Dion Phaneuf honoured to announce retirement with Maple Leafs

Dion Phaneuf talks to the media about some of his regrets during his playing days and some moments he remembers fondly.

TORONTO — Dion Phaneuf is making it official — and he’s clearly touched that the Toronto Maple Leafs offered the platform to do it.

On Tuesday morning, Phaneuf formally announced he’s retiring from the National Hockey League. That the 36-year-old had already played his last NHL game was pretty evident from the fact he hasn’t not skated in the league since April of 2019. But Leafs president Brendan Shanahan always told Phaneuf he wanted to give the former Toronto captain a proper send off when travel restrictions eased and fans returned to buildings. Now, Phaneuf will get just that when the Leafs host the Nashville Predators tonight.

“I played the most games [of any team he played with] here, I was the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs which was, for me, a huge honour to say the least,” Phaneuf said. “For those reasons, I wanted to come back here. To be able to announce it here is very special.”

Phaneuf first landed in Southern Ontario as part of an eight-player deal between Toronto and the Calgary Flames in January 2010 that was reminiscent of the time nearly 20 years prior when the same two organizations hooked up for another monster January swap, one that made Doug Gilmour a Leaf.

At the time of the trade, Phaneuf was among the more high-profile players in the league. The Edmonton native was selected ninth overall by Calgary in the stacked 2003 draft and made a huge splash on the national scene while wearing Canada’s colours at the 2005 World Junior Championship. That team was brimming with talent thanks to an NHL lockout that made guys like Phaneuf, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrice Bergeron available for the tournament. The Canadian kids — including Sidney Crosby — stormed to gold and when the rugged Phaneuf laid out two Russians with one hit right before Canada scored its fourth goal in a final-game romp, commentator Pierre McGuire made Phaneuf a legend by declaring the contact a “Double Dion!”

“I remember the hit, I see it lots still,” Phaneuf chuckled. “People come up to me and mention that.”

While he certainly made an impression on opponents with his physical play, Phaneuf also put the hurt on teams with his offensive game. During his first two years in the NHL, Phaneuf netted 37 goals. The only blue-liner in the league with more tallies during that span was Sheldon Souray, who buried 38. Over that same two-season period, Phaneuf hammered home 29 power-play markers, more than every D-man in the league and all but 16 forwards.

Naturally, his arrival in Toronto supplied hope to a franchise that was scuffling through some tough years. As it turned out, though, Phaneuf — along with Phil Kessel and the man who traded for both players, GM Brian Burke — became a defining figure on Leafs clubs that only added to fans’ misery. Phaneuf’s worst minute-and-a-half in a Leafs sweater was surely the final stages of the infamous Game 7 meltdown versus the Boston Bruins in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. No. 3 was on the ice for two goals against as a 4-2 Toronto lead evaporated during a galling contest Boston ultimately won in overtime.
Another low came early in the 2014-15 campaign when, following a home-ice win over the Tampa Bay Lighting, a Leafs team frustrated with the way they’d been treated during a preceding rough patch left the ice without giving fans the stick wave of appreciation that had become the standard around the NHL. The incident quickly became known as “Salute-gate” and Phaneuf expressed remorse all these years later for his role in shuffling his teammates off the ice without acknowledging the fans.

“That was under my watch,” he said. “I take responsibility for that and if I could go back [I would] handle that differently. But the fans in Toronto are incredible, unwavering support. Every time I come back people come up to me and thank me for my time here.”

Phaneuf was traded to the Ottawa Senators by a rebuilding Leafs squad ahead of the 2016 trade deadline and was one of the main cogs on the blue line of a Sens team that came within one overtime goal of making the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Despite playing 14 seasons and a total of 1,048 games with Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and Los Angeles, though, Phaneuf never did get a chance to raise that chalice.

“For me, not winning will definitely always be one of my regrets,” he said. “But I feel, as a player, I competed, I played hard, I left everything I could out there. I’m proud of the player I was.”

He can certainly feel good about the impact he had on former teammates like Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly, who was just beginning his Toronto tenure when Phaneuf was wearing the ‘C’ here. The two men remain great friends, with Rielly having visited Phaneuf and his family a few times during the off-season in Prince Edward Island.

“[Dion] could help you understand exactly what’s going on around you, why it’s happening, how to get out of it,” Rielly said. “I think that’s important. I’m grateful for those years.”

Mitch Marner was drafted by Toronto about nine months before Phaneuf was shipped out and the latter still recalls the way former made him feel welcomed as Marner was boarding a plane during his first big-league training camp in 2015. “I didn’t really know where to sit; I was just head down, nervous, walking onto a plane,” Marner recalled. “Dion was sitting there, called me over and let me sit beside him.”

Phaneuf says it’s flattering to hear young players speak of him in those terms, but notes he was only doing for those guys what the veterans did for him when he was breaking in. Phaneuf, a Los Angeles resident now, was already in Toronto because he spent the weekend taking in the Hockey Hall of Fame ceremonies, having been invited as a guest of inductee Jarome Iginla. Phaneuf said he booked his ticket instantly after being asked by his old Calgary teammate to come. He also recalled being floored by another long-ago conversation with Iginla, when the former Flames captain invited a young kid at his own first training camp to play golf with some of the boys.

“I was so nervous, I hit the first ball 100 yards left,” Phaneuf laughed. “It’s just little things like that that stuck with me that made me more comfortable [and] I tried to do that throughout my career [for other people].”

Phaneuf says he’d love to get back in the game in some capacity down the road, but for now he’s enjoying eating breakfast everyday with his young daughter before he takes her to school. It’s all part of a routine that’s left him very happy, whether living in the moment or looking back at the past.

“For me to stand here and officially announce my retirement, I’m definitely at ease and looking forward to next stage.”

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