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How The Toronto Media Welcomed Past Captains

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The naming of a captain for the Toronto Maple Leafs is, as Brian Burke noted, always a big deal. Despite the Harold Ballard years the Toronto Maple Leafs are still one of the NHL's most important franchises even if it's just for the financial support they provide the majority of the league. The process has become much more complicated than it was in the past. Coordinated press conferences featuring former players have replaced simply hanging a sweater with a freshly sewn 'C' in the new captain's stall.

What has been clear with the Maple Leafs' recent captains is that when the team was ready to name a captain there was little doubt who would earn the honour. In the case of Mats, Dougie, Wendel, and now Dion there was never any doubt that they, through their level of play and their personality, were the right men to lead the Toronto Maple Leafs and bear the burden (and lift) of wearing the 'C'. I don't think that it is controversial to say that all three immediate predecessors lived up to the raised expectations and provide excellent guides for Phaneuf during his term as captain.

After the jump, we'll look back at media coverage when Mats Sundin, Doug Gilmour, and Wendel Clark were named captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

A special, special thanks to Fergus30 for helping with the research without which this post would not have been possible.


Dion Phaneuf - June 14, 2010

The appointment of Dion Phaneuf was obvious to one and all that were paying any attention to the Maple Leafs at the end of last season. For every anecdote/rumour that disparaged Phaneuf after his departure from Calgary we've been exposed to an anecdote about Phaneuf's leadership skills. Whether it's welcoming rookies like Luca Caputi to the team, barking at Brian Burke to get better players, or taking the lead on the team's music he's been a whirlwind during his time with the Maple Leafs.

Bkblades is bang on with his assessment of Dion Phaneuf's captaincy: he is a proxy for Brian Burke. Burke cannot be in there barking at the players to improve or pushing them all to improve but it sure looks like Phaneuf is the kind of guy that will push his style of play and desired culture on the rest of the club. 

The following excerpts certainly offer a different picture of the appointment: 

But whether Phaneuf gradually opens up more to the public over time won’t decide how he is perceived as a captain.

It will come down to how he plays individually and how the team performs. If he gets back to the Norris Trophy-calibre rearguard he was two years ago and the Leafs make the playoffs, he’ll be saluted as a great leader.

- Damien Cox, Toronto Star, Monday June 14, 2010

He’s not afraid of 10 seconds of silence while he mulls over his answer, and will just as often as not ask for some sort of clarification on the question. It was fitting that among all those who spoke at the formal part of his introduction as 18th captain of the Maple Leafs, he was the only one on the dais who spoke from a prepared statement.

In an all-chat all-the-time sporting landscape where people have little more to say than a vuvuzela, Phaneuf’s cerebral approach is refreshing.

- Kevin McGran, Toronto Star, Tuesday June 15, 2010

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment killed three birds with one stone on Monday: naming Dion Phaneuf captain and reaching once again for its fans’ pockets by unveiling a new jersey for the diehards and launching a new dining establishment for swells on the west side of the Air Canada Centre – right across from Real Sports Apparel. One MLSE executive looked at all the gleaming metal in the bar and remarked the revenue generated might be akin to a 10-per-cent increase in attendance. He was smiling, as well he should: Happy hour never stops when you’re MLSE unless it comes to winning titles.

- Jeff Blair, Globe and Mail, Monday June 14, 2010


Wendel Clark - August 8, 1991 

The interesting thing is that there were not any columns available. It was just straight reporting on Wendel's appointment as the 16th (or 14th depending on which paper you read) captain as well as the highest paid player in club history. Wendel's appointment to the captaincy was the logical conclusion to his voyage which started with being the first overall pick in the 1985 draft. While he had struggled with injuries over the previous three seasons Wendel was still undisputably the Maple Leafs' beating heart.

His first season was not quite the success he would have expected but the disappointment set the stage for the trade that would bring his successor to Toronto. The Globe PDF is great because you can also read about Kelly Gruber's impending book, a basebrawl at the Pan-Am Games, and the opening of the Team Canada training camp in Toronto.

