Editor’s Note: Throughout the month of August, we’re resurfacing some of our most interesting, entertaining, and popular stories from 2015-16 as part of our NHL Summer Reads collection.
This article, originally published on Feb. 12, 2016, tells the whirlwind, behind-the-scenes story of how the Senators got former Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf out of Blue and White and into Sens colours so quickly after being traded.
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If you looked closely at Dion Phaneuf’s gloves in his first few games with the Ottawa Senators, you’d see they weren’t quite black like his teammates’—more a mottled, navy blue.
The cuffs were bright Sens red, but attached to the gloves with small squares of black nylon hastily sewed on. Loose threads sprouted from the patches like stitches on a busted-open lip that had been repaired on the bench. The weird gloves offered a hint at what had been going on behind the scenes.
When the Senators announced the trade involving Phaneuf and eight other players on Tuesday, they pulled off the equivalent of a mic-drop in the social media age: a true out-of-nowhere trade involving a marquee player and a division rival. But as hockey’s chattering classes were losing their minds over the deal with the Maple Leafs, a polished but rapidly improvised series of moves had already slipped into motion in Ottawa.
Brian Morris, senior director of communications for the Senators, likens it to a new iPhone launch: you want to be the one to announce your big news, rather than someone else leaking a blurry photo and half-baked details (the comparison works another way too: efforts at secrecy nearly always fail in both of those cases).
So a day like Tuesday is a fun day at the office for everyone.
“The ability to drop news into the market like that and really cause front-page news on a moment’s notice, that’s the coolest thing to do,” he says.
According to Senators general manager Bryan Murray, talks got serious over the weekend on the deal that would eventually bring Phaneuf to Ottawa along with forwards Matt Frattin, Casey Bailey and Ryan Rupert and defence prospect Cody Donaghey, while Toronto picked up defenceman Jared Cowen and forwards Colin Greening, Milan Michalek and Tobias Lindberg.
But it wasn’t until Tuesday morning that the agreement was reached between Murray and Toronto GM Lou Lamoriello. Morris had sensed something was in the works, but shortly before 11, he got a heads-up that it was a go. There would be no time later to carefully compose statements, so he created a text document containing a series of tweets and the news release he’d issue with the full details.
All he would have to do was cut and paste when he got the go-ahead.
The trade call to make things official with the league happened around 11 a.m. Ottawa was the team acquiring the marquee player, so the splash would be theirs to make, but the two teams agreed to make the announcement at 11:10 a.m. (as it happened, the Leafs sent out their tweet 15 minutes after that; by then, Ottawa had lit Twitter on fire).
Once the trade was official, Jordan Silmser, Ottawa’s director of team services, started working out how to get Phaneuf from Calgary—where he was with his now-former team—to Detroit, where the Senators would arrive late in the day, in preparation for a game against the Red Wings the following night.
Silmser is the guy who makes the practical things happen—he’s especially adept at handling immigration paperwork—and now he made door-to-door travel arrangements, so Phaneuf just had to step into a waiting car at his hotel. The goal was to get him and his equipment out of Calgary with as little hoopla as possible; within hours, photos made the rounds of Phaneuf at the Calgary airport hauling an equipment bag, a couple of suitcases and a big bundle of hockey sticks.
Morris was watching Twitter closely to make sure word of the deal hadn’t leaked out; nobody really had the news, but the rumblings had started. Finally, at 11:10 a.m.—just as Silmser was calling Phaneuf to introduce himself and welcome the newest Senator—Morris sent a tweet from the team account:
It was a bare bones message, but one that seemed to revel in its own impending drama. One minute later came the big reveal:
(it being Ottawa, that tweet went out back-to-back in English and French).
The next tweet included a link with full details of the trade, but there was a problem. When he was getting things organized, Morris had published the news release to the team website in draft form, so it would be ready, but invisible publicly. Now, communications manager Chris Moore flipped him a link to a tweet complaining the information was missing (“THE LINK IS BROKEN!” one anxious fan howled). Morris fixed it, then sent out a handful more tweets, including the fact that no salary had been retained—a detail he knew people would be hungry for.
