer, not spring. And that the lingering mood—both for him and the fans—will be elation.