Red Air Jordan flip-flops have replaced the skates that were on Dion Phaneuf’s feet minutes ago and the man wearing them is sitting in an empty stall in the visitors’ dressing room at TD Garden with a smile on his face. Phaneuf’s playoff beard is starting to come in around that smile, heaviest in the goatee area, spotty along his square jawline. And for the first time in his 12-year NHL career, the veteran defenceman won’t be taking a razor to it just yet.
Phaneuf stands up while a crowd of reporters assembles around him. His Ottawa Senators have just sent the Boston Bruins packing in six games, a victory they’ll celebrate with a cold beer or two, but no champagne because it’s too soon for that. “It’s been my whole career to find a way out of the first round,” he says. “It’s so tough — it really is.”
It took Phaneuf 902 NHL games to get to this second-round series against the New York Rangers. Five times the 32-year-old from Edmonton saw his playoff run end after five or six or seven games. But in his first full season in the nation’s capital, and on his third Canadian NHL team, the big defenceman has finally broken through.
This is a very different Phaneuf than the youngster with the boomer from the point who got his first taste of the post-season as a Calgary Flames rookie, the same year he scored a career-high 20 goals. Despite the fact he’s no longer putting up monster points, Phaneuf is a key piece in Ottawa, eating minutes and shutting down top players. Now up 3-2 against a Rangers roster with a deep offensive core, and on a Senators team that has been through the ringer — a career nearly ended by concussions, a severed pinky finger, a goalie whose wife is fighting cancer, a captain playing on a broken heel — his leadership is crucial in maintaining Ottawa’s hopes of going on a deep run for the first time in a long time.
Phaneuf was a little kid when he watched Wayne and the Oilers win back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1987 and ’88. Well, he was never actually little. Despite the fact that neither mom, Amber, nor dad, Paul, measure taller than five-foot-five, Phaneuf weighed in at 10.6 pounds at birth and he didn’t stop growing. Young Dion was hockey-obsessed, and it was Amber, a figure skater who represented PEI at the Canada Games, who taught him to skate at three on the backyard rink Paul made, and signed him up for power skating at four. Phaneuf played in the backyard until his cheeks froze, emulating his idols on the Oilers. “It was so contagious in the city, that feeling when they were winning,” he says of the team he watched win three Cups before he turned six. “That’s when my dream started.”
He wore No. 2 because his grandpa, Ron MacArthur, sported it when he played in PEI for the Summerside Aces. MacArthur’s Aces sweater still hangs above Phaneuf’s bed in his childhood home in Edmonton, which is just as he left it: Trophies everywhere, NHL pennants hanging on the walls along with some of his own sweaters. And Grandpa’s is how MacArthur left it. Before it was placed on the wall, Amber took it to the dry cleaners with instructions from her oldest son: “Tell them not to take the blood stains out of it.” Phaneuf was about seven years old, then. The guy known for open-ice hits and punishing opponents in front of his net has always been a bit of a bruiser, it seems.
At age eight, Phaneuf had a pro-like setup in the family basement. Under the stairs, he had a locker with his No. 2 on the outside and his gear hanging on the inside, and a work area where he’d curve his blades. The rest of the basement was used as a shooting gallery. “He was famous for breaking the windows and the lights,” Amber says, turning to her husband. “Eh, Paul? He broke a lot of lights.”
It’s that shot, some years and many a light bulb later, that Red Deer Rebels coach Brent Sutter first noticed. Phaneuf was a 14 and stocky — about five-foot-10 with “a lot of baby fat,” Sutter says — and he wasn’t what you’d call a fluid skater. The Rebels took Phaneuf early in the third round of the 2000 Western Hockey League draft, though he was rated a fourth-round pick. He played his first full season of junior at age 16, wearing No. 3, because his grandpa’s No. 2 was taken. “All the other teams were upset they didn’t have him, because they knew what they were gonna face the next four years,” Sutter says. “He didn’t care how good of a player you were, if he had an opportunity to finish checks on you, he finished checks. Dion always had a little bit of arrogance in his game — and you wanted him to have that edge.”
After that first season with the Rebels, Phaneuf watched a few teammates sign NHL contracts, saw a couple others go off to NHL training camps. “I was like, ‘Geez, I’m playing with these guys, maybe there’s a chance that if I work hard enough and if I get better, I’ll have a chance at getting drafted,’” he says. “That’s when I first started thinking that way.”
He credits Sutter for helping him translate that thought into action, for teaching him practice and training habits. It was the coach who sat Phaneuf down after his rookie season and told him to come back in better shape. Phaneuf says he dropped 14 pounds ahead of his sophomore year. “He redefined himself as a person,” Sutter says. “What it did for him as a player was significant.”
That second year in Red Deer, Phaneuf had 30 points and 185 penalty minutes in 71 games. In June of 2003, the Calgary Flames drafted him ninth overall. Immediately, the Phaneuf family changed allegiances in the Battle of Alberta. “As soon as they called my name, I was a Flame and I loved it,” Phaneuf says.
When he arrived at Flames training camp in September of 2005, coach Darryl Sutter told him something he’s never forgotten: “I don’t care about your age — you don’t have an age to me,” Sutter said. “When I tap you to go out on the ice and there’s a 37-year-old out there, I expect you to do your job against him.” Phaneuf says he’s always lived by that rule. “I jump over the boards and I do a job, no matter if I’m 19 or 32,” he says, “no matter who I’m up against.”