You can read the full Toronto Star articles here or the Globe articles here.

The native of Kelvington, Sask., becomes the 16th captain in Leaf history. The low-key Clark, however, said he doesn't plan to do anything differently despite his change in status.

"Right now, I'll just go out and play it by ear and be the same person and do the same things I'm doing now," the six-year veteran said. "There's no reason to be changing anything."

Leaf head coach Tom Watt said he believed there were three main criteria for a team captain: He must have the respect of his teammates, maintain his composure under pressure and have a thorough knowledge of the rules. He said Clark qualified in all regards, particularly the first.

 - Randy Starkman, Toronto Star, August 8, 1991

Clark's signing has been one of Fletcher's main priorities since taking over the Leaf operation July 1 and it will finally put to rest the incessant rumors that Clark might jump to the Saskatoon franchise of the fledgling Continental Hockey Association.

The new deal would be a tremendous coup for Clark, a 24-year-old Kelvington, Sask., native who managed just 18 goals and 34 points in 63 games last season, but who is still regarded as the club's emotional catalyst.

 - Mark Harding, Toronto Star, August 8, 1991

"I think too much has been made about his back," said Toronto coach Tom Watt. "We have confidence in him for the captain has to be respected by his teammates as well as opponents. I feel Wendel will be a popular choice with the fans. I think they see him as a fellow who gives all he's got."

- David Naylor, Globe and Mail, August 9, 1991

Doug Gilmour - August 18, 1994 

 Dougie was named captain as the league was on the verge of locking out it's players in a labour dispute. As with Phaneuf, his presentation came as he was flanked by former captains. The Leafs were coming off of back-to-back failures (ie Conference Final appearances) and the monumental Wendel Clark for Mats Sundin deal had been completed just two months prior. However, the magic was gone. The team had begun to be dismantled as Steve Stavro ran into financial difficulties and the quick decline would soon set the stage for one of the greatest players in franchise history to assume the captaincy.

At the time of the announcement Major League Baseball was in the midst of their disastrous strike, the English Premier League was on its way to leaving it's hooligan culture way behind as the Spion Kop was phased out, and friend of the site William Houston was reporting on Molson cheating the Maple Leafs in their television deal.

The full Toronto Star articles can be read here and the Globe page here.

Later, after all the hilarity had subsided, Gilmour said the additional shoulder embroidery won't suddenly cause him to alter his demeanour and become a "Ra-Ra" guy in the dressing room.

"My game consists of going out and working hard each and every night," said Gilmour, the Leafs' scoring leader last year now entering his 12th NHL season. "I'm not that vocal in the dressing room. At times you have to be at the right moment, but we have 20 other guys on that hockeyclub in the dressing room that are all character people who are going to have a chance to speak at certain times."

- Robert MacLeod, Globe and Mail, August 19, 1994

Yeah, it's corny. And we shouldn't look to athletes for heroic inspiration, or model behavior, or as substitute ideals for parents and teachers and wise counsellors.

But, if you were looking for admirable attributes in a jock, is there anyone more fitting than Gilmour, he of the satanic face and the angelic (off-ice) disposition, and the against-all-odds success? Gilmour willed himself into the National Hockey League, willed himself to superstar status, and damn near willed this Toronto club into the Stanley Cup finals for the last two seasons.

- Rosie DiManno, Toronto Star, August 18, 1994

One of these days, the Maple Leafs will get around to confirming something everybody has already figured out. Their somewhat redundant announcement will say Doug Gilmour has been appointed to succeed Wendel Clark and become the 15th captain in the team's 67- year history.

The decision, in the cards since Clark was traded in June, is what's now termed a no-brainer. This means the move is so obvious it requires no thought on the part of either Cliff Fletcher, the general manager, or coach Pat Burns. Where the dictionary defines captain, you will find a picture of Killer Gilmour.

