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Leafs’ Dion Phaneuf the new face of the franchise

In Canada on October 6, 2010 at 09:11
Back to Leafs’ Dion Phaneuf the new face of the franchise

Leafs’ Dion Phaneuf the new face of the franchise

October 05, 2010

Kevin McGran


The two faces of Dion Phaneuf: uninhibited, spandex-wearing party animal, left, and stone-faced, strictly business captain of the Maple Leafs.


There are two captains of the Maple Leafs.

There’s the stone-faced Dion Phaneuf, the man of few words who measures each one before he utters it, and who looks for all the world as if he’d rather be anywhere than in front of a microphone.

And there’s the hell-on-wheels Dion Phaneuf, the life of the party who goes to Halloween get-togethers dressed like an ’80s rocker, all big hair and tight spandex pants.

“There’s work mode and there’s fun mode,” Phaneuf says during a quiet moment at Leaf training camp. “And there’s definitely a big difference in those.”

Phaneuf is relaxed, sitting at his locker dressed in street clothes. On the heels of an impromptu team table tennis tournament at the MasterCard Centre practice facility, he explains his dual personality.

“I definitely think before I answer a question,” Phaneuf says. “You have to think about what you’re going to say. The biggest thing is when people get the wrong assessment of me. They say, ‘He doesn’t smile’ and this and that.

“I’m not the same person here as I am away from the rink. This is my job. When you’re away from it, you have your fun. When we’re here, it’s business.”

Does it bother him that people get the wrong impression?

“No, not at all,” he says. “Because when they meet you, they’re surprised.”

Especially if they were at the Calgary Flames’ Halloween party last season. Phaneuf wanted to keep the details about his costume under wraps — it’s his favourite get-up — but his friend, Flames forward Craig Conroy, gave it up.

“He dressed up as an ’80s rocker and he’s got a pretty big butt. So he really accented that butt. I mean, it was huge,” Conroy says. “I couldn’t tell if it was his butt or if it was fake. He was in a spandex outfit. It was pretty funny. He had that wig going and a tight, tight shirt. He likes to have fun.”

If there was a day that might finally have changed Leaf fortunes for the better, it was Jan. 31, 2010, the day of two blockbuster deals. One landed Jean-Sebastien Giguere to stabilize the goaltending. The other landed Phaneuf, a human injection of adrenaline, to bolster the blue line.

After just 26 games with the Leafs, a two-year search for the captain’s job left vacant by Mats Sundin was over. The brass decided Phaneuf was the locker room presence the team needed, a motivator with star quality.

His girlfriend is Canadian actress Elisha Cuthbert. He plays his music loud and loves going to concerts. He’ll listen to any kind of music but favours alternative rock. His favourite band — and he’s gotten to know them — is The Tragically Hip. He likes — no, loves — to shop. He’s got a particular weakness for watches.

He’s 25 years old, earns $6.5 million a year and plays in hockey’s biggest market, captaining a team that’s been headed in the wrong direction for four decades.

“He’ a young guy, he’s living the dream,” Conroy says. “He’s enjoying himself. He plays hard, whether it’s the first minute of the game or the last.

“He’ll stick the goalie and you’re thinking: ‘Oh, we’re winning by four and there’s 12 seconds left in the game and why did he hit the goalie?’ He plays hard the whole 60 minutes, and that’s what you get with Dion.

“That’s why guys don’t like playing against him. You’ve got to keep your head up.”

Phaneuf has already made his mark as captain. He took Nazem Kadri under his wing over the summer. He even invited Kadri to his home in Prince Edward Island for a day when the two were doing a charitable appearance.

“Whether it’s him or any other teammate coming down my way, I want to have them over,” Phaneuf says. “A big part of being a close, tight-knit group is being close off the ice. With him coming into such a big year, I had him over for lunch. Nothing too serious. Barbecued some chicken.”

Kadri admitted to being a little overwhelmed at first just hanging out with Phaneuf and Cuthbert.

“It’s nice when you have high-profile guys take you under their wing like that,” Kadri says. “It means a lot to me.”

Later, when the Atlanta Thrashers turned Clarke MacArthur into an unrestricted free agent by declining an arbitrator’s ruling that would have given the player a contract worth $2.4 million a year, Phaneuf was on the phone to his buddy from the 2005 world junior team.

“When I saw they (the Thrashers) walked away, he was available. Our team was talking with him. I wanted to talk to him and see what his thoughts were,” Phaneuf says. “He had more questions about the organization and the city, our facilities. He was very excited. He had different offers. I just told him he’d really help our group.”

MacArthur says he’s a Leaf because of Phaneuf.

“We were talking the whole time; it was definitely a help,” MacArthur says. “He’s a guy in the room who is always talking. He’s working guys over and making everyone feel comfortable.

“If you miss a check, he’ll keep guys in line. That’s what you need. Keep people in place. He’s a good leader for that. On ice, he’s a player who’s out for blood.”

Phaneuf is the 18th captain of the Maple Leafs, about to lead a team now 43 years removed from its last Stanley Cup. If GM Brian Burke has his way, Phaneuf will be the first captain since George Armstrong to hoist the trophy. Not this year, to be sure. But a championship is the ultimate goal of the team that is being assembled, building block by building block.

The average age of this squad is likely to be 26, one of the youngest in the NHL. Guiding it, and maintaining team confidence after the inevitable losses, could be Phaneuf’s biggest challenge as captain.

“To be completely honest, I don’t look at it as a challenge,” he says. “I’m excited about the opportunity to be the captain of this team. We’re young, we’re an exciting team.

“The biggest thing, when we’re a young team like this we’re going to go through the ups and the downs, we’re going to go through it all together at a young age,” Phaneuf says. “You hope there’s more ups than downs, but no year is going to be perfect.

“It’s how we handle both ups and downs and learn together.”

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