A popular t-shirt this summer depicts a pirate skull-and-crossbones, emblazoned with 'The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves'.
Dion Phaneuf must have been wearing one under his Maple Leafs sweater Monday morning as the new captain joined summer workouts for the first time and sent an early wake-up call that this 29th-place crew better be in ship shape long before training camp.
Just ask Nazem Kadri, who was caught with his head down coming across the blue line and had Phaneuf about to clobber him with a stiff shoulder until pulling back at the very last second. Or a couple of Marlie AHLers whom Phaneuf bowled over in the corners. Or the minor league goalies Phaneuf hacked hard at when they didn’t completely cover a rebound.
The defenceman’s game-day scowl was screwed on pretty tight, three weeks before camp medicals on Sept. 16.
“It was a long summer and it’s no secret we weren’t happy where we finished last year,” Phaneuf said. “Back at the first press conference I said what a huge honour it is to be the captain of this team. But I’m not going to change.”
Phaneuf got the gig because he can bring an intimidation factor to his own dressing room. But he also made sure to call every new Leaf acquired since July 1 to introduce himself and give a pep talk, which hasn’t always been the protocol around here in the 43 years without a Stanley Cup.
“I talked to every guy and everyone was excited for the chance to play here,” Phaneuf said. “Camp is coming up quick and we have to be ready. Every guy we added will help us.”
Phaneuf golfed or worked out with a number of Leafs in the Alberta area before getting on the ice Monday with about 20 Leafs and Marlies. There will be nine players with NHL experience fighting it out on the Toronto blueline alone; Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle, Luke Schenn, Francois Beauchemin, Brett Lebda, Mike Komisarek, Carl Gunnarsson, Matt Lashoff and Jeff Finger.
“That’s what you want,” Phaneuf said. “You want people to press hard for jobs. To see so many come back early shows that everyone is anxious to get going.
“Camps aren’t as long as they used to be, we have just three days of practice before our first exhibition game (Sept. 21 against Ottawa).”
Centre John Mitchell said having Phaneuf come out so wired was just what was needed after two or three weeks of the Leafs easing themselves back into shape during their summer training.
“You have to come out here and set an example,” Mitchell said, “and today, that was to work hard, even when it’s informal.
“He doesn’t want guys just walking around him. No on wants to see that happen, and hopefully that rubs off on everyone else. Dion practices like it’s a game, the way it should be.
“If your head is down, he won’t try and bury you and end your career, but he will run into you and let you know to keep your head up, that’s for sure. He comes out firing the puck hard every time.
“You can start giving a few hits and bumps so guys aren’t skating through the middle with their heads down. We want to get serious soon. We’ve been on the ice a long time, now we want to get some serious practices, and obviously, some games.”
Mitchell hopes to nail down the third or fourth line centre’s role.
“Hopefully, the best guys get those positions, but once those positions are set, you don’t want to sit back and say ‘I’ve made my spot’. There will always be someone below you wanting that job. You want that, you want battles for positions all the way through the lineup.”