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Phaneuf, leadership and memories of George Armstrong

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…)

Army, as he was also called, was the first Maple Leaf captain that I was old enough to remember when I became hockey “aware”, if you will, in the late 1950s.  He was named captain for the 1958-’59 season, and held the responsibility through to the end of the 1968-’69 season, when he announced his retirement for the first time.  (He came back to play, as it turned out, for parts of the next two seasons, but did not wear a letter…)

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.

Interestingly, I don’t know how often I ever saw George Armstrong fight.  But he played hard and was the epitome of an “honest” hockey player.  (See the great old picture at right, of he and Dave Keon after the the Leafs won the Cup at the Gardens in the spring of 1963 against Detroit.) In their real hey-day, in the early ‘60s when they won three Cups in succession, the Leafs had a real team-tough identify about them.  Bobby Baun, Tim Horton, Bobby Pulford, Eddie Shack, etc.  These were guys who could take you out.  And they had pluggers like Armstrong who constantly fought for the puck.  It wasn’t always about dropping the gloves and fighting.

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.


  1. I think one thing the most effective Leaf captains did was lead by example - and I suppose that applies to every team. Leading by example in a way that other players are compelled to follow. I don't see Phaneuf quite there yet, but that may be as much about the other Leafs as him, and I think he's adapting to his role really well. I like his refusal to take stupid penalties, his solid physical play, and his competitive involvement in the game. I sometimes wonder if some of his teammates aren't so wild about his constant chirping... but who knows?
    I noted the same thing you did during that Ottawa game but, to be fair, the refs got Foligno out of there in a hurry, and Crabb - or was it Boyce - did go after him on the next shift.
    My hunch is that Dion will do just fine as a Captain.

  2. Michael, your post jogged a dormant memory within me--that George Armstrong actually coached the Leafs for a few games in the '80s or early '90s. I had completely forgotten that. Guess one rarely thinks of him as a guy behind the bench.

    Phaneuf was impressive as a junior and national-junior player. Don't know how good a leader he was then, or in his early days in Calgary. Brashness always comes to mind regarding those days.

    As an aside: I wonder, prior to the trade, or at the start of that season, if there was thought to naming a Kaberle or Stajan captain. Or even the "C-in-waiting" at the time, a young Schenn. Management had no concrete plans, perhaps. So did Dion's arrival make him the logical choice or the only choice? Was he the best of a not so deep pool?

    Anyway, I'd say he's matured a lot since the trade and accepted the role well. Injuries didn't help last year, but clearly, the maturity is evident now. Like Gerund said, no stupid minors--that's positively contagious. Also he doesn't go for that big 'Dion' hit as much--which is good, since it's a low-percentage hit and often costly. He does a decent job with the media--a big part of a successful Leafs "C."

    He has work to do to be ranked with Dougie, Wendel, Mats, and as you described above, Armstrong. But I'm warming to his on-ice play and personality, and believe he will get there. From all accounts, his mates seem to appreciate and respect him. More importantly, I think he genuinely likes being the captain of the Leafs.


  3. Michael, you asked a very interesting question today – one that I know I cant argue a solid stance either way just yet.

    As Mr. O’Malley mentions above, Dion has shown a discipline that is important for a leader; his solid physical play and competitive involvement has been positive.

    But I’m not quite convinced that he “bleeds blue” they way that I felt that Keon, Sittler, Sundin (Gilmore?) did and I sometimes wonder if he was traded out of Calgary for suffering from ‘spoil brat’ syndrome – his posturing on and off the ice just doesn’t sit well with me sometimes. His swagger makes one think he visualizes himself as a Milan Lucic or Scott Stevens but when push comes to shove I haven’t seen it yet; yes he can use his size to his advantage, but I question his (and “his team”) mental toughness - I put him more in the category of a Eric Lindross.

    I think if Mike Komisarek had a better start to his career with the Leafs, he might have been more of the captain profile - that Keon, Armstrong, Sittler type of humble hero but alas his undisciplined play and injuries have killed that notion.

    Is Dion a bad leader – categorically no, but in my opinion unless Dion wins a Stanley Cup with the Leafs he’ll quickly be relegated to the stats pages with no banner hanging from the ACC rafters for him.

  4. The comical description of Army miming rage at the referees, winking, and then skating back to a satisfied Punch says it all. It seems like the captain has to be something of a diplomat, a kind of bonding agent between players, officials, management, and public. All sorts of personalities could be able to lead, but that element of outspoken diplomacy is something that they all must learn and manifest to some degree or another. Sundin seemed to grow into that role until, at the end, he sounded like an honest (oxymoron aside) politician when he spoke. It must be an on the job learning thing, because what could prepare you for the job of Leafs captain?

    My sense is that diplomacy does not come easily to the brash personality of Dion Phaneuf. He is after all, a pretty blunt speaker. Then again, I have noted a growing patience in his media scrums, where he makes his points directly, but without the irritation I perceived when he initially took the position. Moreover, the team appears to be bonding well and the captain, of course, plays a role in that. His standing behind Gustavsson, for example, when the Monster struggled at the early part of the season, was no doubt, critical to our goalie’s ability to weather that storm. The jury is still out I suppose, but the early signs are encouraging to say the least.

  5. Gerund O'...well said, as always. Your point on his not taking bad penalties hits home. He needs to show the way in that regard and they have, as a team, taken very few in recent games...

    Caedmon...great post.

    Yes, you're right, Armstrong reluctantly coached the Leafs on a couple of occasions as a temporary guy. I think he liked coaching the junior Marlies in the '70s and did really well with that (some Memorial Cups, as I recall), but hated the idea of coaching the big club, by all accounts.

    My guess is Komisarek was the next in line for the captaincy after his signing, but I guess we'll never know.

    And as you suggest, Dion is growing into the role pretty well, and that's probably the most important thing for now.

    David, very interesting. The Lindros comparison gives pause, for sure. Talented guy, but was he a leader? I guess only his ex-teammates would know. I do see your point, however. As I mentioned to Caedmon, if he continues to grow into the role, that's what we will all be watching for. Maybe some of the behaviour/attitude stuff you mention may go away with time. I guess we'll see....

    Bobby C...I think you make an important point about Phaneuf as it relates to his public support of Gustavsson. I realize that's what captains do, but I sensed one of the issue Gus has had was that he did not feel that his teammates (or the brass) really believed in him. If what Dion said touched Monster, then that's a very positive thing on many levels. Excellent post as usual, Bobby...

  6. Re: Phaneuf
    I attended many games last year at the ACC, and every single time, Phaneuf without fail would toss a puck over the glass to a lucky fan during the warmup. Classy.