Skip to main content


NHL Insider

Maple Leafs in no rush for new captain

Babcock: 'No timeline' to name Phaneuf's successor

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist/Historian

TORONTO - They came at him in two waves. Television reporters first, print and web writers to follow.

Dion Phaneuf was the flavor of the day at Air Canada Centre on Saturday, hours ahead of his return to action in this city as a member of the Ottawa Senators (7 p.m. ET; CBC, TVA Sports 2, NHL.TV).

The former Toronto Maple Leafs captain did not speak of the game as revenge. This wasn't anything personal, he suggested, nor did he view it as a stage on which to prove to Toronto management that they'd made a mistake a month ago by trading him to Ottawa.

Phaneuf, 30, has turned the page, and you could tell he hoped everyone else had, too.

He patiently answered every question put to him, repeating the words he had spoken Friday in Ottawa. Then he shook hands with every reporter he recognized to thank them for having covered him in Toronto for his six-plus seasons here.

"See you down the road," Phaneuf said over his shoulder as he stepped through a door deeper into visiting team quarters.

An hour earlier, media flocked into the Maple Leafs dressing room and began most every interview with a question about Phaneuf's homecoming. Every reply was precisely what you'd expect -- a friend and a solid leader had changed addresses and was suiting up for the opponent, and friendships would be forgotten the instant the puck dropped.

The 17th captain of the Maple Leafs franchise won't soon be replaced. That's not to say Phaneuf is irreplaceable, but rather that his former team is in no rush to sew the "C" on the jersey of another player.

"No plan. No timeline," coach Mike Babcock said, devoting most of his morning news briefing to talk about Phaneuf.

There is no process in place to choose the 18th captain, he said, with the Maple Leafs' rebuilding project a bigger priority.

Walking down the corridor toward the home team's dressing room at Air Canada Centre and on both walls you're greeted with one glorious image after another of Toronto captains through the ages. Many are hugging the Stanley Cup, in the many forms it took until its present shape, 1967 captain George Armstrong the most recent embracing hockey's Holy Grail.

Babcock understands the significance and the importance of a team's captaincy, given his years coaching at every level of the game.

If he's new to this city, he had two tremendous leaders during his years with the Detroit Red Wings, Nicklas Lidstrom followed by Henrik Zetterberg.

It unofficially was by consensus Zetterberg was named captain of the Red Wings in 2013. The Swede replaced the retired Lidstrom, who assumed the captaincy in 2006 following Steve Yzerman's two-decade reign.

"The great thing when I was in Detroit when Lidstrom was done being captain, I don't know if it was Mr. I [team owner Mike Ilitch] or [general manager] Kenny Holland who chose it, but we all chose the same guy so it didn't much matter," Babcock said of Zetterberg's selection.

"If you had asked the players, they would have [chosen] the same guy, too. I think in the end, when it becomes obvious to us who the next captain is, that's who it will be."

Babcock knows a thing or two about leadership, the solitary member of the so-called Triple Gold Club. He led Team Canada to a gold medal at the IIHF World Championship, twice to gold at the Olympic Winter Games and won the 2008 Stanley Cup with the Red Wings, 11 years after guiding Canada to IIHF World Junior Championship victory.

Babcock has written the book on hockey leadership, figuratively and literally. In 2012, he authored "Leave No Doubt: A Credo for Chasing Your Dreams," in which he shares his experience as a coach for application outside the arena.

Some suggest an NHL team's captaincy is more symbolic now than it was in the past, leadership not requiring a letter stitched onto a jersey. More and more, teams speak of leadership by committee, of every player in the dressing room expected to have a strong voice.

It's a special player, Babcock says, who should wear the "C," for a variety of qualities. But he's not buying the idea the captain's position is merely symbolic.

"I think at the National Hockey League level, not only do you have to be a good human being, and you've got to do it right, but you've got to have a certain skill set," he said.

"When you don't have enough skill, I think it's hard to be captain in the National Hockey League. I also think there should be a big core on your team that leads, and the more you have that lead, the better off you are.  

"The other thing I know about leadership [is] when you're not playing well yourself, it's pretty hard to talk. Usually you've got to be looking after your [own] part. That's why you've got to be good enough, because your game's got to be going good enough.

"When your game's not going good, it's just like you in your life. If your job isn't going very good, you're probably not spending enough time paying attention to your wife and your kids, you're focusing on your job. When your job's going real good, you can be aware of everything going on around you. It's the same with leadership."

The Maple Leafs coach spoke of the returning Phaneuf with respect and admiration, for the player's work ethic and the influence he had on some of Toronto's younger players. Babcock was hoping fans would greet their former captain warmly Saturday.

Down the hallway, in sandals, grey shorts, a red T-shirt and a Senators cap, the former Maple Leafs captain was saying all the right things - over and over and over again.

If Saturday's game would pit two teams that are grinding to the finish, out of the playoff picture, Phaneuf's return at least provided a talking point.

"He deserves a welcome back, a congratulations on the time he spent here," Maple Leafs forward Peter Holland said. "I hope the fans react accordingly.

View More