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Phaneuf will be fighting a difficult captain’s legacy down the road

My sense is that the vast majority of Maple Leaf fans are very satisfied with Dion Phaneuf’s play and leadership as captain of the blue and white.  Despite a loss in Florida Tuesday night, the team is certainly in line with expectations, and Phaneuf, for the most part, has seen a steady guy at the back end, playing big minutes every night.  His remains a fan favorite.

We all understand that being captain of this franchise has always been an honour and Phaneuf, from what we can see, has indeed established himself, at a still young age, as the kind of captain that Burke and Wilson envisioned when they traded for him and then ultimately gave him the coveted Leaf "C" in the summer of 2010.

His progress was slowed last season by injury, and his first full year here was marked by some over-anxiousness and a number of failed offensive forays that seemed to lead to more chances for the opposition than for the Leafs.

But this season, Phaneuf, at 26, has seemingly rounded into the kind of playing form that was the hallmark of his very early years with the Calgary Flames when he was good enough to be voted an end-of-season All-Star.  He is a good enough skater that he can get to the right spots, has a big shot and can make some great outlet passes.  And, he has enough physicality that opposing forwards need to be aware of his presence on the ice.

So right now (besides the trade with Calgary being a decisive “win” for the Leafs) he is delivering very much what fans—and management— hoped he would provide.

Looking ahead, though, he will be fighting a legacy that has not been a good one.  I’m referring specifically to the way a variety of Maple Leaf captains have ended their often-illustrious careers as members of the treasured blue and white franchise.

The history of Leaf captains is a litany of great names from the past.  This is not surprising as the Leafs have long been one of the NHL’s proudest franchises and their captains were always well-thought of, hard-working guys who were generally leaders on and off the ice. For those who know a bit (or a lot) of the history of the franchise, the names stand on their own merits: Charlie Conacher, Syl Apps, Ted Kennedy and Sid Smith (left) were just some of the wonderful names from a golden era in Maple Leaf history.  Then George Arstrong took over the captaincy in the mid-1950s and he kept the “C” right through until he retired (for the first time) after the 1968-’69 season.  He was the undisputed leader of a team that won those four Cups from 1962 to 1967.
From there, however, the letter has been somewhat cursed when it comes to those who have worn it in Toronto.  One of the most popular Leafs of the successful early and mid-1960s era was Dave Keon.  He took over from “The Chief”, Armstrong, even though Army, as he was also called, returned from retirement on a couple of occasions to play until the end of the 1970-’71 season.  Keon carried the leadership role through until the end of the 1974-’75 season, but after 15 distinguished seasons with the Leafs, then-owner Harold Ballard washed his hands of Keon and did not even offer him a contract to return for a 16th season.  Keon went on to play in the WHA (his only option, as he could not sign with another NHL team since the Leafs owned his rights in those very restrictive old days).  It was a disappointing end to a marvelous Maple Leaf career and a harbinger of things to come for future Leaf captains.

Darryl Sittler was the next Leaf captain, and he was a popular choice because of his hard-driving style.  He teamed with another young Leaf, Lanny McDonald, to form one of the better lines in the NHL through the rest of the 1970s, with either Errol Thompson or Tiger Williams on their flank.

But as popular as Sittler was, he butted heads with Punch Imlach when the architect of the successful Leaf teams of the 1960s re-surfaced in Toronto as General Manager for a second time.  As ridiculous as it sounds now, Imlach didn’t want Leaf players participating, for example, in a popular Hockey Night in Canada exhibition called “Showdown”, I think it was called.  Sittler and other Leafs balked at being told what to do.  Things went south from there.  Imlach couldn’t deal Sittler because he had a no-trade clause, as I recall, so he moved most of the guys around him instead, notably his close friend, McDonald.

