Phaneuf named Leafs captain

Toronto Maple Leafs announce Monday that Dion Phaneuf will be the new Captain going into next...

Toronto Maple Leafs announce Monday that Dion Phaneuf will be the new Captain going into next season. On stage for the announcement are former Leaf Captains George Armstrong, Darryl Sittler and Wendel Clark. (Photo by MARK O'NEILL/QMI AGENCY)

STEVE MACFARLANE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:43 PM ET

An NHL GM once told me the pre-draft report on Dion Phaneuf suggested his next boss would have to keep a thumb planted firmly on the kid's massive ego to keep him in line.

It seems the Toronto Maple Leafs subscribe to a different theory.

Officially naming the 25-year-old defenceman captain Monday, the Leafs have given the former Calgary Flame a title to go with his entitlement.

Who better to lead in the self-perceived centre of the hockey universe than a young player who comes across so self-centred?

The funny thing is, that strategy might just work.

One reason things didn't pan out for Phaneuf in Calgary was the fact the Flames already had a leader when the hard-hitting blueliner came along after the lockout.

A few of them, actually; Jarome Iginla and Robyn Regehr being the most prominent.

And in a locker-room that was feeling pretty high and mighty after the lockout that followed a long 2004 Stanley Cup run, the addition of an unproven, unrelenting and uncensored voice in the form of a 19-year-old rookie had to cause a little friction.

Some rumours that followed Phaneuf over the next few years before his trade to the Leafs last season bordered on ridiculous.

From affairs to fistfights, Phaneuf's name was tied to all kinds of gossip as people watched him morph in public perception from a young Norris Trophy candidate to a conceited and less-than-contrite pop-culture celebrity.

The way he was perceived as a person started to slide when his relationship with actress Elisha Cuthbert became public, and only worsened when things like the YouTube video of him singing and cursing in a drunken state in a bar made it onto the Internet.

A team not too fond of flashiness was suddenly full of it.

It didn't help that his play on the ice hasn't lived up to the hype he created with three strong offensive seasons that started with a 20-goal rookie campaign.

Flames insiders said Phaneuf wasn't a bad guy, and his ongoing work with charities supports that, but some teammates admitted his personality could be abrasive at times.

It didn't work for the Flames and, ultimately, Phaneuf was traded to Toronto last season.

A hard worker who seems to genuinely enjoy every aspect of the game; even practice; Phaneuf has rarely been criticized over effort.

Some just wonder if he really listens to what coaches are trying to teach.

Now, the Leafs want their young collection of individuals to listen to what Phaneuf has to say in the locker-room.

As if they had a choice.

He asserted himself in that regard as soon as the trade took place, cranking up the tunes and attempting to bring 'energy'; his mantra, of sorts, and something he constantly sang out to his Flames teammates on the ice, whether it was in practice or a game, to a room that, by all accounts, had no semblance of self.

In his own words Monday, Phaneuf said he was just going to be himself as captain, and try to lead by example on and off the ice.

Giving a young player who has yet to play a full season for the club the is certainly a risk, but if the Stanley Cup final between the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers proved anything, it's that young captains like Jonathan Toews and Mike Richards can lead good teams to great things.

The jury is still out on whether Phaneuf is the kind of guy who can create a real team atmosphere in a dressing room.

You also have to wonder how the news will sit with the few remaining veteran leaders on his new team.

The Leafs are going to find out soon enough.

At least one of Phaneuf's ex-teammates suggested via text Monday he believed the fit would work.

If the Leafs want to end the long Stanley Cup drought anytime soon, they'd better hope the kid is a gravitational force, but the room doesn't become a black hole.

steve.macfarlane@sunmedia.ca


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