The stories had made their way to the Toronto Maple Leafs management and the men in charge wanted answers. They wanted to know if Calgary Flames defenceman Dion Phaneuf was really a spoiled apple, an irritant, a guy who got under his teammates' skin to the point where he was expendable.
There was even talk of dressing room scraps and a feud with Flames captain Jarome Iginla.
Before making the seven-player trade that sent Phaneuf to Toronto 11 months ago, Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke did some digging. A lot of digging it turned out. What he found wasn't enough to scare him away.
"We know exactly what was going on in that dressing room," Burke said Tuesday as Phaneuf and the Leafs played the Edmonton Oilers before heading to Calgary. "We have ways to get into the room and we did. Whatever incidents there were, we were satisfied he was a character person. We'd make that trade again in a heartbeat."
Whatever incidents there were have always been difficult to pin down. No one with the Leafs is willing to expound on them and no one on the Flames has ever spoken openly about disliking Phaneuf. There's been talk the biggest discord was between Phanuef and Calgary defenceman Robyn Regehr, and that they had a dressing room tussle.
The stories spread and speculation grew until finally Phaneuf, who wasn't playing the way he had his first two seasons, was shipped off to Toronto. When he arrived, he was adored. Now - not all the time, but often enough - Leafs fans boo and wonder why he was named captain of the vaunted franchise.
It's something Burke doesn't appreciate, even if Calgary hockey fans take to booing Phaneuf at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Thursday.
"It should be applause. He didn't ask for a trade out of Calgary. Calgary thought they could make their team better," said Burke, who lashed out at Toronto fans last month when they jeered Phaneuf.
"Ten games in, I thought that was early. We got booed when we lost 5-0 at home to Edmonton [on Dec. 2]and you didn't hear a word out of me. I don't blame the fans for booing if we play poorly at home. But picking on Dion that early in," Burke added, "I thought was wrong."
From the moment he entered the NHL, Phaneuf has been a lightning rod of opinion, both good and bad. His rivals said his hits were borderline dirty, always dangerous. There were whispers he took himself out of position just to make a highlight reel slam. There were hints the Calgary veterans didn't like the way he chastised them in games and practices, as if he'd been around the block a few times.
In the end, it was Phaneuf's lack of offensive production, his tentative defensive play and his $6.5-million (U.S.) salary that convinced the Calgary brain trust it was time to unload him. The trade has worked out thusly: Toronto has Phaneuf, a fourth-line winger (Fredrik Sjostrom) and a young defenceman (Keith Aulie); the Flames have Matt Stajan (a one-goal scorer who has been scratched the last two games) and Niklas Hagman. As for Calgary's other Toronto acquisitions, one (Jamal Mayers) has been lost to free agency, while the other (Ian White) was traded for a pair of veterans (Tom Kostopolous, Anton Babchuk).
Still, it all comes back to Phaneuf, who is just returning from a leg injury that cost him 16 games. Ironically, the first-year captain of the Maple Leafs is being asked to push his teammates the way he did in Calgary, not that he'll admit much.
"I haven't changed the way I play," he said. "I'm in a different role here. I haven't changed the way I play or conduct myself."
So what will it be like going back to Calgary to face his former team?
Phaneuf wouldn't bite, said only how nice it was to be home in Edmonton where he could play in front of family and friends.
"My focus is first and foremost here in Edmonton."
Guaranteed, he will be the focus in Calgary. Guaranteed, too, there will be many stories retold.Report Typo/Error