NEW LONDON, P.E.I. — It’s a 45-minute drive from New London, P.E.I., to Charlottetown on Highway 2. It’s another 16 hours or so, mostly on the Trans-Canada, from Charlottetown to 40 Bay St., in downtown Toronto, where camera stands and microphone holders no doubt already sit in an empty room at the Air Canada Centre, pointed at a podium that awaits the arrival of Dion Phaneuf. If he tried, he could recite the questions he’ll hear as soon as he steps in front of them. But not now.
In fact, the Maple Leafs captain is about as far away from the pressure cooker he lives in nine months of every year as a hockey player can possibly get.
“A beautiful night, isn’t it?” he wonders aloud, leaning back in a chair on the deck of the two-storey house that he designed with the help of his new bride, Elisha Cuthbert. He drops his sunglasses onto the bridge of his nose and looks out over the water, where the Southwest River meets New London Bay. “I don’t think it’s too complicated down here,” says Phaneuf. “There’s a pace of life I really enjoy. In the off-season, it’s great to come here and rejuvenate, recharge and get away from everything.”
There’s quite a contrast between the person Phaneuf is here and the intense, fierce face of the Leafs that the public is used to seeing. Phaneuf is the captain in a market where his best is never enough. He gets it, embraces it, wants that “C” over his chest—and he knows that with that “C” come questions. Pointed questions. Leading questions. Ceaseless questions. And he knows this year there will be more than ever. “Some people might think it’s a daunting task, or it’s a burden, or there’s lots of pressure,” he says. “But I don’t look at it like that. There’s obviously a lot of expectation. I know the role for me is that I have to lead, and I have my way of leading. I don’t find it daunting at all.”
Phaneuf might well love wearing that “C,” but this may be the last season he does it. There are two stories that will dominate the start of Maple Leafs training camp: the aftermath of a crushing game-seven loss to the Boston Bruins, of course, but also the captain’s expiring contract. As of early September, the organization and its top defenceman had yet to begin talks on an extension. Even here, in his idyllic getaway, he retains his mastery of hockey-speak: “I haven’t talked with them yet, but there’s lots of time for that,” says Phaneuf. “I don’t want the contract stuff to be a distraction.”
“You understand this is going to be a topic of conversation, right?” he’s asked.
Phaneuf howls. “Oh yeah. We’re talking about it now, and it’s August. I’m sure we’ll be talking about it for the next eight months.”
But not for these 12 precious weeks. For now, the madness of the Maple Leafs meat-grinder is 1,671 km away. The summer is coming to a close, but until it is gone… well, questions are of a different sort. “You won, didn’t you?” Cuthbert grins at Phaneuf, who is fresh from a long day on the golf course.
“Triple bogeyed 14, and we still beat those guys,” he says.
Cuthbert laughs, shaking her head. Even here, she knows, her husband needs to win. He can clear his mind, but not his nature. The Dion Phaneuf whom hockey fans would recognize pops up twice a week—for a two-on-two, hole-by-hole showdown on the fairways of Green Gables and Andersons Creek with a group of guys who couldn’t care less about his day job.
On the front nine, they chirp. On the back, when they’re neck-and-neck, things get much quieter. Today, at Green Gables, when Phaneuf’s 12-footer on No. 6 just misses the cup, the eldest of the foursome, Al Burgoyne, an insurance man, roars. “Ohhhh, I need to see a little bit more of that,” removing any doubt that the tap-in was a freebie.
Phaneuf’s eyes light up. He might not want to talk much about game seven, but there’s no doubt it’s on his mind. Nudging him. Pushing him. Three times, Phaneuf reiterates that the defeat still “stings,” still “hurts.” But how the young group gets itself off the canvas is the question. “It’s done. It’s happened. It hurt. But you can’t dwell on it. We’ll talk about it in camp, in the pre-season, but we have to move on. We have to.”
Of course, the game isn’t just a mental test. So, here he is, just before 10 a.m., his face dripping sweat, legs pumping on a stationary bike, his shirt completely drenched. Phaneuf built a gym, a 2,000-sq. ft. space just a few steps from the house, three years ago. It has a picturesque view of the water and the vast green space, where 360 guests recently gathered for his and Cuthbert’s wedding. Today, at his side, are close friend and former Leaf Darryl Boyce and personal trainer Dan Archibald. A giant Leafs logo adorns the wall. There are a handful of bikes and treadmills, as well as three racks of dumbbells along a mirrored wall. After a session on a bike, Phaneuf heads over to work the lower body some more, this time with iron. He gets under the bar and looks into the mirror. Archibald stands 10 feet to his right as he goes through the reps. They alternate—Phaneuf encouraging Boyce, a native Islander who lives a 40-second jet ski away. Boyce is still a free agent, looking for work after finishing last season in Finland following the lockout.
When the sets of squats are completed, Archibald, who calls his client “D,” says it’s time for dead lifts. After a quick warm-up, Phaneuf goes over to his iPad, cutting off Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” “Need some rock for the big lifts,” he says. On the fourth rep, Phaneuf begins to feel it. Archibald barks at him, and Phaneuf raises the bar a fourth time, then a fifth. He smacks his hands together. Motivation. From game seven. From seeing the parade route new MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke has already drawn up. “I like working out hard, I like having it all here, because not only is there no excuse, but with this set-up, I can sneak in extra reps,” Phaneuf says, walking over to the water cooler in his grey and black Nikes and filling his cup next to his Red Bull fridge. “Building this gym, here, was one of the smartest things I’ve done.”
There is more than scenery and relative anonymity tying Phaneuf to this place. Though he and his younger brother Dane were born in Alberta, the captain’s roots are here, and they go deep. His house is built on land adjacent to a plot that’s been in his family for generations. Phaneuf is a descendant of Hugh MacArthur, who immigrated from Argyll, Scotland, to P.E.I. in 1770, on board the Annabella. The grandparents on Phaneuf’s mother’s side, Ronald MacArthur and Mary Farmer, still live on the property, about 500 metres from Dion’s place. There are a series of small houses, steps away from Ronald and Mary’s, one for each of their children and their families to have when they visit. “I basically grew up here every summer, with all of my aunts and uncles and my grandparents,” says Phaneuf. “It’s part of who I am. It’s a big part of the way I was raised.”
Here, in New London, he’s P.E.I. Dion, not an NHL player. And Cuthbert is not the Hollywood movie actress. “What’s it like to have the most thankless job in hockey,” someone will jokingly ask him while Phaneuf is buying fresh bread from the bakery. If he laughs, or scowls, or doesn’t answer, nobody will mind. There will be no stories in the local paper tomorrow parsing his words.
But all of that is coming. Phaneuf is soon to board a plane to Calgary for Team Canada’s Olympic orientation camp. Soon after that will come another flight—to Toronto. To the Air Canada Centre and the podium and cameras and microphones.
The Maple Leafs’ playoff drought was snapped—but then defeat came in the most devastating way possible. The captain is calm and confident, but he’s also a free agent to-be. He has a scant few days of summer left, and he knows he has to savour them. “When I come here, I look around and there’s not much that can stress you out,” Phaneuf says. “I come down here, sit around on the dock, go out on the boat. It’s… it’s what I need.”