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Toronto Maple Leafs new captain Dion Phaneuf, second from right, is flanked by former captains George Armstrong, Darryl Sittler and Wendel Clark, each wearing a jersey reflective of their era, during a news conference in Toronto.


You'll never see Dion Phaneuf mistaken for his general manager when it comes to being an accomplished orator, but one thing the Toronto Maple Leafs new captain has in common with Brian Burke is an enduring desire to speak whatever's on his mind.

Even to his boss.

"One night, he said 'we need bigger forwards,' " Burke said Monday, moments after Phaneuf was given the Leafs long-dormant 'C.' "He thought we got pushed around in a game and he came right out of the dressing room and barked at me on the way to the weight room. 'We need some bigger forwards in here,' and kept walking.

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"I haven't had too many guys bark at me like that. I didn't mind it. He's right - we do need some bigger forwards."

Only 25, Phaneuf is in many ways still an unfinished project as a top NHL defender, a junior hockey phenom whose star sharply rose in his first three pro seasons and has since fallen on hard times. His point totals this past season, for one, were the lowest of his career, and defensively, he remains a work in progress - especially for a player making $6.5-million a season.

As for the answer as to why, after only 26 games as a Leaf, he was picked as captain, the simplest explanation is that Phaneuf is, without fail, as bold and brash as the two men - Burke and head coach Ron Wilson - guiding the Leafs these days.

Burke and Wilson both talked at length Monday about how they saw Phaneuf as a potential captain even as the January trade with the Calgary Flames was being plotted. Then, from Day One on the ice, he didn't disappoint, dropping his gloves with New Jersey Devils defenceman Colin White less than seven minutes into his first game in an act that spoke volumes to his fisticuffs-loving GM.

"That, to me, was where he was making a statement to everyone in the building that he wanted to be a captain here," Burke said.

Four months later he is, and Phaneuf said Monday he never hesitated in accepting the role when Wilson offered it over dinner at a swanky Toronto steakhouse last month.

Phaneuf's role with the media will be a big part of taking on the captaincy, and he appeared to be making an extra effort on that front Monday, thanking the gathered horde multiple times and answering similar questions again and again.

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His prepared speech, meanwhile, was simple and in some ways spoke to his youth - "we have a lot of work to do, but we will work hard together" - but Wilson praised Phaneuf's ability to deal with the pressures of playing in Toronto.

"I think he handles himself very well," Wilson said. "This is a very difficult market to be a good player in.

"Being the captain of the Leafs is a huge responsibility, but I think Dion has the makeup, the fortitude, to be able to handle it. That's probably why I waited so long [to name a captain] I didn't think we had the type of guys who would be able to handle the scrutiny, the media scrutiny, nationally, locally."

Whether Phaneuf was the right choice, however, is likely going to be a topic of debate for some time, with his play on the ice determining how much criticism he faces in his first full season in Toronto.

What's already clear is that Burke and Wilson are firmly behind Phaneuf and will continue to praise his "leadership" whenever they can.

Their success, after all, is now firmly tied to his, and Phaneuf simply speaking his mind won't be nearly enough if the Leafs continue to lose.

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It's become one of the major trends of the post-lockout NHL, where youth continues to be king. Young stars are cleaning up at the year-end awards, getting bigger contracts and, yes, being named captain long before they can grow a playoff beard - let alone one filled with flecks of grey.

On Monday, in naming Phaneuf captain, the Leafs joined that trend.

Of the 27 captains currently in the NHL, one-third are 27 or younger, a group that includes a Who's Who of the game's elite in Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Jonathan Toews.

Phaneuf, who turned 25 two months ago, becomes the fourth-youngest captain in the NHL behind that trio and is from the same draft class as fellow captains Mike Richards, Dustin Brown and Eric Staal.

Youngest captains in the NHL (under 28):

  • Jonathan Toews, Chicago: 22 years, 1 month
  • Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh: 22 years, 10 months
  • Alex Ovechkin, Washington: 24 years, 9 months
  • Dion Phaneuf, Toronto: 25 years, 2 months
  • Mike Richards, Philadelphia: 25 years, 4 months
  • Dustin Brown, Los Angeles: 25 years, 7 months
  • Eric Staal, Carolina: 25 years, 7 months
  • Rick Nash, Columbus: 25 years, 11 months
  • Mikko Koivu, Minnesota: 27 years, 3 months
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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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