- Jim Proudfoot, Toronto Star, August 3, 1994

Mats Sundin - September 30, 1997 

Mats Sundin's tenure as captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs featured similar circumstances to those that Dion Phaneuf is currently facing. Aside from being the club (and the NHL's) first full-time European captain, the team was coming off of a disastrous season and a purge of veteran players. The obvious difference lies in the team's financial and managerial situation. While Ken Dryden and Mike Smith personified an inability to make a decision, Brian Burke has proven to be the complete opposite. Behind the bench Mats has Mike Murphy, the anti-Canucks conspirator, while Phaneuf has the benefit of a proven coach in Ron Wilson.  Not to mention that the Leafs' youth movement in 1997 was fuelled as much by Steve Stavro's continued problems as by the need to rebuild the team.

While he stepped into chaos he instantly provided the stability that the team was lacking. He would become a fixture in the Maple Leafs' record books over the next eleven seasons and an example of professionalism to every player that donned the blue and white. If Dion Phaneuf can have half of the impact that Sundin had on the club's history we're in for some very good seasons.

The full Toronto Star articles can be found here and they highlight just how dysfunctional the Dryden-Smith partnership really was. The first Globe page which features articles on the upcoming NHL participation in the Nagano Olympics and the impending Yankees World Series can be read here. The second page, found here, features Don Cherry's reaction to Mats' appointment "Way to go Mats" 

When the Leafs open the season tomorrow night against Washington, there could be as many as eight players in the lineup who weren't there when Toronto limped into an early spring after finishing 23rd over-all.

Take it a step further and you'll count 13 new faces from a year ago when then GM Cliff Fletcher predicted a 90-point season.

Falling 22 points short of that goal led to the new-look Leafs.

This group of 24 players, including one Czech, three Russians, three Swedes, and four Americans are younger, faster and more aggressive than the folks who wore Leaf jerseys in 1996-97.

Undoubtedly they will be more exciting; whether they prove any better remains to be seen.

- Alan Adams, Toronto Star, October 1, 1997 

Dryden said that naming a captain can be a destructive process if not done smoothly. He noted that when Jean Beliveau was named captain of the Montreal Canadiens, it left Boom Boom Geoffrion in a deep funk.

``These things have a way of resolving themselves,'' said Dryden. ``In terms of captaining, of leadership . . . it emerges. The answer becomes clear in watching, listening and feeling.''

Many in the organization, including Sundin, downplayed the issue yesterday, and Murphy said Wendel Clark would likely operate as an ``ad hoc'' captain. But Murphy maintained the official appointment is an important one.

``It's a symbol of your team,'' said Murphy. ``He has to be the guy who kind of becomes the conscience of your team.''

Sundin skated yesterday with wingers Derek King and Sergei Berezin.

- Damien Cox, Toronto Star, September 11, 1997

To the Maple Leafs, C doesn't signify captain. It stands for confused.

Moments after giving Mats Sundin another endorsement to fill his club's vacant captain's position yesterday, Toronto head coach Mike Murphy said it was ``absolutely'' possible no player would wear the C this season.

The hesitation in naming Sundin captain - an honor he both covets and deserves - fits the pattern of a Maple Leaf regime that earned a reputation for dithering over the summer. But it's a controversy Toronto doesn't need as Murphy tries to cobble together a cohesive unit during training camp.

- Paul Hunter, Paul Adams, Toronto Star, September 10, 1997 

The role of captain can best be compared to the role of governor-general of Canada. It's a nice title, you get to attend some dull parties in uncomfortable clothes, but ultimately it doesn't mean anything. Making any more out of it than that depends on the player.

"It's more of a ceremonial function, so that representative of the team is more visible," Leafs president Ken Dryden said. "The captain's role is, by definition, important. It can become very important depending on the captain. There have been important captains in the past and not-so-important captains. Mark Messier is obviously an important captain. Wayne Gretzky has been an important captain. Others pretty much just wear the C."

- Dave Shoalts, Globe and Mail, October 1, 1997

One final note, pretty funny to see the governor-general position have such a huge impact during the Prime Ministership of Stephen Harper.