Sunday, February 7, 2016

Dion Phaneuf: Always fiery leader for the Maple Leafs

By Larry Wigge

In the big games against the best players, he takes no prisoners. His mindset is fierce.

We've seen the focus of Dion Phaneuf it's all impact, the leadership and the confidence.

On February 4, the Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman set up the game-tying goal with less than three minutes to play against New Jersey -- leading up to a 3-2 victory.

"I think he's playing great," coach Mike Babcock said. "He's been great all year long. As a leader. As a person. The way he helps our young guys. The way he pushes people. He's been great."

Babcock is a button pusher. He's a coach who gets players to do things his way ... or else.

This particular game represented the 1,000 game in the NHL as a coach for Babcock. It also was the 800th game in the NHL for Phaneuf.

"It does go fast, you've got to enjoy it," explained Phaneuf, now 30.

It's been six full seasons since he has been with the Maple Leafs. He was traded by Calgary with forward Fredrick Sjostrom and defenseman Keith Aulie January 31, 2010 for forwards Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman and Jamal Mayers and defenseman Ian White.

He was drafted by the Flames, ninth overall, in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.

Phaneuf has always been an active player from defense. After 50 games, he has three goals and 20 assists.

Team President and alternate governer Brendan Shanahan said, "I would like to challenge Dion to continue to evolve."

"I have to be better ... and I will be," says Phaneuf.

Dion Phaneuf's vocal, but not boisterous. He's a rah-rah guy who wants to win.

And there is a clear sense that the 6-foot-3, 215-pound defenseman has been climbing the walls trying to live up to the expectations.

"He's always got energy and it's infectious for us," explained Iginla. "He's trying to run over everyone he can and he's in everyone's face. He doesn't back down."

Making an impact. Proving he can lead. Showing he's a winner. Those items are all on Dion's agenda.

Phoenix captain Shane Doan was on that Team Canada squad that won the gold medal in the summer of 2008.

"It's the important times when you see the great players show they are winners," Doan said. "Dion was a tower of strength for us in that tournament last May.

I'll never forget a warm day in late June 2003 arriving at the airport, expecting to make the short flight from St. Louis to Nashville for the draft alone ... until I saw a friendly face ... then-Flames GM/coach Darryl Sutter, on a layover from San Jose, where his daughter, Jessie, had just graduated from high school. He was beaming like a true proud father when I asked about his daughter and the ceremony.

During the course of our 45-minute wait and the next couple of hours before we walked into the same hotel in Nashville, Darryl Sutter touched on all sorts of subjects concerning the Flames. One, of course, was what his team wanted to do in the draft.

He spoke of the three defensemen at the top of everyone's draft list: Ryan Suter, Braydon Coburn and Phaneuf. He told me what he liked about each of these youngsters. But when he began to analyze Phaneuf, I swear I saw the same proud look on his face as I did when he was talking about his daughter's graduation.

I asked about the inside track he had into the tangible and intangibles he had on Phaneuf because Darryl Sutter's brother, Brent, was Phaneuf's junior coach with Red Deer in the Western Hockey league.

"Obviously, Brent's my brother," Darryl said, looking me squarely in the eyes. "But you can tell when he puts Dion on the ice, it's against the other team's best player. To me, that's more important than asking Brent what he thinks of him."

Then ... he said.

"Dion's got an edge to his game," Sutter said. "People aren't sure about him. I think that's why some people have compared him to such a scary defender as Scott Stevens.

"But he's more than that. He's a heart-and-soul player. He's smart, knowing when to take a chance on offense and when he can make a big hit and not hurt the team on defense."

Phaneuf had some good models to follow when he was growing up in Edmonton and going to games with his dad, Paul, and rooting for the, uh, Oilers, Calgary's hated rival in The Battle of Alberta.

"All of that stopped a few years ago," Phaneuf said of his Oilers rooting interests. "First I went south from Edmonton to Red Deer and then even further south to Calgary."

Then he lets the real side ...

It was at Red Deer that Phaneuf found a way to manage his time and tension off the ice when he met Dan Johnson, a woodworking expert and hockey fan.

Phaneuf may tear into opposing players with his open-ice hits, but give him a carpenter's tool, and it's a different story. His hands are skilled.

"I learned I could get away from the game while working with wood," Phaneuf told me, sounding surprised to hear that anyone knew that he could do more than shoot and pass and fight with his hands. "I made some chairs and then I got ambitious and finished an entertainment center for the mom and dad's big-screen TV."

On-ice creativity for Phaneuf comes from the fire in his eyes. It manifests itself with his aggressive posture when defending and, when on offense, in his howitzer of a shot from the point.

"I can't be a guy who's a fancy player," Phaneuf said. "I have to be a guy that plays the body. Whether they give you a shot here or there ... I play my game. I take pride in other teams hating to play against me."

Clearly, the only real dark side to Phaneuf is the dark mahogany wood he likes to work with in pursuing his hobby.

Dion Phaneuf is already an in-your-face, intimidating factor, using his size, muscle and skills to make a difference.

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