Think back 16 months ago, Toronto. Before the oh-so-sweet lottery win and the fevered Steven Stamkos anticipation and the new No. 1 goaltender and those slick new throwback sweaters that pop like hope.
Flash back to the Globe and Mail‘s memorable report of the “scorched earth” Shanny-plan, in which two names, twin pillars of the only Toronto Maple Leafs playoff squad in the last 12 years, stood out like pariahs in print.
The message was printed in black and white: Phil Kessel, the club’s top scorer, and Dion Phaneuf, the captain and most trusted defenceman, would not be part of the rebuild. Terrific hockey talents miscast as leaders to the Promised Land.
Less than a year after that leak, the two Leafs with the longest and most expensive contracts were traded. But it makes perfect sense that the bond between the sniper and the body-checker did not dissolve with the old core and their new locations.
As he sipped a beer and took in a Blue Jays game from a large suite, Phaneuf’s voice raised and smile widened when discussing his former teammate’s breathless tear to the 2016 Stanley Cup.
“I couldn’t be happier for Phil. I’ve talked to Phil lots. Throughout the run, I talked to him a bit. He’s a focused, driven guy. I’m so happy for him, as I am for any ex-teammates that you see have success and win,” Phaneuf said.
You sense there’s a little extra satisfaction for the Ottawa Senators alternate captain to see Kessel win, though.
“With Phil, we are real good friends. We’ve played a lot of hockey together and worked together for a long time. We’re good friends away from the rink. It’s special for him.”
Phaneuf remembers well that day in March 2015, when Kessel, in a rare moment of assertive talk, blasted at the scrum for the flak his captain takes in the local press.
“I think the way the media treats Dion Phaneuf in this city is embarrassing,” Kessel said at the time. “A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves. I’m embarrassed for them. I don’t think anyone deserves to be treated like that.”
Phaneuf smiles at the recollection but doesn’t want to dwell on the past. He points out Kessel’s 22 post-season points, tops among the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Phil Kessel is a class act. He’s a great teammate. He showed everyone with the way he performed this year and throughout his whole career, Phil’s been an incredible player,” Phaneuf said.
“He’s had some times where he’s taken a lot of the brunt here in Toronto, but I couldn’t be happier for him to win a Stanley Cup. And the way he played, he was one of the top players in the whole playoffs. Good for him. Well deserved. I couldn’t be happier for a good friend of mine.”
Kessel told Sportsnet 590 The Fan there’s a good chance he’ll be bringing Stanley back to Toronto for his day with the Cup. So, Dion, will you be partying with Phil and the Cup?
“I’ll be there,” he says. A sly smile, and again: “I’ll be there.”
Phaneuf’s season in Ottawa ended prematurely. After eight points in 20 heavy-minutes games as a Senator, the 31-year-old stopped early to heal “minor stuff” — a tear in his oblique and a cracked bone in his foot.
“Once everything was healed, I probably took three weeks off after the year to decompress and re-engerize, and I’ve been training hard since then,” said Phaneuf. “It’s been a good off-season and I’m excited to get things going. I’ve been 100 per cent for a while now.”
The Edmonton native jetted to Alberta after the season to visit his brother for a while, then retreated to his cottage on Prince Edward Island, where he plays plenty of golf, trains diligently, and spends time relaxing with his wife, actress Elisha Cuthbert.
The blueliner is excited to start working for Ottawa’s overhauled coaching staff, led by Guy Boucher, who once worked with Phaneuf on Team Canada at the world championships.
“With Marc Crawford and Rob Cookson, it’s a whole new staff. For us as players, it’s a fresh approach and a new year. We have to get off to a good start. Every coach is different in their own way. Every coach has different philosophies in how they coach structure-wise, interaction-wise,” he says. “It’s all about working for them. Your job is to execute what they want to do.
“So I’m excited to work for Guy. I enjoyed working with Dave. It’s always tough when your coach gets fired. As players, you feel responsible. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Dave Cameron.”
Same thing goes for his former city. Fittingly, Phaneuf’s Sens open the 2016-17 season against the Leafs on Oct. 12. If there are any hard feelings, he won’t let you see them.
“I enjoyed my time in Toronto. I said that right from the moment I was traded. It’s a great city, a great sports city,” Phaneuf said.
“I enjoyed my time here, but I’m excited and happy where I’m at right now.”
One-Timers with Dion Phaneuf
On what he took away from his first conversation with Boucher: “He’s a passionate guy. He’s got a real energy for the game. I’m sure if you asked him right now, he can’t wait for training camp to start. Same with me. It’s funny: Once the playoffs are over and the Stanley Cup is awarded and you know training camp is only a couple months away, you can’t wait.”
On whom he sees best fits to inherit the Leafs’ captaincy: “I don’t think that’s for me to comment on, to be honest with you. There will be someone that takes over the captaincy, and that’s for them to decide within the organization.”
On free work trips to Vegas: “I was just waiting like everyone else to see when they were going to announce it. I think it’s great. Pretty cool place to play professional sports for the team that’s going to be there. To be the first professional sports team in Vegas, it’s groundbreaking for the NHL to go pursue it. It’s great for hockey and for pro sports in general. I’m excited to go in there and play as a visitor. We’re professional athletes. There’s lots of good cities you go to: New York, down in Florida, Chicago… we play in the biggest cities in North America. We know what it takes to be professional. You go there, do your job, play the game.”