Monday, June 14, 2010

The Phaneuf Era

Darryl Sittler, Rick Vaive, Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour, Mats Sundin and Dion Phaneuf.

One of these things is not like the other.

On Monday, June 14th Dion Phaneuf was announced as the newest captain of my beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. To mark the occasion, Phaneuf read from prepared remarks with all the earnestness and awkwardness of a grade four student's first speech arts class.

I think Phaneuf is a serviceable hockey player. Coach Ron Wilson and GM Brian Burke are rather enamoured with him and their opinion counts for a whole lot more than mine. But I do have two concerns with Phaneuf wearing the C.

  1. A one-time Norris trophy nominee, Phaneuf needs to re-establish his game as one of the premiere d-men in the NHL. Is the added responsibility and pressure of being captain going to help or hinder him?
  2. Does he have the softer, off-ice skills to be the face of the Leaf franchise?
Restoring his game

Phaneuf's point totals have declined year over year for two straight seasons and his goals have been in decline for three straight. He's gone from a Norris nominated defenceman to being traded to the Leafs for an assorted pile of meh.

Given the voraciousness and non-stop coverage of the Toronto media market, is piling yet more expectations on Phaneuf's shoulders the best way for him to get his so-called game back?

Phaneuf responded to the media and overall attention of playing in hockey-mad Toronto by scoring 2 goals in 26 games, that's despite playing over 26 minutes a night.

To my eyes, he didn't appear to thrive on the new pressure and attention of playing in TO, but it's not like I have game film of his last few years in Calgary. (It should also be noted that he shot an abysmal 2.3% in Toronto and will likely regress to his norm of about 6% next year. No doubt, many will ascribe his renewed goal scoring production to the bright shiny C that has been freshly affixed to the front of his jersey. Don't believe it).

Phaneuf desperately needs to get his A-game back. I'm not sure giving him more pressure, more spotlight and more expectations is the best way for to help make that happen.

Handling the spotlight

My second concern with Phaneuf as captain is somewhat related, but rather than getting his own game back on track in this hockey mad market, I wonder if he has the stuff to be the so-called player face of the franchise.

If his speech at the newser is anything to go by, this is not a man that will impress in the scrums, shield his fellow players when they need it or distract the media hordes when things on the ice aren't going well. He may steal the pucks to draw media attention away from a loss, but I have the feeling he'd do it in warm-up.

Maybe it's just me, but I prefer my leaders to be a bit more cerebreal or for them to burn with a passion for hockey. When I looked in Wendel Clark's or Doug Gimour's eyes, I got the feeling they'd do anything to win. When I look in Dion's eyes, I get the feling he's having trouble sounding out a multi-syllabic compound word.

I don't suppose it matters much. The Leafs won't get better until the get more talent and several great players have worn the C in Toronto while the team crashed and burned.

One look around the NHL at the list of captains doesn't leave much to be impressed, or alternately, worried about.

How many Leaf Captains?

The Globe and Mail said Phaneuf is the 17th captain of the Leafs; the CBC said he's the's the wiki list:
  1. Bert Corbeau, 1927
  2. Hap Day, 1927–37
  3. Charlie Conacher, 1937–38
  4. Red Horner, 1938–40
  5. Syl Apps, 1940–43
  6. Bob Davidson, 1943–45
  7. Ted Kennedy, 1948–55
  8. Sid Smith, 1955–56
  9. Jimmy Thomson, 1956–57
    Ted Kennedy, 1957
  10. George Armstrong, 1957–69
  11. Dave Keon, 1969–75
  12. Darryl Sittler, 1975–79
  13. Rick Vaive, 1982–86
  14. Rob Ramage, 1989–91
  15. Wendel Clark, 1991–94
  16. Doug Gilmour, 1994–97
  17. Mats Sundin, 1997–2008
  18. Dion Phaneuf, 2010
I do wonder what the correct total is?


  1. Yeah, Wikipedia's all over the place too. They called Sundin the sixteenth Captain so I called Phaneuf 17 over on the blog.


  2. Anonymous6:20 pm

    The leafs said that he's the 18th leaf captain and 22nd overall (assuming they're counting the st pats as well?)
    but then they also say we only have 11 Stanley Cups.

  3. Well some of the captains served twice which causes the confusion. Apps and Kennedy served twice. So do you double count them?

  4. Stephen8:56 am

    Re the media skills.

    1) He just needs to be willing to answer all questions. Nobody says he has to be Winston Churchill, thats a media need not anybody elses.

    2) Doug Gilmour and Wendel were hardly the most articulate guys after a loss, Gilmour in particular.

    3) Does he care about winning?, that remains to be seen but evidence so far seems to be a strong affirmative.

    4) Rick Vaive and rob ramage were harldy scintilating captains, good players but never struck me as "C" guys. Phanuef has that factor, do you want to cross him? Do you think other players in the room will rally behind him? All I care about is that he plays well, demands the most of himself, demands the most of the other guys, defends his teammates on and off ice, within the team and to outsiders. Stands up to mgt when necessary and helps enforce accountability within the team.

    As for being Winston CHurchill, he couldnt skate and his slapshot was pretty crappy.

  5. Stephen

    1) When picking comparables for articulation why not go with a hockey man instead of one of the 20th century's greatest speakers? Seems a bit asymmetrical, no?

    2) It's not about being articulate, it's about being media savvy. Clark and Gilmour were both great with the media and the media loved them. Phaneuf is about the glare, the grunt, and the repeat answer. That's going to get tired pretty quick. Also of note: the media landscape has changed dramatically in every way imaginable since 17 and 93 wore the C.

    3) Caring about winning might be the lowest benchmark out there. If you don't care about winning, I doubt you become an elite athlete.

    4) Vaive was a solid captain. Scored 50 goals, played two-way hockey and often dropped the gloves. The question remains: will the added pressure of the C help Phaneuf re-find his game? I think the answer to that one is "No"

    Phaneuf may have a harder shot than Churchill, but I bet Winston could hit the net more often...

  6. Coach Willie D'oh! I can't believe I missed Apps and Kennedy's double shot at captain. Thanks for pointing that out. The list makes more sense now.

  7. Hebsie9911:50 am

    An interesting question to ponder is what makes a good captain? What would the perfect captain look like? I would start with them being the hardest worker on the team and the one to stand up and face the media after difficult losses.

    burke was quoted as saying leaf praticeses were like "church services" before Phanuef arrived. No one yelling for the puck or at other players. Interesting comments. Makes me wonder why people are always fine to talk about how bad things were before but never during the bad times. How come Burke never said someone needs to step up in practise and show they care and show some leadership.

    I take Phanuef's appointment as a slap against all the existing Leafs and their leadership abilities for him to be annointed so soon in his Leaf tenure. For the record I like Phanuef a lot and think its the right move.

  8. Pat Verbeek4:30 pm

    Given that Burke, Wilson and MLSE are well aware of the media pressure that players (especially captains) have to deal with in major hockey markets, I wonder how much coaching and other resources (sports psychologists?) have been or will be devoted to helping Dion deal with the media. I can't imagine he'll be going into these scrums without top-notch preparatory tips & training from the organization. Couldn't interaction with the mittenstringers be something at which he'll improve his skills?

  9. Xalvion7:49 pm

    When you look at the history of this franchise, whether going back to their Stanley Cup winning teams or the more recent glimpses of (admittedly lesser) success, I'd say that Phaneuf is the perfect captain for the Leafs. What kind of team has Toronto iced over the years? While the Habs had their firewagon hockey and the Bruins and Flyers had their thuggery, the Leafs (when successful) have always, always, always been the team that worked their butts off and played hard-nosed, character hockey.

    Dion Phaneuf, step right up.

    I don't care what kind of captains other teams in the league employ. I've never been a disciple of the 'most-talented-player-wears-the-C' school of philosophy anyway. And while his interaction with the media is admittedly part of the responsibility that now falls to him, that is of far lesser concern to me than what he instills in his teammates in the dressing room and on the ice (besides, he's never had to fill that media role before - give him a chance to get comfortable with it).

    With THIS team, THIS is the right player. Good move, Wilson.