Four games into his rookie season, Phaneuf scored the first of those 20 goals — a franchise record for a rookie defender, and just three shy of Brian Leetch’s all-time league high. “It was a faceoff won back to me and I just wristed it on the net, along the ice,” he says. He finished the year with 49 points, a Calder Trophy nomination (Alex Ovechkin won), and The Hockey News asking, “Who would you want to build your team around: Sidney Crosby, Ovechkin, or Phaneuf?” He was that good.
By his fourth season, Phaneuf was on pace for a career-low points total and the Flames were going through a bad stretch. He’d been reunited with Brent Sutter, who took over as Calgary’s head coach that year. “Even though he was a really good player those first three years, his game kinda levelled off,” Sutter says. “There were so many expectations put on him. I thought it bothered him, and at times it changed his personality to some degree.”
Phaneuf doesn’t remember it that way. “I wasn’t going through a tough time,” he says. When he was traded — the centre of a blockbuster deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs in January of 2010 — he was shocked.
It took the six-foot-three, 220-pound defenceman 25 games to score his first goal as a Maple Leaf and he heard all about it. When the team failed, it was often Phaneuf, named captain in the summer of 2010, who stood in front of the cameras and answered questions about why the Leafs weren’t playing well. When they flamed out of the playoffs in dramatic fashion in 2013 after a Game 7 collapse against Boston, Phaneuf wore it. “It’s just part of your job,” he says, simply. “[Toronto] is the mecca of the hockey world, and that’s part of the job.”
Phaneuf never matched his Calgary points totals in Toronto. In nearly seven seasons with the Maple Leafs, his best tally was 44 (12 goals, 32 assists). He says that’s in large part because he’s been adapting to a changing league. “I don’t think it’s just my game, I think it’s the game in general,” he says.
Getting those boomers on net isn’t as easy today as it was when he played in Calgary. “That’s one of the biggest changes I’ve seen — even skilled forwards block shots now,” Phaneuf says. “When I started, you could get a lot of pucks through from the point.” The game is less physical than it used to be, and it’s faster. Phaneuf, who’s always been plenty physical but never on the fast end, has had to adjust. “As you get older, that’s the one thing you always have to really work on if you want to be able to stay around,” he says, “you have to work on being quick.”
This season Phaneuf — wearing his grandpa’s old No. 2 for the first time since minor hockey — had nine goals, 21 assists, 100 penalty minutes and a minus-six rating in 81 games. In the playoffs, he’s averaging more than 24 minutes, third behind Cody Ceci and captain Erik Karlsson, and has put up five points, second only to Karlsson among Ottawa defencemen.
Coach Guy Boucher calls the oldest defenceman on the roster a “spark.”
“When the team is struggling, he’s often the one coming up with big moments,” Boucher says. This past February, the Senators hadn’t scored in more than 135 minutes. In the first period of a game against Dallas, Phaneuf fought Stars captain Jamie Benn, then he scored a short-handed goal. “He’s coming up with some gigantic moments that give us a lot of confidence and momentum,” Boucher says. “He’s done that so many times now.”
The biggest came in Game 2 of Ottawa’s first-round series against Boston. Phaneuf set up a pair of goals, then put home the overtime winner — a one-timer from the point through traffic, and the biggest goal of his career. Says teammate, Clarke MacArthur: “That’s what you bring him in for, big plays like that at big times.” Boucher seconds that. “He’s a real pressure guy for us,” the coach says. “It’s not just because of his experience and what he’s lived; he loves the tough moments.”
What goalie Craig Anderson likes about Phaneuf — aside from the punishment he doles out in front of the net — is how even-keeled he is. “Play good, play bad, it doesn’t change his behaviour or his attitude,” Anderson says. “There’s going to be ups and downs throughout games, throughout the season, and even right now, in the playoffs, the emotions get high and low, and he’s just steady Eddie back there. Nothing seems to faze him.”
And contrary to the personality you’d expect based on the face he usually wears on the ice — no smile above that broad jawline — Phaneuf is unfailingly kind and polite. (After a double-OT loss he apologizes to the assembled media for keeping them waiting, says thank you for the questions and finally tells everyone to “get some rest” as he’s leaving.) He’s also a bit of a joker. “He’s more funny than people give him credit for,” says teammate, Kyle Turris. MacArthur adds: “He keeps it light. He’s not quite that crazy looking all the time.”
You see glimpses of the real Phaneuf, like in Game 1 against Boston when he leaned on his stick at a faceoff and sang along with Blink 182’s “All The Small Things.” In practice, he’ll tip in a point shot and do an exaggerated fist pump. He’ll do self-imposed suicide skates with a teammate between blue lines and then smile while he’s breathing hard and leaving the ice.
Yes, Phaneuf is having fun at this time of year. Any guy in his 30s in this league will tell you he never takes these chances in the post-season for granted because they don’t know how many runs they have left.
Phaneuf can’t tell you why this team, unlike any other he’s been on, made it to Round 2. What he can tell you is he knows how hard it was to get here.
Big Read: Minor-league lifer Jarrett Grube hoping for a shot with the Blue Jays
After 13 years in the minors, Jarrett Grube is hoping the Toronto Blue Jays will give him one last shot at the Bigs.