December 15, 2010
Phaneuf's impact on Leafs goes a long way
By MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency
CALGARY — It greeted them when they arrived at the Saddledome for practice, a souvenir from a local auto dealership promotion two years ago.
To a man, the Maple Leafs could not believe their eyes.
Yet, there it was. A paper mask. With Dion Phaneuf’s face on the front.
“We walk in the room and THAT face is the first thing we see,” forward Kris Versteeg said.
Maybe the Maple Leafs captain wasn’t with the team physically on Wednesday, but he certainly was there in spirit.
Or, as Versteeg so eloquently put it: “Even when he’s not here, he’s here.”
Make no mistake. Each and every one of his teammates understood that Phaneuf’s absence was no laughing matter. He was, after all, back in Summerside, PEI, to attend the funeral of his grandmother, Roma Phaneuf, who passed away last week at age 83.
At the same time, they understood that, given all the hype and hoopla accompanying Phaneuf’s return to face his former team Thursday, their captain would want them to have some yuks.
Quickly snatching the mask, Versteeg put it over his face and scurried on to the ice, catching some of his teammates off-guard.
“I was out there a bit early, so I had no idea he was going to do that,” forward Colby Armstrong said. “I just broke up and started laughing.”
For the next couple of minutes, Versteeg — aka Dion’s Doppelganger — skated around, flexing, bending, imitating all the subtle gestures that are unique to Phaneuf.
“That’s the scariest mask I’ve ever seen,” he said, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “It even had Dion’s mohawk. It was something right out of Halloween.”
Standing in front of reporters, Versteeg attempted to keep a straight face. He couldn’t. Sure enough, he finally broke into a huge grin.
On this day, the timing of all this fun and frivolity could not have been better.
If ever the gathered media and observers here in Calgary needed proof of the positive impact Phaneuf has made on his Toronto teammates, this was it.
All afternoon, both Leafs and Flames players had been grilled with questions about Phaneuf. Had he been a problem in the Calgary dressing room? Did he now rub some of his Toronto teammates the wrong way?
On and on it went.
By coming out in the mask, Versteeg, in essence, was showing just how much this team believed in their captain, how much they enjoyed playing with him, and how much fun they are still having under his leadership, even with the disappointing start the team has had to the season.
In fact, if Versteeg can enjoy having Phaneuf around, then anyone can, given the bitter history between the two players.
“When he wasn’t yapping at me (in junior), I’d be doing it to him.”
Now foe has become friend. And, for Versteeg, Phaneuf’s chirping has gone from being an irritating sound from the opponent’s bench to a welcome part of the Maple Leafs dressing room.
“He has been great,” Versteeg said. I mean, if you are sitting in there and no one is talking as if their dog has just died, you’ll come out flat. Dion doesn’t allow that. Before games, he and (Armsrtrong) verbally try to get the guys going.”
According to coach Ron Wilson, Phaneuf knew about his family’s loss since Saturday.
“All that on his mind and he still played a couple of very good games,” said Wilson, adding that Phaneuf was to rejoin the team Wednesday night from PEI.
So, to recap:
A game in his hometown of Edmonton on Tuesday in which he scored his first goal of the season.
Then off to PEI to attend Wednesday’s service.
And finally, back to Calgary for Thursday’s game against the Flames, his former club.
If that’s not setting an example of leadership for his teammates, then what is?