  10. Pat - All of the Leafs, from the time they were prospects, get media training.

    But my concern with Phaneuf is not the training, so much as it's his temperament. I want this guy to be the Norris trophy nominee he once was. I don't think putting more on his plate and making his life more complicated is the best way to help him re-discover his game.

  11. Xalvion - Comparing today's media landscape to the 1960s is like comparing lightning to a lightning bug. Former Leaf captain George Armstrong told the Sun that in the 1960s he did one media interview each year.

    Comparing today's hockey to what was played when the Leafs last won the Cup is like comparing Paris, France to Paris, Las Vegas.

    Even the Leaf teams that made the 4 conference final runs in the 90s were built on spectacular goaltending more than hardwork.

    I don't think this team has someone worthy of the "C" and I think giving it to Phaneuf is at best premature and at worst a distraction he really doesn't need.

  12. Syddave11:22 pm

    You are very bitter MF.. :)

  13. Xalvion11:34 pm

    MF37 - You're missing my point entirely. I never made any comparison between today's media realities and those of the past. My position is, I don't CARE about the media angle, at least not nearly as much as I care about his leadership qualities.

    My reason for citing past Leafs teams had nothing to do with the media. My point was simply that the Leafs, as an organization, have always won through hard work, as opposed to flash. That's who they are and who they always have been. That is certainly not about to change under Burke, either. Thus, Phaneuf is the ideal type of player to lead.

    You cite goaltending as the reason the more recent Leafs squads enjoyed post-season success. Of course that's a factor - always is when it comes to playoff success for any team (well, with this year's final being one of very few exceptions to that time-honoured rule). But to suggest that goaltending was the ONLY reason those teams succeeded is naively simplistic.

    Clearly, you and I see things differently. Without wanting to put words in your mouth, it appears to me that your concerns over Phaneuf's qualifications are mainly (not entirely, but mainly) media-related. To indulge in your style of illustrative contrast, that's like ruling out a horse in the Kentucky Derby because you don't like the way it's groomed.

    Give me substance over flash and polish any day of the week.

  14. Xalvion - the Leafs, as an organization, have always won through hard work, as opposed to flash.

    a) Name the Leaf team(s) that were "winners"
    b) Name any team that ever won on flash alone.

    As for my issues with Phaneuf being named captain, forgive me if I'm not being clear. My concerns are two-fold:

    1) Will the added responsibility of wearing the "C" help or hinder his game - I think it will hinder it.
    2) I believe the Captain of the franchise needs softer skills that I don't think Phaneuf possesses. Media is but one part of this.

    As for your concluding remark - I don't think anyone is advocating polish over substance, I'm certainly not; however, my best guess says the best NHL captains have certainly had a little of both.

  15. Xalvion12:37 am


    First of all, why do you need me to list winning Leafs teams? You've got the same access to that information as I do. If you're asking so as to attempt to prove that examples I might cite were in fact "flashy" teams, then I'll back out of this debate right now. If you honestly can't see the difference between successful Leafs teams and, say, the Oilers or Canadiens in their respective heydays, then we're wasting our time corresponding with each other. Just try, and I'm confident that you'll see my point. Whether you acknowledge it is up to you.

    Secondly, you imply that your concerns are not, in fact, primarily media-related and that you're not advocating polish over substance. Allow me to refresh your memory:

    "Phaneuf read from prepared remarks with all the earnestness and awkwardness of a grade four student's first speech arts class."

    At various points in your article, you imply that Dion is, at best, dense (don't make me quote your paragraph under "Handling the Spotlight" for further rather barbed examples).

    Even when your concerns appear to actually be hockey-related (his declining point totals or the need for him to regain his "A" game), your reasons for doubting are, again, media-related (suggesting he can't improve his play while burdened with the media spotlight glare).

    Denial ain't just a river in Egypt, my friend. And delusion ain't just that sport in the winter olympics, either.

    Besides, what makes you think he will shrink under that scrutiny? Sure, there are some people who wilt under pressure, but there are others who rise to the occasion. Another man might take this very article of yours as a great motivator (I'll assume that he might actually read it) and step his game up just to prove that his detractors don't know him or what they're writing about. I know I would.

