I would venture to say that the jury is still out as to whether or not Dion Phaneuf is a great captain. In truth, while there are indications he is—now in his second season ”on the job”—growing into the position reasonably well, it’s probably too soon to even say he is a really good captain just yet. (I recognize that some of you will not agree...)
He came to town with a (unfair?) reputation as someone who was perhaps a bit too something in Calgary, a guy who maybe achieved “stardom” a bit too soon and maybe rubbed teammates the wrong way. Was he too loud, too brash, just too “Dion”? I have no clue, but for whatever reason, then-GM Darryl Sutter was ready to unload the one-time end-of-season All-Star (at a hockey-precocious age) for precious little, comparably speaking, in return. So something was amiss in Calgary, as former coach Mike Keenan and some others have seemed to suggest in the years that followed.
Here in Toronto he has, by all public accounts, the support of his teammates (though, they didn’t exactly come running to his defense after he was up-ended against the Sens a couple of games back). He is handling the daily media scrums that are expected of every Leaf captain reasonably capably, in a market where there is little room to hide. He’s not Mats Sundin in that regard yet, but neither was Mats in his first couple of years wearing the “C”.
On the ice, Phaneuf is certainly playing with passion. I can’t fault his effort. He makes mistakes but I’m trying to think of a defenseman who makes none. (That defenseman would be the first…) He provides the Leafs with a badly needed physical presence. I don’t think he is the toughest guy in the league by any means, or quite as tough as some think, but he also brings a bit of offense most nights and that helps make him a pretty well-rounded defenseman.
Whether Phaneuf will ever be a guy that will inspire others, well, I think we’re a ways off from knowing that. In truth, I don’t think too many captains actually have that—you know, the ability to say things, and then go out and act and play in a manner that actually makes those around them come alive and play even better than those teammates thought they could. That’s a very rare kind of leader.
I think Sundin, in many ways, was a good leader for the Leafs. I know he was not everyone’s cup of tea in Toronto, but he earned my respect over time. He played hurt, answered the bell and had a presence about him. He wasn’t a fighter and while hardly bellicose, he could drive to the hard areas and make things happen in close. I don’t know how much of a vocal guy he was, but the impression that most of us had was that he spoke when things needed to be said in the dressing room, and handled various percolating and potentially divisive team “issues” quietly, behind the scenes, whenever possible.
So Phaneuf has a long way to go to catch up with Mats in some ways, and that’s OK. Being a Leaf captain, as I mentioned in a post here not that long ago, has tended to be, in the last 40 years, not a career/lifetime job. Some of the great old-time names that you are aware of—Keon, Sittler, et al. did not leave happily (the job or the town). Even recent “legends” like Clark and Gilmour were traded while wearing the captain’s “C” here.
In fact, the last guy who wore the “C” for a long time (more than a few years) and retired as a Leaf was none other than “The Chief”, George Armstrong. (Clark and Gilmour “retired” as Leafs, but played for several other teams as well…)
Armstrong (shown at left in one of those wonderful Harold Barkley photos, which includes ex-Leaf Dickie Duff and Terry Harper of Montreal- this one from the great Mike Leonetti book "Cold war" which I recommend highly...) is revered in Leaf lore for a number of reasons. The most obvious perhaps because he was indeed the team captain in the organization’s last true “glory” era, when they won those four Cups in the decade of the ‘60s, which coincided, not by accident in my view, with his stewardship of the team.
By all accounts, Armstrong was able to act as an effective go-between when it came to GM and coach Punch Imlach (who had a tyrannical quality about him) and Armstrong’s teammates—who were often furious with their coach. But Armstrong could negotiate and calm the unrest before things boiled over, at least most of the time.
On the ice Armstrong was a most unusual “star”. In fact, he probably never considered himself a star, and really wasn’t considered one around the League. I’m sure he was never on the end-of-season NHL All-Star squad. The guy had thin arms (he used to make fun of himself in that regard) and while a tall man, was not an overly “big” player. But he was impossible to move off the puck in the corners and along the boards, where he did some of his best work. He had strong legs and great balance. His shot couldn’t, as they say, break a pane of glass most of the time, but I’m going to say he scored about 250 goals in his long and distinguished NHL career, which lasted probably 20 seasons.
He was a smart player. He killed penalties until he was 40 years old, his very last year in the NHL. And it wasn’t because he was fast, because he wasn’t. But he knew where to be and how to play angles. He played both ends of the ice.
But primarily, Armstrong was a true leader. It’s not that the guy was a perfect player but he seemed to have the pulse of the team and kept their spirits up. While he was a shy guy in public (to this day, you rarely see him do interviews and he never attends autograph signings and that sort of thing, though he would be in great demand if he was so inclined…) he had a wicked sense of humor, we’re told. His old teammates love to talk about Armstrong and his practical jokes. In short he was a well-regarded guy who knew how to rally the troops and keep Imlach settled down when he was acting over the top. (I remember reading stories when I was a kid about how Imlach, during games, would have Armstrong go and yell at the referee when Punch thought the Leafs were getting screwed over. But sometimes Army knew Punch was full of it, so he would go over to the ref, gesticulate a lot as if he was really mad, wink at the ref and apologize for arguing and then go back and report to Imlach as though he had really let the ref have it…)
I know the ‘60s was a different time, and it’s a very different era in the NHL nowadays. But character is character. And that's something that Armstrong had in abundance. He wasn’t the best player (or even close) in his era, but he was one of the best leaders in hockey.
Everyone leads differently. Keon spoke through his actions on the ice. Sittler did that, too, and was also more of a vocal guy who played a physical game. Clark was quiet but inspired guys through his rugged hell-bent style, as did “Dougie”, who played with so much heart. Sundin was the classy, skilled captain.
I guess the question is: what will Phaneuf turn out to be, not only as a player, but as a Leaf—and as our captain?
I’d be interested to hear your assessment of what Leaf fans have in store in this regard in the years to come.