From Mats to Dion: A New Era Dawns in Leafs Nation

Coach Ron Wilson and his newest captain, Dion Phaneuf (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

By Will Salvarinas

In what was likely one of the worst kept secrets of the hockey world, the Toronto Maple Leafs have finally made it official in naming Dion Phaneuf as the 18th captain in the franchise’s illustrious history.

January 31st, 2010 marked the commencement of Phaneuf’s tenure with the Buds.  Arriving amid an epic Sunday afternoon of trading by Leafs’ GM Brian Burke, he instantly became a success in Toronto.  After pummeling New Jersey Devils’ defenceman Colin White on his first shift as a Leaf, the Air Canada Centre fans collectively rose to their feet, chanting his name.  Just five minutes into his Leafs’ career, a franchise’s latest hero had been born.

His transition from Calgary to Toronto was met with high praise from players, coaches, and members in the media.  Upon the culmination of the season, Burke referred to his talented defenceman as an “adrenaline bomb,” when asked about Phaneuf’s impact on the Leafs dressing room.

Phaneuf’s on-ice play really replicates the character of Brian Burke.  Perhaps this explains the overwhelming adoration Burke has shown for his prized possession.  Dion Phaneuf is a brash, assertive individual and it translates well into his game.  He is an-all star defensemen, and at only 25 years old is just entering the prime of his career.

If his first years in the NHL have shown us anything, it’s his competitiveness and desire to win.  Two elements which will be imperative in further endearing himself to Leafs Nation.  The man simply has a passion for success, and will do anything to secure victory.  He hits hard, shoots hard, skates exceptionally well for his size, and will drop the gloves when need be.  Feared by the opposition, Phaneuf is a presence very few players in the league can match, and has injected a confident buzz into a squad focused on building an identity.

Certainly the Leafs’ new captain exudes a different mentality toward leadership than his predecessor, Mats Sundin.  Phaneuf is both loud and abrasive on and off the ice, and this type of demeanour is exactly what the franchise needs.  He will lead by example, and get in a teammate’s face if his performance is sub-par.  And on a squad which played last year with a seemingly indifferent approach to wins and losses, Phaneuf is too proud of an individual to watch his team, and personal career, wallow away in mediocrity.

Since the return of NHL action following the lockout, the Leafs still have yet to make the post-season.  Truly an embarrassing statistic for a proud franchise with such a glorious tradition.  For years, the team has struggled in developing its own identity.  At the moment, their defining collective characteristic would quite frankly be a humiliating lack of success.  Under Phaneuf, the team will be buoyed by his enthusiasm and take on the personality of their new leader.  Expect the Leafs to be a pain of a team to play against.  If you are to defeat them, expect to earn it.  They will have a solid physical element to the squad, and like Phaneuf, play with a swagger and arrogance surely to be detested by opposing fans and teams.

Phaneuf’s inclusion to the lineup completely remodeled the team in the latter stages of the season.  With him on the squad, the Leafs played to a playoff pace.  Anything less than the top eight in the Eastern Conference this time around will be unacceptable, and Phaneuf is fully cognizant of the expectations.  How he will handle them though, is a more telling question.

In Calgary, Phaneuf grew to be a worn out act among fans and members of the media.  Rumoured to be a problem in the locker room, and often displaying a lack of focus for the defensive side of the game, the time had come for a change of scenery.  In addition, the defenseman’s off-ice antics at various karaoke bars, albeit impressive, drew unnecessary negativity toward the all-star, only magnifying his issues in Cowtown.

Toronto represents a fresh start for Dion Phaneuf.  Now with the ‘C’ stitched onto one of the most famous jerseys in professional sports, the roller coaster range of emotions within Leafs Nation are now his responsibility.  Lofty expectations often run rampant throughout hockey-crazed Toronto, and with his new role, the fans will certainly expect a lot from their latest face of the franchise.  Phaneuf is largely confident in nature, and surely wants to repair a somewhat tarnished reputation.  His final months in Calgary were underwhelming by his standards, and in taking on the position as the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it will provide Phaneuf with a once in a lifetime opportunity to succeed on hockey’s grandest stage.

With all due respect to the other teams in hockey, no role quite compares to the position Phaneuf now occupies.  He will follow a remarkable collection of Leafs’ captains before him.  The names of Kennedy, Armstrong, Sittler, Clark, and Gilmour, beautifully grace the rafters at the Air Canada Centre, and Phaneuf will be responsible for carrying on the proud legacy these icons have set out for him.

Phaneuf will certainly have big shoes to fill in Leafland (Mike Cassese/Reuters)

Toronto is a market in which millions of fans feverishly seek answers after every loss, demand statues to be erected after every win, and in a city that breathes hockey, can at times be a suffocating environment for Hogtown’s Heroes.  This is a town which devotes entire two-hour radio shows to their beloved Buds, and that’s just in the summer months.  Over-analysis is a way of life with the Toronto Maple Leafs, an environment where nothing else matters, except for the daily events of the city’s revered hockey club.

However, it is also a place where recent failure has seeped in with a rate of regularity, a custom once deemed to be unfathomable.  Players must understand that to put on that jersey is an honour.  To wear the Maple Leaf on your chest is something the fans of this team could only dream of, and the 20 players who do it night after night must recognize that.  As Brian Burke so eloquently summed it up at Phaneuf’s press conference, “this is not just any hockey team, this is the Toronto Maple Leafs, and our lack of success in recent years, hasn’t changed the glorious history of our past.”

It is up to Dion Phaneuf now to restore this winning mentality and tradition in Leafland.  The hopes, dreams, and lofty expectations of a rabid fan base are now bestowed onto his broad shoulders.  This hockey-crazed market can either transform you to a god-like status, or eat you whole and spit you out in Florida (see Bryan McCabe).  The good thing is, an opportunity will exist for Phaneuf to create his own journey in Leafs Nation.  Leading one of the most revered sports teams, in arguably the world’s most scrutinized market, will certainly be no easy task.  An incredible amount of pressure will exist, but Phaneuf’s demeanour should allow him to thrive within such a microscopic environment.  For the loyal fans of a franchise fallen on hard times, Phaneuf will re-instill the passion and success to a city desperately craving a Stanley Cup parade.

To cheaply quote a line from Spiderman, “with great power, comes great responsibility.”  Now the leader of a team synonymous with failure, Phaneuf is the man responsible in attempting to bring back hockey’s holy grail to its rightful resting place.  It’s been 43 long years, and the onus is solely placed on the city’s latest icon.  No pressure Dion.


For the most up-to-date Toronto Maple Leafs news,  follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/WSalvarinas.

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2 Comments

  1. Will Salvarinas says:

    Well they’ve won the Stanley Cup 13 times in their history, second most in the entire league. But if you need me to pinpoint an exact era, probably the 60′s where the team won 4 cups in the decade.

    It’s a special franchise, rich with tradition and glory. To echo the sentiments of Burke, just because the Leafs have been brutal of late, it shouldn’t compromise the history of a predominately winning organization

  2. Will,

    When you use phrases like:
    ” franchise’s illustrious history” and
    “a proud franchise with such a glorious tradition” and
    “the glorious history of our past”,
    when exactly are you referring to?

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