There was no formal acknowledgement of Kessel’s return with the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier this season, but the faux pas won’t be repeated.
As coach Mike Babcock noted following the morning skate: “Not many people get to be the captain of the Maple Leafs. … I think we should just say thanks.”
Phaneuf was only the 20th man bestowed the honour since the organization became known as the Maple Leafs in 1927, and clearly felt some mixed emotions after returning to the ACC for the first time since the Feb. 9 blockbuster that sent him to Ottawa.
His new teammates tried to lighten the mood by booing him a couple times when he touched the puck during the morning skate, but Phaneuf was still more reflective than usual afterwards.
“There was a lot of emotion on the day I was traded – I’m going to be completely honest with you,” he told reporters. “I made a lot of really good friends here, friendships that will last a lifetime. Obviously with my role here as captain, I put a lot into doing my job.”
Phaneuf has spent just 11 games with the Senators, putting up seven points for a team desperately trying to stay in the playoff race, but isn’t under the microscope nearly as much in Ottawa.
The Sens are Erik Karlsson’s team and Phaneuf is being asked to be more of a support player on the second defensive paring with Cody Ceci. But he bristled at the notion that the load he carried as Leafs captain was more than he could bear.
“I didn’t find it as weight,” said Phaneuf. “There’s expectation and there’s responsibility, but I enjoyed that. But also I’ve enjoyed the change.”
Phaneuf was a divisive figure during his tenure in Toronto – immensely popular with teammates, especially the past couple seasons, but often blamed for the team’s shortcomings by fans and the media.
He was the captain of Brian Burke’s “18-wheeler off the cliff” team and for the Game 7 meltdown in Boston and for the painful March collapse the year after that.
However, those that knew him best in Toronto loudly sing his praises. On Saturday morning, Kadri said that Phaneuf is “dearly missed” and indicated that he’s still not used to seeing him wear No. 2 in Ottawa.
“It’s pretty awkward to say the least,” said Kadri. “Even seeing him doing his scrums after the games with his Ottawa Senators hat on, and the red and the black. It just doesn’t sit too well with me yet.”
Several of Phaneuf’s former teammates urged fans to give him a warm welcome back.
“I’m personally expecting cheers, but you never know,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly, who was closely mentored by Phaneuf.
“(I’m expecting) an applause, and hopefully a good one,” said defenceman Jake Gardiner. “There’s a lot of things that he did behind the scenes that not many people know about.”
Babcock was left with a great impression of Phaneuf even though their time together only ended up amounting to 51 games this season. He applauded the player for setting a great example for teammates day in and day out, and said he’s earned his eventual place on the mural of former captains that adorns the gym walls at the Leafs’ practice facility.
“Rielly and Gardiner love him, and why would they love him?” said Babcock. “Well they love him because he looked after them and took the heat off them.
“Rielly and Gardiner never got much heat, he got the heat.”
Phaneuf’s return to Toronto included a dinner with Kadri and former teammates on Friday night at a restaurant they used to visit regularly.
From all accounts, it was a trip down memory lane.
“I didn’t get to see them (when I was traded),” said Phaneuf. “For me there’s mixed emotions because I’m such good friends with them and I enjoyed my time playing with them immensely. … It was different going to dinner with them, being on the opposition side, because I don’t usually do that.
“For them I made an exception.”
There is clearly some closure that comes with this visit.
The Leafs were in Calgary when Phaneuf was dealt and he immediately flew back east to meet up with the Senators in Detroit. He didn’t even have a chance to collect his belongings from the Leafs dressing room until Saturday morning.
Plenty of familiar faces greeted him at the rink, with the 30-year-old joking that he was constantly saying hello and goodbye at the same time.
“That chapter is over now,” said Phaneuf. “Now I’m the enemy. I’m an Ottawa Senator and I’m really happy about it.”