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Phaneuf homecoming will be a circus

May not rank with historical returns, but will be emotional

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist/Historian

TORONTO -- From the moment he was traded to the Ottawa Senators by the Toronto Maple Leafs almost a month ago, the centerpiece of a nine-player blockbuster, Dion Phaneuf has had March 5 in the back of his mind.

It's moved to the front now.

On Saturday, the 17th and most recent captain of the Maple Leafs will play in the city where he skated 430 games over the past seven seasons, wearing the captain's "C" for all but 26 of them.

This time, he'll be wearing the "other" jersey for the latest volley of cannonballs in the so-called Battle of Ontario.

Toronto fans will react as fans tend to do -- some will raise the roof of Air Canada Centre in tribute to a returning star; others will try to boo Phaneuf out of the building. Both a popular and a polarizing figure in this city, a strong leader on some underachieving teams and a lightning rod when things went south -- rarely did they come north, in fact -- he surely expects to hear a whole lot of everything.

Of course, it will be a circus. You'd expect nothing less, even if the game that night between the Senators and Maple Leafs will involve two teams on the outside of the Stanley Cup Playoff picture.

The mood of the crowd might be colored by the fact that a brilliant performance by Phaneuf and a victory for the Senators would do nothing to affect the Maple Leafs' playoff seeding.

The morning skate for each team Saturday will be a media feeding frenzy, every Phaneuf angle exhausted if it's not already been. 

That's not a criticism of Toronto's fifth estate; reporters who cover the Montreal Canadiens, and I was part of that group, did precisely the same thing in 2011, the first time decade-long captain Saku Koivu returned to Bell Centre in the jersey of the Anaheim Ducks.

On Friday, Phaneuf will speak with the Ottawa media, and no doubt reporters from Toronto, about his feelings on the eve of his return. That will be merely Round One, a forest of notebooks and microphones awaiting him at Air Canada Centre on Saturday morning.

Mid-week, Maple Leafs media relations director Steve Keogh said he expected "a typical busy Saturday night," adding he was ready for the many last-minute credential requests that always come.

Ranking the best homecoming game is a futile exercise because it's an entirely subjective list that touches fans for their love (or lack thereof) of a player who returns to play against the team for which he once dressed. Choose your own favorite, for there have been dozens over many decades. 

And though Phaneuf's return to Toronto will make headlines, there have been remarkable homecomings through the years that deservedly are on an entirely different scale given the galactically talented players they featured.

The 1936 return to the Canadiens of Howie Morenz might have been the first.

The homecoming of Morenz, who was voted Canada's greatest hockey player of the first half of the 20th century, blanketed the Montreal newspapers. The Stratford Streak was traded by the Canadiens two years earlier to the Chicago Blackhawks, then shuffled along to the New York Rangers.

The homecoming against which all are measured should be that of Gordie Howe to Detroit on Jan. 12, 1980, the Red Wings' four-time Stanley Cup winner returning to the Motor City with the Hartford Whalers nearly nine years after his NHL retirement.

The overflow of emotion and affection for Mr. Hockey at Joe Louis Arena that night sent shivers down every spine in the building and many more outside of it.

"As their hands warm to the occasion," E.M. Swift wrote in Sports Illustrated, "fans applaud Howe for what he gives them now. For enduring. Suddenly there are two different games on the ice: the home team against the Whalers and Howe against Papa Time."

From a report in the Hartford Courant: "A crowd of nearly 21,000 that showed up for Howe's return to the city where he first gained National Hockey League glory didn't know whether to cheer or cry. They finally opted to cheer."

Howe's best chance was an early breakaway, foiled when he was tripped by Red Wings defenseman Barry Long. The Whalers scored on the power play and went on to win 6-4, Gordie held off the scoresheet but his son, Mark, earning two assists.

Eight years later, on Oct. 19, 1988, the incandescent star who would overhaul Howe in the record books returned to Edmonton in the jersey of the Los Angeles Kings.

Wayne Gretzky, traded by the Edmonton Oilers to the Kings that summer in what remains arguably the most stunning trade in NHL history, skated onto Northlands Coliseum ice to a lengthy ovation that shook the arena to its core.

