Opinion | The Leafs were the worst in the Dion Phaneuf years. But the retiring ex-captain always faced the music, and regrets Stickgate – ThePeterboroughExaminer.com

By Rosie DiMannoStar Columnist

Tue., Nov. 16, 20215 min. read

Article was updated 3 hrs ago

Mark the “C” with an “X.” Or ex.

That’s been the fate of many a Maple Leafs captain: traded, stripped, driven out of town on a rail, begging to be transplanted or bolting from Toronto as an act of emancipation.

In the annals of the past half-century or so, from Dave Keon to Darryl Sittler to Rick Vaive to Wendel Clark to Doug Gilmour to Mats Sundin — it’s rarely ended well.

The accursed “C.”

Thank you for your service. Now beat it.

The calligraphed letter seemed to hang with particular awkwardness on the chest of Dion Phaneuf, who was invested with the captaincy after the gig had remained vacant for two years following the messy and mishandled departure of Sundin. Then hockey supremo Brian Burke did Phaneuf no favours appointing him the Big Swede’s successor, on a new-era squad that was supposed to coalesce around the 28-year-old, who’d arrived in a blockbuster trade from Calgary.

Instead, that iteration of the Leafs was arguably among the worst, most confounding, least likeable assemblages of players ever to grace this city. Recall the 18-wheeler that went off a cliff, in Burke’s famous slag, and the outfit that blew a 4-1 lead in Game 7 of the 2013 conference quarterfinal against Boston, losing 5-4 in overtime. And the team of skeevy infamy that gave a collective up-yours finger to fans instead of raising their sticks in traditional post-game salute because players were aggrieve-o over public criticism.

Those were all Phaneuf teams. And maybe that was his misfortune, to wear the “C” through some turbulent seasons hereabouts.

Nobody waved a sad farewell when Phaneuf was ultimately packed off to Ottawa in a nine-player deal, none of the names involved even remotely memorable except for Phaneuf himself. You’d think he might prefer to give Toronto a wide berth in perpetuity.

Yet there he was on Tuesday morning, formally announcing his retirement at Scotiabank Arena, 31 months after playing his last game in the NHL, at the invitation of president Brendan Shanahan.

Former Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf chose the home of the Maple Leafs to announce his retirement from the NHL on Tuesday.

It was weird. But kinda sweet too.

“I’ve obviously been retired for a couple of years,” Phaneuf said a bit sheepishly, acknowledging the COVID-forced deferment for an end-of-career ritual. “We couldn’t really do (it) with an empty building, with travel restrictions and with the league protocols.”

But why Toronto? “I played the most games here.” As a Leaf, 423 games. “I was the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs” — 397 games — “which was for me a huge honour, to say the least. I was very proud to be the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs. For those reasons, that’s why I wanted to come back here. And to be able to announce it here is very special.”

With a proper send-off at Tuesday night’s game, complete with video tribute.

Timed to this past weekend’s Hall of Fame induction of Phaneuf’s first captain, from Flames days of yore, Jarome Iginla. Now there was a template hockey cap’n, making a raw kid feel welcome and included. “A few things that stick out to me are the way he treated people, his work ethic, the way that he led by example.”

Phaneuf never really drew that captain cred in Toronto — probably because of the teams with which he was associated. He was clearly uncomfortable doing the post-game scrum thing, didn’t speak well in front of TV cameras, and was frequently chided for his alleged maladroitness as a defenceman. You might remember one especially ill-advised pinch at the blue line in that Boston playoff, which turned the series for the Bruins.

But I’ll say this for Phaneuf. He never ducked the criticism, always owned his mistakes.

Phaneuf shouldered the burden during a rough Leaf patch, although when hasn’t there been a rough patch for this franchise, post-1967? And, for however much he may have been disparaged from the outside, I never heard a single ill word from his teammates on or off the record.

Except for Morgan Rielly, who really should have picked up the “C” gauntlet from Phaneuf, there’s no one left from the Phaneuf era who actually played with him here.

“When I got here, I was 19. He was a guy that I looked up to and I still do today,” said Rielly. “Just the way that he carried himself, how he handled his career, how he treated people. The way he went about his business is a way that I always admired. I was lucky to learn from a guy like that.”

Phaneuf returned the compliment: “Morgan, the way that he’s grown his leadership role here is something that I’m really proud of.

Mitch Marner was drafted by Toronto the year Phaneuf was traded, youngster and veteran overlapping only for one training camp. That camp was in Halifax. A nervous Marner boarded the charter. “He called me over and let me sit next to him on the plane.”

But Marner was well aware of a specific and legendary Phaneuf moment: world juniors, 2005, when Phaneuf laid out two Russians on one trademark hit the night Canada copped gold. “The Double-Dion hit,” Marner smiles. That was how TV commentator Pierre McGuire classically coined in: “Double Dion!”

Phaneuf: “People still come to me and mention that.”

In recent days, Phaneuf, 36, has been reflecting on his 14-year NHL career. “I look back on my journey to get to the NHL, you just want to play a game. I was very fortunate to make a living playing this great game.”

In truth, there weren’t a whole lot of scrapbook moments from his Toronto tenure. Nor did he ever achieve the golden grail — a Stanley Cup championship — with any of the four teams on his NHL resumé in a career that wound up in L.A., where he lives now with his lovely actress wife Elisha Cuthbert and their young daughter.

“There’s highs and lows in every stop,” he says. “For me, not winning (a Cup) will definitely always be one of my regrets.”

And yeah, he also regrets that whole Stickgate debacle.

“If I can look back and have a redo …

“Not saluting the fans, the way that was handled, that was on my watch. I was captain of the team. I take responsibility for that.”

Just a chapter in the never-a-dull-moment Leaf archives.

“I feel that your teammates, how they remember you, is really what matters because you’re inside that locker room, you’re battling on a nightly basis. I hope I’m remembered as a guy that competed, who played the game hard and played the game the right way.

“I enjoyed every step of the journey.”

Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno