A litte gitty up in Dion

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:51 AM ET

When Maple Leafs training camp opens on Friday morning, it is of minimal significance whether Dion Phaneuf wins over the public with an engaging personality.

Ultimately what matters is how those who make the team respond to his leadership by the time the season opens on Oct. 7.

As part of the captaincy, Leafs management has emphasized to Phaneuf that his public persona is important in the context of becoming the face of the franchise. The fact that the team hasn't had a captain since Mats Sundin left two seasons ago, will only add to the scrutiny from some corners.

Like you might expect from a player known for his intensity and abrasiveness, making the transition will be a work in progress.

Little surprise then, that on the eve of his official debut as the 18th captain of the storied (and at the present time sorry) franchise, Phaneuf wasn't about to rock the boat.

At Woodbine Racetrack to help conduct the post-position draw for Sunday's Woodbine Mile thoroughbred race, the sculpting of Phaneuf's public image had another test run.

Playing to the captive crowd, he talked about his grandfather, a standardbred trainer who joins him at the tracks in Prince Edward Island in the off-season.

He talked about what an honour it is to be the captain of the Maple Leafs and that he took the role seriously.

As for anything of substance? It sure looks like Phaneuf's style will be to keep the engaging talk behind closed doors.

For his part, the new captain vows he won't change just because his uniform has a different look. If he was never shy about getting in a teammates' face before he had the captaincy, he certainly won't now.

" I talk to lots of guys whether I'm wearing a letter or not," Phaneuf said when asked if his role might be altered as he is looked upon to guide the new-look Leafs lineup that will hit the ice for the first time on Saturday.

"I'm not going to change the way I am. I'm going to go about business as normal. Am I every honoured to be wearing the "C?" Yes, but it's not going to change me in any way."

Only time will tell if that's a good thing. The fact that there hasn't been a captain in so long will make for a different feel and look around the Leafs. Then again, hardly anyone around the team has any attachment to Captain Mats.

As far as the beaten down Leafs fan base is concerned, Phaneuf can be the crustiest captain in the league and it won't matter if his leadership helps the team make the playoffs after a five-year absence. No other captain has found themselves in that situation because the team has never missed the post-season for so many years in a row.

There was some bizarre and overblown reaction 10 days ago when Phaneuf supposedly "declared" that the Leafs were a playoff team.

In fact, there was no such pronouncement at all, no guarantee, just a sensible answer to a potentially loaded question. Phaneuf was asked, in a scrum of reporters at the team's charity golf tournament, whether he thought the Leafs would challenge for the playoffs.

What was the correct answer? "I think we are still three years away." Or: "Maybe, if we get lucky and everyone else in the Eastern Conference regresses."

Of course he had to say he was the captain of a playoff team, otherwise what would the players he's supposed to lead think?

As for training camp, behind the scenes it will be important for Phaneuf to help keep youngsters such as Nazem Kadri in line while building on the positive feeling around the team during garbage time at the end of last season.

In front of the cameras, he can say whatever he wants. Because as Phaneuf is already indicating, the 18th captain of the Maple Leafs has no interest in being part of a popularity contest.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/longleysunsport


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