TORONTO – General manager Brian Burke knew right away that Dion Phaneuf would be a great choice to be the next captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Phaneuf was acquired last January in a blockbuster trade with the Calgary Flames and immediately made an impact. The strapping blue-liner threw his weight around, dropped the gloves when needed and soaked up plenty of minutes.
He also gave the team a vocal presence on the ice and in the dressing room.
“Our practices — it was like going to a church service before he got here,” Burke said. “You’d go a whole practice and no one would yell at anyone, no one would yell for the puck.”
The Leafs liked Phaneuf’s communication skills and also felt he had the set of traits that they wanted in a team captain. Head coach Ron Wilson made it official by giving him the C on Monday afternoon.
“As soon as he came in he had a major impact on our room,” Wilson said. “I think it was obvious to everybody.”
Phaneuf, a 25-year-old Edmonton native, said he learned a lot from Flames captain Jarome Iginla when they were teammates. He added he hopes to follow the example set by Iginla and former NHL captains Mark Messier, Scott Stevens and Wendel Clark.
“You look at how they play the game and how they lead,” Phaneuf said. “I think the best way to lead is you don’t have to be the loudest guy but you definitely want to be the guy who’s working the hardest day in and day out.
“That’s what I’m going to bring to our team. I want to be known as the guy who works the hardest.”
Burke said he liked how Phaneuf would ‘bark’ at guys on the ice and give them encouragement or instruction.
“We had such a quiet group and the first day Dion got here, there was a dramatic difference,” Burke said. “Because once one guy starts talking, then other guys start talking. I think it made a huge difference in how we played and practised.”
Toronto hasn’t had a captain since Mats Sundin left the team in the summer of 2008. Phaneuf becomes the 18th captain of the Maple Leafs and the 22nd in the history of the Toronto franchise.
Phaneuf had 10 points (2-8) in 26 games for the Leafs last season. He had 34 penalty minutes and averaged over 26 minutes of ice time a game. Overall, he finished with 32 points (12-20) in 81 games.
Burke said he liked how Phaneuf doesn’t hesitate to voice his opinion — even with the GM. He recalled one conversation shortly after Phaneuf’s arrival last season.
“He thought we got pushed around in a game and came right out of the dressing room and barked at me on the way to the weight room: ‘We need some bigger forwards in here,’ and kept walking,” Burke said. “I haven’t had too many guys bark at me like that. I didn’t mind it and he’s right. We do need some bigger forwards.”
Teammates Luke Schenn, Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak were also on hand for the announcement. Schenn said Phaneuf is not afraid to give players a “kick in the butt” if they need it.
“I think that’s a good thing in a captain,” Schenn said. “A guy you can relate to and talk to but at the same time, not afraid to give it to you if he knows that you can be better.”
Phaneuf leads all NHL defencemen in goals (77), power-play goals (48), game-winning goals (22) and shots (1237) since entering the league in 2005-06.
Wilson said he’s confident that Phaneuf is the right choice for the honour.
“When we actually picked up Dion, that was something that we talked about — here’s a potential captain candidate,” Wilson said. “We have a few on our team and when we saw how Dion affected positively the attitude in our room, the attitude at the practice facility, how he integrated himself into the community and did all the little detail things that you would expect from a captain, to me it was a no-brainer.”
Notes: Former captains Clark, George Armstrong and Darryl Sittler were also in attendance. … It was the team’s first news conference at the new Real Sports Bar & Grill, located across the road from the Air Canada Centre.