Eventually, Sittler’s relationship with Ballard also deteriorated, such that he ultimately tore the “C” off his own sweater and was ultimately traded to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Rick Vaive, a young winger obtained in the Tiger Williams-to-Canucks trade, was the next guy on the firing line.  He shone at first, with an un-heard of (in Toronto) three consecutive 50+ goal seasons while wearing the letter.  While the Leafs were going through a difficult time, Vaive was a standout with a big shot and a physical style that fans appreciated.  But he too had his difficulties, and when he slept in and missed a workout (I think John Brophy was the Leaf coach at the time) he saw the “C” taken away.  He still played for the Leafs, but he was eventually dealt to Chicago along with Steve Thomas and Bob McGill to Al Secord and Eddie Olczyk.  That ended yet another Leaf captain’s tenure in a rather unceremonious fashion.

Rob Ramage, one of the original “Baby Bulls” with the WHA Birmingham Bulls back in 1979, was the next Leaf captain.  He came over in a trade and was immediately named captain, a move which caught some people by surprise at the time.  Unfortunately, Ramage’s time with the Leafs was short-lived.  He lasted only two seasons in Toronto, never really playing to his earlier reputation with other organizations.

Wendel Clark was the deserving ‘next guy up’ to wear the important letter, starting in the 1991-’92 season.  When Pat Burns took over behind the Leaf bench the following season, the Leafs took off, on the backs of a solid “no-name” defense along with Clark, newcomer Doug Gilmour and a host of role players who played those roles to the hilt.

As popular as Clark was (and he may well have been the most popular Leaf captain in the modern era) for his pugnacious style, his willingness to drop the gloves and a blazing wrist shot, then GM Cliff Fletcher thought the Leafs weren’t good enough to win a Cup after they lost in the semi-finals for the second year in a row in the spring of 1994.  So that summer, a huge trade saw Clark and a defenseman I loved, Sylvain Lefebvre, dealt to Quebec for Mats Sundin.  It was, long-term, a great trade for Toronto, but it killed the great chemistry that that particular Leaf team had, and abruptly ended the beloved Clark’s  time with the blue and white. (He was to return twice more, but never as successfully as in his first incarnation with the Leafs…)

Doug Gilmour was the natural successor to Clark.  He had been every bit a true leader because of his remarkable work ethic in his first three seasons in Toronto and he really earned the leadership designation.  Unfortunately, the Leafs began to stagnate and slid a bit, despite the efforts of Fletcher to re-build the team to its earlier levels of success.

Eventually Gilmour grew frustrated in Toronto, and ended up asking for a trade.  He was dealt to New Jersey, ending one of the great modern-day love affairs with the Maple leaf fans.  Another captain was gone.

After Gilmour, Sundin, who had been hoping to receive the honor, was indeed named captain and while it took him a bit of time to grow into the role, he handled it with grace for more than 10 years.  All the while he was a powerful forward who scored some huge goals in his Leaf career, including during two long playoff runs, in 1999 and 2002 especially.

But even Sundin saw his tenure end in a controversial fashion just a few short years ago.  The Leafs (and Fletcher, who found his was back in the GM’s chair for a second time, like Imlach before him) wanted Sundin to waive his no-trade clause, but the veteran preferred to finish his time in Toronto and not be used as a rental player.  I had no problem with his decision, but I realize many Leaf fans were unhappy with his not allowing himself to be dealt to allow the Leafs to acquire some potentially valuable assets.  What added insult to injury was when Mats returned to play the next year- with the Canucks.   In fairness, the Leafs did not want him back, so what was he supposed to do?  (Didn't Ron Wilson say something like..."what did Sundin ever win...?")

But the bottom line was that, once again, a Leaf captain, and a very good one at that, had seen his time as team leader come to an uneasy—and unpleasant—end.

So there it is. Since George Armstrong, seven guys have worn the captain’s “C” before Phaneuf, and each has seen his tenure marked by an unsettling end.  And each was a very talented guy and very well thought-of.

For his part, Phaneuf is young and at the peak of his game.  Right now, there is no reason to think his future is anything but rosy in Toronto.  Yet history can be very difficult to overcome.

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