On January 31st 2010, it was announced that Dion Phaneuf would, very fittingly, join the ranks of one of the most iconic teams in the NHL. After a stellar career with the Calgary Flames that spanned 5 seasons and 403 games – where Dion accumulated 240 points and 544 penalty minutes – the need to grow as a player and a person saw his sights shift to the Toronto Maple Leafs. After only nine games with the team, his leadership was obvious and the title of Alternate Captain was soon bestowed. Four months later, on June 14th 2010, he was ceremoniously awarded the “C”, which symbolizes his hard work, dedication and leadership in the game and in the dressing room. As one of only 20 players in history to take to the ice with this distinction, Dion recognizes that he has some big skates to fill, but has every intention of making good on the title.
Sometime between birth and first steps, toddlers across Canada are swaddled in hockey jerseys and strapped to ice skates, thus infecting them with the national fever to play hockey. A few of these tykes develop into local heroes, others pond hockey wizards, and rarely – very rarely - they become talent-laden behemoths who make coaches salivate and opposing players cower. Dion Phaneuf is the latter. An Edmonton, Alberta native, Phaneuf’s formative years took shape in the glow of Wayne Gretzky and his hometown Oilers, an advanced collection of puck freaks who won championships by circling their competition with speed, skill… and a passing interest in defense.
The Phaneuf of today also plays the beautiful game exhibited by The Great One et al, showcasing a keen offensive sense and a howitzer of a shot. But at 6’2 ” and 215 pounds, Dion relishes playing a bruising edition of “D”, routinely smacking down his competition with bone-crushing checks… and making his targets fodder for late-night highlight reels.
GAME ONE, GAME ON
Dion has always had game. At the age of 18, he became a standout with the Red Deer Rebels, earning a selection as the ninth overall pick by the Calgary Flames in the deep 2003 NHL Entry Draft. The next season Phaneuf improved his stock even more: nearly making the Flames out of a training camp, winning back-to-back Bill Hunter trophies (top defenseman in the WHL), playing a starring role on Canada's world junior teams, and making the eight teams who passed him over cry in their post-draft beer. By opening night of the 2005-06 NHL season, Dion was making his NHL debut in the Flames’ line-up, and despite a 6-3 loss to Minnesota, he ranks the game as his most memorable. Within a week, it was Dion who was making the impression, recording not only his first point, but two, with both a goal and assist against the Colorado Avalanche.
By the end of his rookie season, Dion had some hardware and records to immortalize his pride and hard work. After winning Rookie of the Month Award for November, Dion was nominated for the Calder Trophy in 2005 as the League’s Top Rookie, in a class featuring the NHL’s best new talent in years, including Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. On April 13, 2006, he became only the third rookie defenseman (along with Brian Leetch and Barry Beck) to score 20 goals in a season, breaking the Calgary Flames' team record for goals by a rookie defenseman (18 by Gary Suter) along the way. The recognition is nothing new for the big defenseman, who has long impressed teammates with his dedication and solid character.
A CAPTAIN FOR LEAFS NATION
Now, as a new chapter begins, Dion is poised to lead the Leafs to a success that has long eluded them. Captain-less since Mats Sundin left in 2009, the Leafs are a young squad in a rebuilding phase and Phaneuf is the proverbial foreman.
“Being named Captain was a huge and tremendous honour for me, personally, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
His goal is simple: make the playoffs - a task not met in more than 5 seasons. But, as far as the fans in Toronto are concerned, there’s no better person to handle the heavy lifting, dish out the heavy hitting, and ensure his teammates are playing meaningful hockey come April.