Six minutes and seven tweets later, hockey Twitter was losing its mind.
Silmser walked into Morris’s office with Phaneuf on speakerphone. Morris introduced himself and they started working out when Phaneuf could do an interview. Morris suggested a live radio hit at 11:45, just under half an hour away, and told Phaneuf he’d connect with the station and then call him—all Phaneuf would have to do is pick up the phone. But 10 minutes later, Phaneuf called back: his phone was close to meltdown from all the texts and calls he was getting, there was no way he could do the radio interview.
Phaneuf’s cross-country travel plans would consume most of his day, so they decided to call off the interview idea.
In less than two hours, the Sens and all their gear were headed to the airport to catch a flight to Detroit. John Forget, the head equipment manager, talked to the Leafs equipment team to find out Phaneuf’s sizes, the idiosyncrasies of what he liked in his gear and what number he would wear.
His no. 3 was already assigned to defenceman Marc Methot, so Phaneuf chose no. 2. Just after 11:30, Morris sent an email to the heads of merchandise and marketing letting them know, and a few minutes later he tweeted the news. Word went up to the team store, and less than an hour later, there was Phaneuf’s freshly pressed no. 2 jersey hanging on a rack.
The Senators headed to the airport around 1 p.m., and among the gear on board were new Sens-branded gloves, helmet, pants and sweater for Phaneuf. Even if the equipment team hadn’t managed to pull that together before they left, they always brought the materials to make new sweaters on the road, because you just never know.
Phaneuf would keep using the same sticks, skates and all the pads and equipment hidden under his uniform, because those items aren’t dictated by team colours. Players simply use whatever workout gear they like, and Phaneuf mostly had neutral black and grey stuff that would work on his new team. The equipment team also brought a Sens hat, warm-up shirt and the right colour of shoes to Detroit for him.
Mike Foley, an equipment assistant who handles a lot of NHL printing through his sign business, had a fresh locker nameplate for Phaneuf ready to go, too.
It was just after 9 p.m. when Phaneuf finally reached Detroit. He was greeted in the hotel lobby by his new general manager, assistant GM Pierre Dorion, Ottawa head coach Dave Cameron, Morris and Silmser. It wasn’t until the next morning, before the team’s practice at Joe Louis Arena, that the equipment team had a chance to try all the gear with Phaneuf.
It turned out he wore customized gloves and the gloves they’d brought didn’t fit him. So they took his blue Maple Leafs gloves and spray-painted them black, then cut the cuffs off and attached red cuffs from a pair of Sens gloves. His pants, too, ended up being strange hybrid creatures: bright Maple Leafs blue waist pads with his old no. 3 stitched inside, snapped onto the shell of a pair of Sens pants.
By the time Phaneuf played in his first Ottawa home game against Colorado two days after the trade, he was still using this Frankenstein gear. The team won’t have a chance to shoot a new headshot of him until early next week, so the Sens website still shows their newest acquisition wearing a Leafs jersey.
Next week, he’ll also pose for one of those Zoolander-style video headshots, so when they introduced him at Canadian Tire Centre during his first home game, they just showed a live shot of him sitting on the bench.
The marquee above the main entrance to the arena features prominent Senators in action, their images as big as pharaohs on the side of a tomb. There’s Erik Karlsson, Bobby Ryan, Craig Anderson—and, second from the right, Milan Michalek, who is now a Maple Leaf. Throughout the parking lots, on entrance pillars and sprinkled inside the arena are other huge images of now-departed former Sens, and Phaneuf is nowhere to be seen. The marketing department has made a list, and they plan to have all the obsolete images switched out within the next month.
At the moment, they face a practical hurdle: Posters don’t stick at -20 C. But aside from waiting for a thaw, it probably makes sense for the team to delay until after the trade deadline anyway—just in case this whole process kicks into gear again.