Longtime NHL D-man Dion Phaneuf retires after 14 seasons

Dion Phaneuf didn't plan on dragging out his retirement from the NHL. The COVID-19 pandemic had other plans.

As it is, the 36-year-old defenseman hasn't played an NHL game since 2019. It could easily be assumed Phaneuf made a quiet retreat from the game. But he's publicly reemerged with an official announcement of retirement on Tuesday, following a 14-year career and 1,048 games played between Calgary (who drafted Phaneuf ninth overall in 2003), Toronto, Ottawa and Los Angeles.

The Maple Leafs, a team Phaneuf captained from 2010 to 2016, plan to honor him with a pre-game ceremony prior to Tuesday's tilt against Nashville. It's an event Leafs' president Brendan Shanahan presented Phaneuf with many months ago and is only now finally coming together.

"I've obviously been retired for a couple years, but with COVID and travel restrictions and whatnot, [things were delayed]," Phaneuf told reporters on Tuesday. "When I spoke with Brendan about announcing my retirement, he wanted to have me back when I did make it official. I played the most games here [397] and I was the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, which was for me a huge honor and something that I was very proud to be. That's why I wanted to come back here and to be able to announce it here. It's very special."

Toronto hasn't named many captains in its history. Phaneuf was just the 18th, and one of only five the club has had since 1991.

It's a unique position to have held, and why Shanahan was so adamant the Leafs do right by Phaneuf in his retirement.

"He deserved a proper send off," Shanahan told ESPN. "The people who are behind the scenes, who saw what he did for young players, for his teammates, the respect that he had for being a Maple Leaf. When I got here [in 2015] and asked around about the team and the players, I always got the most positive reviews about Dion as a person."

Phaneuf's reputation is grounded in relationships he built early on, especially coming up in Calgary.

The timing of Phaneuf's retirement and ceremony coincided with him being in Toronto over the last weekend, supporting the Hockey Hall of Fame induction of his former Flames' teammate Jarome Iginla.

Sharing the experience with Iginla is something Phaneuf would never pass up, given the impact Iginla had on his trajectory as a player.

Before Phaneuf made his NHL debut with Calgary in 2005, he had to find his footing in the professional ranks. Iginla eased him into it and gave Phaneuf an example of how to carry himself over the next decade and a half.

"I was taught by the guys that I started with," Phaneuf said. "I look at how Jerome always included me. My first training camp, he called my room. He said, 'Hey Dion, it's Jarome' and I'm like, 'Hi.' He said, 'Would you like to come play golf tomorrow?' Uh, yeah? I was so nervous. I think I hit the first ball like 100 yards left. But just little things like that stuck with me that made me feel comfortable, and I tried to do that throughout my career."

There was no making friends with Phaneuf on the ice though. He became known quickly as a bruising defenseman, with a fair offensive upside.

In his first season with Calgary, Phaneuf led rookie defensemen in goals (20) and points (49) to finish third in Calder Trophy voting.

In 2007-08, Phaneuf was voted to the NHL's All-Star team, and finished second that season in the Norris Trophy race.

Halfway through his fifth season with the Flames, Phaneuf was part of a seven-player swap that sent him to the Maple Leafs. He left Calgary having scored 75 goals and 228 points in 378 games.

In short order, Toronto named Phaneuf captain on June 14, 2010. He patrolled the Leafs blueline for the next six seasons, which became riddled with drama.

During a particularly rough stretch for the team in 2014, fans began throwing jerseys on the ice at home games to express their dissatisfaction. Players responded with an incident known as "Salutegate," where they refused to acknowledge fans following their 5-2 win over Tampa on Nov. 20, 2014.

Phaneuf looks back on that now with regret, lamenting that he ever allowed it to happen.

"If I could have a redo, it [would be] with not saluting the fans and the way that was handled," he said. "That was under my watch. I was the captain of the team, and I take responsibility for that. If I could go back, I wish I could have handled that differently."

It also pains Phaneuf that the Leafs didn't have more success during his tenure. Toronto made the playoffs only once, in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, and fell well short of ever capturing hockey's ultimate prize.

"Not winning a Stanley Cup is something that would definitely be at the top [of my regrets]," he said. "That's your goal as a player, you want to win. And for me, I look back and that's one of the lows. But I feel as a player that I competed, I played hard. I left everything that I could out there and I'm proud of the player that I was."

Phaneuf's time in Toronto ended abruptly when he was traded to Ottawa on Feb. 9, 2016. But that decision wasn't reflective of how much the organization valued Phaneuf, even if it did help color some of his legacy with the team.

"I think that he was misunderstood in a lot of ways," Shanahan said. "And maybe [it was misunderstood] the relationship or the respect level that the people running the organization had for him. But people, including myself, thought very, very highly of him as a person. So it was the right thing to do [in honoring him]."

The year after Phaneuf arrived in Ottawa, the Senators made a Cinderella-like run to the Eastern Conference Final, which was the closest Phaneuf ever came to winning a Cup.

The blueliner was traded once more after that, to the Kings, in Feb. 2018. He skated in 93 games for Los Angeles before having his contract bought out in June 2019.

Now that his playing days are officially done, Phaneuf is pondering what's next. He's shadowed Shanahan to experience the business side of hockey and wonders aloud about maybe scouting, or even player development as a landing spot. Phaneuf's future is wide open now. And he hopes to have last a lasting impression in the past.

"I feel that your teammates, how they remember you is really what matters," he said. "You're inside that locker room and you're battling with them on a nightly basis. I hope I'm remembered as a guy that competed, that played the game hard, that would do anything for his teammates, and played the game the right way. I enjoyed every step of the way."