Cold welcome for Phaneuf

Dion Phaneuf looks to the bench during the Leafs Fan Appreciation night at the Air Canada Centre...

Dion Phaneuf looks to the bench during the Leafs Fan Appreciation night at the Air Canada Centre Dec. 20, 2011. (QMI Agency)

WES GILBERTSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:01 AM ET

CALGARY - What better time than Valentine’s Day to make nice with an old Flame?

It wasn’t exactly a mushy, ‘No, I missed you more’ scene at the Saddledome, but the Calgary Flames’ faithful showed Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf a little more love than anybody expected in Tuesday’s clash with his former team.

“I get booed in a lot of buildings,” Phaneuf shrugged after the morning skate. “So I’m sure it will be much of the same.”

It wasn’t really.

The 26-year-old rearguard was treated to a chorus of boos as he hauled the puck through the neutral zone about 31/2 minutes after the opening faceoff but otherwise heard just a smattering of cat-calls for the rest of the evening.

It wasn’t comparable to the treatment Chris Pronger once received in Edmonton or Zdeno Chara still receives in Montreal.

And it certainly wasn’t even close to the way Phaneuf was treated in his first trip back to the Saddledome, where he spent 41/2 seasons in the Flaming C before being shipped to the Maple Leafs as the centrepiece of a Jan. 31, 2010, blockbuster deal between the two NHL teams.

Defenceman Keith Aulie and winger Freddie Sjostrom also lugged their gear to Ontario, while forwards Niklas Hagman, Jamal Mayers and Matt Stajan and rearguard Ian White arrived in Alberta.

Phaneuf’s valentine, actress Elisha Cuthbert, is now starring in a sitcom called Happy Endings. After Tuesday’s morning skate, the hard-hitting blueliner told reporters the move to Hogtown has been a happy ending for him, too.

“(Calgary) is going to be a special place anytime I do come back and play here,” said Phaneuf, who suited up for 378 games with the Flames and was a Norris Trophy nominee in 2008.

“I had a lot of good years here, I made a lot of friendships that I still keep and I’ve got a lot of real good memories of playing in this building, so it definitely is a special place when you come back.

“I’m extremely happy where I’m at. It’s been a great move for me, personally, and I’m extremely excited about the team that we have here and the direction that we’re going,” Phaneuf said during his morning media scrum.

“I can’t say enough good things about being a Toronto Maple Leaf, living in Toronto, the city, the fans. It’s a very special team to wear the jersey with the history of the team and organization. There’s a lot of rich history. It’s been nothing but positives for me since I landed there.”

Although many Flames fans didn’t mind seeing Phaneuf take off, they probably wish there was a bit more talent on the incoming flight.

Stajan is the only part of that four-player package still skating at the Saddledome, and the US$3.5-million man has been a fixture on a checking unit this season. Even with a rash of injuries up the middle, the 28-year-old was the centre on the club’s fourth line against the Leafs.

As the team captain in the centre of the hockey universe, Phaneuf is now considered a villain in Montreal, Ottawa and elsewhere in the Eastern Conference.

At the Saddledome, though? Not so much. Not like it used to be.

Maybe the diehards didn’t want to look like baffoons in front of their Valentine’s Day dates, or perhaps they’ve accepted that this breakup has been best for everybody, even if the trade was lopsided.

“(Calgary) is going to be a special place anytime I do come back and play here,” said Phaneuf, who suited up for 378 games with the Flames. “I had a lot of good years here, I made a lot of friendships that I still keep, and I’ve got a lot of real good memories of playing in this building, so it definitely is a special place when you come back.”

Sprinkling a bit of salt in the wound, the Maple Leafs recalled Aulie from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies after Carl Gunnarsson was injured during Monday’s practice.

Aulie, a veteran of 55 big-league games, will be a healthy scratch for Tuesday’s clash but seemed excited about the opportunity to watch Phaneuf — his defensive partner for parts of last season — skate in the same building where he started his career.

“I think he’s got this day circled on the calendar,” Aulie said. “He had some great seasons here. I know he loved playing here, he loved the people here and I know he was pretty sad to go when he did. Coming back, I’m sure, is pretty exciting for him.”

Even if the boobirds are out in full force?

“If there’s a guy that can handle it, it’s probably Dion,” Aulie said. “He has pretty thick skin that way — he can battle through a lot of adversity. I don’t think that fazes him too much. I think he takes energy out of that.

“As much as you don’t want to say it, it kind of takes the heat of other players. Not that playing in front of fans like that is a big deal for most of us — we’re used to that stuff — but when your captain is taking the brunt of it and he’s playing through it all, it just lets the other players play a little bit. Knowing Dion can play through it all, it’s maybe a good situation.”

wes.gilbertson@sunmedia.ca

On Twitter: @SUNGilbertson


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