|While he was shocked to learn last season that he had been traded from the Flames to the Maple Leafs, Dion Phaneuf now feels it was the best thing to happen to his career. (BRUCE BENNETT/Getty Images)
TORONTO — Dion Phaneuf says the morning Darryl Sutter left a voicemail informing him he’d been traded in January marked one of the best days of his life.
While it didn’t feel that way at first, the former Calgary Flame now sees it as a blessing.
“It was a shock when it happened, but it’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” a shockingly candid Phaneuf told QMI Agency following a recent pre-game skate at the Air Canada Centre.
“It was tough at the time to take it, but as soon as I got on that plane and landed here, it was unbelievable — nothing but positives, and I couldn’t be happier now.”
Embraced by Hogtown hockey fans since shedding his mitts in his Maple Leafs debut, Phaneuf is now spearheading a Leaf revival that has been the talk of the hockey world.
Now captain of a 4-2-1 club that has championship-starved fans in Toronto buying his jersey in droves, Phaneuf has become the face of the franchise.
Two and three-storey depictions of his intense scowl can be seen on various screens and billboards around town, dwarfing the overwhelming popularity he enjoyed during his first three years in Calgary.
A four-hour flight away from the Flames fishbowl that saw his stock plummeting at the Saddledome the last two years, Phaneuf is enjoying a renaissance of sorts in a sports town previously owned by the likes of former captains such as Wendel Clark, Darryl Sittler, Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin.
That said, when he checked his messages at 8 a.m. Jan. 31 to learn he was the biggest name in Sutter’s seven-player knee-jerk deal, Phaneuf was caught as off-guard as the hundreds of victims he’s claimed crossing his blueline.
“I’m not going to lie — it was a whirlwind,” exhaled the 25-year-old defenceman, who couldn’t possibly have envisioned how heading to the league’s 29th-best team could afford him such opportunity. “Two weeks before, Darryl says he’s not trading you … and then you’re traded. I never saw it coming.
“I heard the talk, but when he comes out (publicly) and says that, you kind of put it to rest. And then you wake up at 8 a.m. in the morning and you have a voicemail on your machine. You have four hours to pack your life up and move. There are lots of emotions going on.”
Heading to the Saddledome to say goodbye to the only NHL teammates he’s ever known was the hardest part that day.
“That was the toughest thing. I’ll never forget going in there that morning — there were a lot of emotions,” said Phaneuf, a hero in Calgary for three years before a pay raise and an off year turned him into a local scapegoat.
“In saying that, it’s been an unbelievable experience right from when I was traded. It’s been a fresh start for me, and I really enjoy the city and the organization. They’ve got great fans here and I can’t say enough good things about the trade.”
So far, he and the media have got along famously — a relationship he didn’t have in Calgary, where he appeared standoffish, pre-occupied and completely disinterested in daily discourse. Despite constant urging from team officials to loosen up and show a more playful side, Phaneuf rarely offered up anything but clichés and scowls.
“I think it was just something that got blown out of proportion, to be completely honest,” said the Edmonton native, drafted ninth overall in 2003.
“I never had an issue talking with you guys at all, and it kind of got spun that I did because I had a game face on every time I talked. That’s just the way I am at the rink. I come off the ice and I’m at my job. We’re working. Different guys handle it different ways, and that’s the way I was. I think it snowballed and people would think that I wouldn’t want to talk.”
As captain, he’s required to talk endlessly in Toronto, and it’s clear he’s taken on a more open attitude with the media. On several occasions, he’s been known to stride into the Leafs dressing room and ask aloud if anyone wants a sound bite from him.
“I have no issue with it, and I think if you ask anyone here, I know it’s part of my role here and I accept it,” he said.
“I know only 20,000 people can get into this building, and with the big following we have here, you guys have a job to do. You have to tell all our other fans what’s going on and I respect that.”
Living five minutes away from the Air Canada Centre and a 25-minute drive in his Maserati to the team’s practice facility, Phaneuf embraces everything about his newfound popularity and success.
Why wouldn’t he?
He’s still dating actress Elisha Cuthbert, and he’s the toast of the town on a young team heading in a far greater direction than his former club.
“She’s living here and L.A. — she’s working now,” said Phaneuf of Cuthbert.
“It’s very private here. They’re very respectful and I enjoy that. As far as hockey goes, with the moves we made over the summer, we have an exciting team here. The youth is the most exciting part of it.”
One man’s panic is truly another man’s gain.