Getting into the heads of 20,000 people is impossible.
So is the idea of people actually booing Flames defenceman Dion Phaneuf on home ice.
He hears cat calls in opposition rinks, and should expect as much as one of the team’s highest-paid, high-profile and high-energy players.
But to think Flames fans would stoop so low as to target him at the Saddledome borders on ridiculous.
So, I choose to believe the groans and boos heard on three occasions during the Flames’ 3-1 win over the Atlanta Thrashers Wednesday night were aimed at a stuttering powerplay, and not the 24-year-old, who two years ago could do nothing wrong in the eyes of these same fans as he played his way to a Norris nomination in his third NHL season.
Anyone paying close attention to the Edmonton product’s development would argue he’s an even better player now than he was when the city was demanding GM Darryl Sutter lock him up to the long-term deal some now suggest is something Phaneuf can never live up to.
Point production has cooled recently for the offensively gifted blueliner. After a scorching start that saw him tally points in his first six games of the season, and nine of his first 10, he’s earned just five in the 20 games since.
But hasn’t the biggest complaint always been about Phaneuf’s play in his own zone?
He’s finally playing regularly against other teams’ top lines, partnered with shut-down defender Robyn Regehr all season long, and still has improved his atrocious minus-11 marking from last year to a respectable plus-four so far.
Six goals and 14 points through 30 games puts him on pace for about 16 goals and 40 points. If he stays at this pace — although odds favour another hot streak with his stick before the season is through — it would be his lowest offensive output since taking the league by storm as rookie with 20 goals and 49 points, but there’s no doubt he’s become a more well-rounded player.
One that isn’t deserving of boos in his own rink.
Fans pay good money for tickets and can do whatever they feel is right, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find many who believe it’s right to jeer someone who is an integral part of the team you are so passionate about.
Open to interpretation, the first outburst came when Phaneuf was parked behind his net for what seemed an eternity waiting to make a pass to the forwards who had all looped out of their zone.
Eventually, he fired a hard pass up the boards, which went all the way down to the Thrashers end untouched.
The second came when the puck skipped over his stick in the opposing zone. The third when the Flames were on a powerplay with time ticking down and were stuck in their own end with the puck on Phaneuf’s stick, where it often is on the powerplay — a unit entirely deserving of boos that night for its ineffectiveness. But the whole group, not just Dion.
If he heard the unhappiness at all, it won’t phase the young blueliner, who said Thursday he “loves the fans, and loves playing here.”
He’s motivated by more than money or fans or sponsorships. He has a burning desire to become one of the game’s greats.
He’s not there yet, but he’s working on it.
“Like every other guy, it’s an ongoing process to be as consistent as possible in the defensive side of the game,” said assistant coach Ryan McGill. “Lately, he’s done a real good job of trying to do that every night.
“He’s definitely improved from Day 1 on that, and I know he’ll keep improving.”
The fans should know that, too.
And any who catch those around them booing Phaneuf at the Dome in the future might want to boo them right back.