TORONTO - For those of us who were part of the Dion-palooza media circus here last season, it comes as a much-welcomed relief that the hype machine has pretty much been muzzled concerning Phaneuf’s return to Calgary this time around.
It was fourteen months ago that Dion Phaneuf made his first visit to the Saddledome in a Maple Leafs jersey. It was a day filled with boos from the fans and questions from reporters, many centred on perceived mistakes of behaviour Phaneuf allegedly made both on and off the ice during his roller-coaster ride in this hockey-crazed town.
Now, with Phaneuf coming back to make his second appearance here since being traded to Toronto, the locals pretty much agree that, two years after the polarizing defenceman was sent to the Leafs along with defence prospect Keith Aulie and forward Freddie Sjostrom for forwards Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Jamal Mayers and defenceman Ian White, the Leafs fleeced the Flames in that trade.
Trying to convince Calgarians that Phaneuf has changed his ways, whether he’s wearing a hockey jersey or a three-piece suit, well, that seems to be a tougher sell.
During Flames practice on Monday, for example, when esteemed Calgary media members were informed of Phaneuf’s efforts to be accountable and accessible in Toronto, a Flames beat writer made the following point.
“I’m glad for Dion. That’s good to hear,” the well-respected writer noted. “But watching him wave with one arm as (Montreal’s) Lars Eller blew by him Saturday, we saw that move plenty of times when he was here.”
The reference was to Montreal’s fourth goal in the Canadiens’ 5-0 victory over the Leafs on Saturday, a play in which Eller rocketed past Phaneuf before beating Toronto goalie James Reimer.
In that particular instance, maybe this leopard hadn’t completely changed his spots. At the same time, even Flames forward Mike Cammalleri acknowledged that this is a different Dion Phaneuf than folks here might be accustomed to.
“Me and Dion are buddies and even I’ve noticed it,” Cammalleri said. “We got along when we were teammates here. In fact, after he got traded to the Leafs, he definitely hit me up for golf, me being from the Toronto area. He really wanted to play The National (Golf Club).
“I just think he has matured. We all make mistakes, we all do things we would like to do over, me included, but that’s part of maturing. The one thing that hasn’t changed is how much he loves the game.
“He’s done a good job handling things as captain of the Leafs. Having grown up in the Toronto area, I know how hard that can be.”
From having his image splattered on a giant billboard in downtown Toronto to the various ads he appears in, Phaneuf definitely has become one of the most prominent faces of the franchise. And for those of us who saw firsthand the way he orchestrated a team gathering for chicken wings and Monday Night Football while the Leafs spent a several days at the Canadian air force base in Trenton in October, his attempt to embrace his leadership role was quite evident.
“I think the biggest difference in me the past two years is, I think I’ve matured,” Phaneuf said. “You go through experiences in life and learn from them. The one thing I’ve always said: I want to try to get better every year. That’s what I’m aiming to do.
“I still have friends in Calgary and with the Flames, so it will be nice seeing them. Other than that, we have a job to do. We have a good young team and it’s an important game for us to get back on track.”
When he faces the Flames on Tuesday, Phaneuf will find himself sixth in NHL scoring among defencemen with 33 points, 27 more than Stajan, the one remaining piece of the trade still with the Flames.
No matter. He’ll still hear jeers.
Fair enough. For Phaneuf, the most important thing is to look ahead, not back.
Just like the rest of us should when it comes to the Maple Leafs’ No. 3.
GET READY FOR A LONG NIGHT
If Monday’s practice was any indication, Dion Phaneuf’s former team plans on making him sweat on Tuesday night.
During the Calgary Flames workout at the Saddledome, the coaching staff emphasized dumping pucks deep into the offensive zone, an obvious attempt to make the Maple Leafs defence chase pucks into the corners.
The Flames coaches believe that the Leafs blueliners are vulnerable to turnovers in their own end, a trait that has been painfully evident during Toronto’s three-game losing streak.
Meanwhile, due to a rash of injuries, coach Brent Sutter is shifting forward Mike Cammalleri from the wing to centre. “It’s my natural position actually,” Cammalleri said. “But I haven’t played it regularly since I was in (AHL) Manchester.”
NOBODY BETTER THAN SUNDIN: STAJAN
Matt always will be grateful to Mats.
In fact, before leaving for the Saddledome where his Flames were meeting the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday, Matt Stajan made sure to click on the tube to watch the banner of former teammate Mats Sundin hoisted to the Air Canada Centre rafters.
He even had his wife PVR the ceremony.
“It was pretty special to see that,” Stajan said on Monday. “I’m so happy for him.
“Having played with him in Toronto, you couldn’t have asked for a better teammate or leader than Mats Sundin. I’ll never forget how he helped me.
“We don’t get a chance to talk all that much, but our wives stay in touch.”