The Great One would earn two assists in an 8-6 loss to the Oilers. Former teammate Mark Messier was booed when he drew a penalty for holding Gretzky, who took four shots and finished the night minus-2.

Messier would have his own tearful homecoming on Nov. 25, 1997, the once-Rangers' enormously popular Moose back in Madison Square Garden as a member of the Vancouver Canucks.

A few months after Gretzky's emotional night in Edmonton, Canadiens icon Guy Lafleur would turn the Montreal Forum on its ear when he returned with the Rangers. 

Having quit the game early in the 1984-85 season because he was feeling shackled by Montreal coach Jacques Lemaire's defense-first system, Lafleur returned to hockey as a free agent, signing with the Rangers to begin the 1988-89 season.

At 37, Lafleur's prime was in his rearview mirror when he skated onto Forum ice on Feb. 4, 1989. 

Having played 14 seasons, scoring 518 goals, winning the Stanley Cup five times for the Canadiens and to this day their all-time points leader with 1,246, Lafleur practically reduced his former team's historic barn to rubble when he assisted on the Rangers' first goal, then scored two of his own on Montreal goaltending legend Patrick Roy.

It was a perfect night for Canadiens fans, who saw Lafleur sparkle and the home team rally from a three-goal deficit to win 7-5.

"It was like playing (in) the Stanley Cup Final," Lafleur told the Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Herald in an interview last month.

The energy in the Forum that night had at least equaled the night of Nov. 2, 1975, when Rangers goaltending icon Ed Giacomin returned to Madison Square Garden in the sweater of the Red Wings.

Almost unthinkably, Giacomin had been put on waivers by the Rangers and was claimed by Detroit on Halloween night, a trick for the ages played on his legions of New York fans.

Giacomin was devastated that he no longer was with the Rangers, his only NHL team through his 11 seasons and 603 games.

Two days later, incredibly, the Red Wings would face the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Giacomin met Detroit general manager Alex Delvecchio and coach Doug Barkley for the first time just a few hours before the game and asked that he and not their scheduled starter, Jim Rutherford, get the assignment in goal. 

"When we came out for the warm-up, the fans went crazy," Giacomin told author Dick Irvin Jr. in his 1995 book "In The Crease." "Then we came back out to start the game and they played the national anthem. I never heard one word of it.

"The fans were chanting, 'Ed-die, Ed-die!' and they completely drowned out the anthem. I was standing there crying and all I could think was, 'Please get the game going so I can get on with this thing.'"

The Rangers seemed as stunned when their former goalie and the Red Wings jumped out to a 4-0 first-period lead. The Rangers' Bill Fairbairn would apologize to Giacomin for taking the first shot on him, and Wayne Dillon did likewise when he scored the Rangers' third goal -- it was the 20-year-old rookie's first in the NHL -- in Detroit's 6-4 victory.

"If it had lasted two or three more minutes we'd have lost because I was slowly sinking into the ice," said Giacomin, the emotional and physical toll draining him of 13 pounds that night.
"When it was over, there was just ovation after ovation from the fans. And they kept waving the signs. … I think it was the first time in New York the visiting team was actually treated like the home team."

Giacomin maintains it was the fan reaction to his Garden return that night, perhaps more than any of his achievements in net throughout his career, that convinced selection-committee voters to elect him to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987.

"It's because of that game, and because of how the fans responded, that kind of really, really set the standard … for my selection to the Hall of Fame," he told former Rangers goaltending stablemate Gilles Villemure in the latter's 2002 book "Tales from the Ranger Locker Room."

"I didn't win the Stanley Cup (and) the majority of people that make it have won the Stanley Cup. I didn't, but it showed how popular I was … and I credit the fans an awful lot as one of the reasons why I'm in the Hall of Fame."

On Saturday, Phaneuf will deal with emotions of his own, as did Hall of Famer members Morenz, Howe, Gretzky, Messier, Lafleur and Giacomin in their homecoming games of a much grander scale.

At least the Senators and Maple Leafs will be the Homecoming Game of the Night. Like those in this spotlight before him, the former Toronto captain surely will be happy to have the event behind him, even as he enjoys the fans' embrace. 

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