CALGARY - Now in its third compelling day, Dion-apalooza is a Canadian party with a little bit of everything - heroes, villains, rumour, supposition, tension, ill will - all of it wrapped around one polarizing figure, Dion Phaneuf.
And as it happened, the central character wasn't even around Wednesday to add fuel to the fire in advance of Thursday's game against his former NHL team, the Calgary Flames.
Phaneuf, the Toronto Maple Leafs captain, left the squad after Tuesday night's 4-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers to attend the funeral of his grandmother in Prince Edward Island. Phaneuf was scheduled to fly to Calgary late Wednesday night and, barring any unforeseen delays, was expected back in time to suit up against the Flames.
In his absence, teammate Kris Versteeg helpfully wore a Phaneuf mask during practice - a leftover from a Flames promotion some years ago - and he got it down just right too: the long exaggerated strides, the knees lifted high as he warmed up. It pretty much cracked the place up and took the edge off an otherwise sombre day.
Leafs head coach Ron Wilson acknowledged Phaneuf "has had a pretty tough day. He's known about this since Saturday before the game and put together two really good performances. Obviously, coming back here, there are a lot of things on his mind and we'll help him as best we can."
Phaneuf was the central piece in the controversial seven-player, heavily one-sided trade in Toronto's favour that took place last January.
The Maple Leafs received Phaneuf, prospect Keith Aulie and serviceable journeyman Freddie Sjostrom. In exchange, Calgary got four players, only two of whom remain with the Flames: Niklas Hagman, a seven-goal scorer, and Matt Stajan, who was scratched from the last two games because of poor performance, but will return to the lineup to play Thursday.
Phaneuf is everything to everybody in this tale: a hero in his early days with the Flames and a villain (in some eyes) towards the end. Ever since general manager Darryl Sutter acknowledged that dressing-room issues were a factor in the hastily constructed deal, there have been wild rumours about all sorts of unpleasantness with his teammates - fights and other discord - all of which were denied on the record again by Flames players Wednesday.
"There were so many rumours, I'm not going to get into all of them, but they were outrageous," said defenceman Robyn Regehr, Phaneuf's on-again, off-again defence partner for several years. "Those types of things were totally scandalous and did nothing good whatsoever. I don't know who started those, but it's really too bad."
Flames captain Jarome Iginla was in front of the cameras once more to deny that he and Phaneuf ever had the knock-down, drag 'em-out fight that Internet speculation suggested was the root cause of Phaneuf's trade out of town.
"It's almost pointless to resay it because I've said it so many times," Iginla said. "I got along great with Dion. We never had any real fight ever. There was horseplay and the whole point of telling that was to say we were buddies and hung out.
"There was never any issue as far as that."
Wilson was in a mostly sour mood with reporters, and reiterated again how pleased the Leafs were with Phaneuf's performance and presence.
"If you're not a Dion fan, you guys are going to dig and throw out all kinds of rumours and try to knock the poor guy down, but he's played pretty well for us," Wilson said. "We're the youngest team in the league.
"It's not easy some nights. We're inconsistent some nights because of our age and inexperience, but Dion's doing his best, especially to help the young guys on and off the ice. He's been exemplary."
Indeed, it was left to everybody but Phaneuf to talk about the implications of his return - what it means to Toronto and what it means to the fans in Calgary.
General manager Darryl Sutter put a little fuel on the fire last April when he acknowledged after the season ended that there were dressing room issues which contributed to Phaneuf's departure.
Sutter's admission that there were issues led to all sorts of Internet speculation about Phaneuf's relationship with team captain Jarome Iginla and his former defence partner Robyn Regehr. Iginla was said to have fought Phaneuf in the dressing room.
Iginla, asked about the matter again Wednesday, said: "It's almost pointless to re-say it because I've said it so many times. There's so much said that's untrue. I got along great with Dion. We never had any real fight ever. There was horseplay and the whole point of saying that was to say we were buddies and hung out.
"There was never any issue as far as that. He's definitely an intense guy. When you play with him, you definitely appreciate the energy he brings to the locker room.
"There were so many rumours, not just about him, but about our personal lives when it's not going well on the ice. Unfortunately, some times teams have tough goes and don't get the results they want, but it doesn't always mean there are huge underlying issues.
"Sometimes, we don't perform on the ice the way we hope to or we can and last year was an example of that as a team. We underperformed as a team and a lot of those things sprouted up. But to keep saying it - honestly - you say it over and over and I'll probably have to say it again tomorrow. There wasn't any truth to that at all."
Regehr played with Phaneuf for a time when Jim Playfair coached the team and for most of the first half last year under Brent Sutter. The chemistry there, for the most part, wasn't great. For two relatively elite-level defencemen, the whole was less than the sum of the two individual parts.
"There were times when it was really good and other times we struggled. For myself, I like a guy that's fairly consistent that I can read off of and where they're going to be - and at times, we struggled with that, for whatever reason. Sometimes, it's a chemistry thing. Sometimes, things just don't work."
Last January, Calgary traded Phaneuf, Freddie Sjostrom plus prospect Keith Aulie to Toronto. In exchange, the Flames received Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Jamal Mayers and Ian White.
Stajan, who has been a healthy scratch the past two games, will be back in the line-up tomorrow night against his ex-team. Mayers and White have since left town.
For his part, Stajan was thrilled to get back into the line-up and clearly has something to prove - mostly to Sutter. Stajan has just one goal in his last 43 games, dating back to last year.
"I'm going to be ready to go," said Stajan. "Brent (Sutter, the Flames' coach) told me I was playing. I'm anxious to get going. I've been waiting for this one for a while."