    And why on earth would you want a captain with "soft skills" anyway? Anybody ever associate Mark Messier with that term? Anybody ever accuse Dave Keon of being particularly smooth in front of a camera? Wendel was far from eloquent, yet he's one of the greatest captains this team has ever had. Those things matter to you because you want a good quote or sound bite. They don't matter at all on the ice.

    I've made any and all points I wish to make. I am now tired. Good night.

  16. Xalvion - I'll take your points in order.

    It's your supposition that so-called winning Leaf teams were built on hard work. Name them. Seriously. If you want to argue it, back it up.

    As far as I'm concerned, successful Leaf teams have been far and few between in the last 43 years and most of the ones that have found success have had a pretty talented group of players leading the way. It takes talent and hard work to win, if a team only has one, it will fall short.

    I do think Dion is dense. That was my point.

    It's interesting that all you can see is MEDIA MEDIA MEDIA. Would you not agree that being the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs brings with it numerous pressures and responsibilities?

    I think Phaneuf needs to rediscover his game, do you? Do you think that the additional responsibilities of being captain will help Phaneuf? Why?

    As for the Family channel inspired platitude. I appreciate you taking the time to comment but can you skip the tripe filler next time? If not, don't bother commenting. Seriously.

    Um, do you know what soft skills are? Commonly called "people skills" they have a tremendous impact on the success of individuals and organizations. I don't believe Phaneuf has them and I do think they are essential.

    But on to your points...Messier's leadership was fan-fucking-tastic in Vancouver and in his second go-round in New York, wasn't it? I'm old, but not old enough to remember Keon's captaincy. I thought Wendel was tremendously eloquent - no one was ever left wondering what he meant or where he stood. He was a simple, yet solid communicator. I don't see that in Phanuef.

    If you think a soundbite is what I'm after, read the archives. You couldn't be more off base.

  17. Xalvion9:46 pm

    It is to laugh. You take issue with my "tripe", yet think it acceptable to indulge in vulgarity.

    I see. I've intruded upon your domain. So long as you can feed yourself with the delusion that every Leafs fan hangs upon your every opinion, all is well. But I have dared to question you and even offered a counter-position. I am therefore to be ridiculed. Perhaps in the future you should 'mark your territory' in the traditional fashion so as to warn potential interlopers that nothing but praise and deferrence will be tolerated.

    I recognize an arrogant pseudo-intellectual wannabe when I encounter one. Your real desire came through loud and clear in your last post when you suggested that I should not bother commenting further.

    Consider your wish henceforth granted.

  18. The mystery captain is Corbeau. He was captain of the '26-27 St. Pats and likely finished the season as such with the Leafs. Day would have started in '27-28, the Leafs first full season with the new name.

    So whether it's 17 or 18 depends on where you start counting.

  19. Hebsie9911:57 am

    I think Phanuef has an ego and feeding it by making him captain will help his game. I think he wants to be the man and this is his chance. The fact that he was already vocal with other players, and actually had the veritas to tell others what to do is what has made him according to those close to the team the logical and necessary choice.

    Having never attended a Leafs practise i cant confirm it, but it definately seemed like every commentator assumed it was going to happen. I conclude from this consensus that among his teammates at least, he has taken on a leadership role. I like his hard-nosed style and ever since the world juniors admired his desire to win. I am curious to know what the consensus was with observers in Calgary why his play declined? Ego-clashes with the coach? I think he wants to be the man, and giving the captainacy will help his game. What will be interesting to see is if he has the people skills to lead others and inspire them or just roll their eyes at his directions and comments.

    He has never been known as mister personality, but i think he has enough ego that critisims of his bad interview style will not affect him. As long as he faces the media after bad games and bad mistakes, i dont think it will matter much that he gives the standard hockey player lines of 110% and one game at a time.

    And the world needs arrogant pseudo-intellectual wannabe's to point out managements failings and provide the analysis that main stream sound-biters either dont have the inclination or space to provide. Keep up the good work.

  20. Paul Steckley1:07 pm

    If Phaneuf being named as captain means we get to see more of Elisha Cuthbert, I'm all for it!