So the 2009-2010 season is done and gone. The Chicago Blackhawks are the Stanley Cup Champions, and that may just be a good thing for Leafs fans. Despite leaving us as both the only original six team that has not won a Stanley Cup post expansion, and at present the team in the NHL that is currently on the longest Stanley Cup drought.
Hopefully an important step to ending this travesty was taken yesterday. The Toronto Maple Leafs announced, to no one's surprise except maybe Sens fans seeing as the news involved knowing something about hockey, that Dion Phaneuf will serve as the club's next Captain, and the 18th in club history. Once again the phone rang in Calgary, the Leafs took their panties off in the ensuing trade, and a future captain came to the Leafs. I'm amazed they haven't blocked our number.
Under normal circumstances it would be odd to appoint a player just 26 games into his tenure with a team as it's Captain. However, if one thing can be said of the Burke era it is that what used to pass for normal around here has not been evident since his first day on the job. If it were, Kessel would be playing somewhere else, and the Leafs' braintrust would be flipping a coin between Seguin and Hall. Of course, to be fair, under normal circumstances a player of Phaenuf's pedigree would never have been available in the first place, and certainly not at the price the Leafs acquired him.
None of us know, despite what we may think we know, what happened in Calgary. I would go so far as to say that includes Brian Burke and Ron Wilson. Phaneuf also would not be the first player to be branded a dressing room problem who goes on to prosper on another team. If he does grow into the role of Captain in the way that Wilson and Burke expect him to it will be an ultimate irony. Phaneuf a purported dressing room problem arrived, on the same day that the last players from what was a problem dressing room, note the difference, left town. Fittingly enough, removing the last players from that dressing room was the price of bringing in the Captain of this one.
Some will argue that he hasn't been a Leaf long enough and that's completely ridiculous. The longest serving Leaf is Kaberle, who despite his many talents has never been mistaken for Captain material, and is of course also likely on his way out of town. After him, in order, it's Kulemin and 2008 first round pick Luke Schenn. That ought to settle the discussion as to Phaneuf not being here long enough. Phaneuf is a leader here has much as he was in Calgary. The difference being that Calgary already had both an excellent Captain, and an established dressing room. The day he arrived in Toronto the Leafs had neither. Hockey abhors a vacuum every bit as much as nature does.
It is not by default though that the C now burdens his jersey. The strongest case for his captaincy comes from the man himself. The Leafs record after the trade that brought him here was vastly improved compared to the rest of the season. While Phaneuf can't get all the credit for that, his share is due him and speaks volumes about his influence in such a young room. He is also said to have an excellent relationship with Wilson, which many former players might say makes him worthy of not just the captaincy, but sainthood.
Last but not least, both here and in Calgary, Phaneuf's detractors and admirers could always agree on one word to describe both his style of play and his presence on a team. Intense. If there's one word that can be ascribed to those deemed worthy of wearing the C for the blue and white, it is intense. Some like Sundin in an albeit reserved way, others like Keon whose intensity was found in the sheer level of his talent, and still others like Clark who offered yet another definition of intense.
The Walt Whitman poem referenced in the title was written following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In the poem Lincoln is the Captain in question, with his ship being the United States, and the storms it has weathered being the Civil War. Well the good ship Maple Leaf is in desperate need of righting as well. Here's hoping that our new Captain can steer us from the rough waters of playoff irrelevancy, into the clear blue seas of contention once again. If nothing else Phaneuff has earned the chance to wear the Captain's C, at least as much as Leaf fans have endured long enough without someone to wear it for them.
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