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Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf reacts during the first period of their NHL hockey game against the Detroit Red Wings in Detroit, Michigan October 1, 2010.

JEFF KOWALSKY

Dion Phaneuf arrived in Toronto in February with a lot of baggage for a 24-year-old NHL player.

Unpopular with the media in Calgary. ... Rumours of friction with Flames teammates Robyn Regehr and Jarome Iginla. ... Above all else, a game in decline, with his ice time and numbers dwindling from previous highs, and predictions of him becoming "the next Scott Stevens" in doubt.

Yet only a few months after being traded midway through last season, he had turned the story around, to the point of being named the 18th captain in Maple Leafs history.

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To date, there's been no controversy. Far from it.

In Toronto, Phaneuf is bland rather than bold, reverent not defiant, wearing the same stoic expression to the rink every day. As dressing-room spokesman, he politely - almost robotically - answers reporters' questions while withholding any real insight, instead simply filling notebooks with clichés.

"The job description that we gave him does not include that he has to be interesting for [the media]" Leafs GM Brian Burke said. "He's not hosting a day-time talk show. He's a captain of an NHL team."

What's curious about Phaneuf, however, is that his teammates all say there is a lot more to him than simply his stern expression. Behind that exterior, they said, there's a fun-loving, warm side -- as hard as that is to believe.

Winger Clarke MacArthur has known Phaneuf the longest of any of the Leafs, learning to respect his big shot and hard bodychecks while playing against him in the Edmonton area since they were 10 years old. Now close friends with the captain, MacArthur smiles and nods when asked about Phaneuf's game face.

"He's an intense guy," MacArthur said. "Always has been, especially at the rink. But there's another side to him, away from the rink. He's a funny guy, he likes to have a good time and stuff like that.

"When he comes to work, he comes ready. But he knows when to have a little fun and relax, too. I think he's got a little bit of a split personality that way."

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That is the other Phaneuf, one that exists to many in the game behind closed doors but who the fans have seldom seen - save for perhaps a couple late-night karaoke sessions that have shown up on YouTube, from his days in Calgary.

Burke, however, said he doesn't expect that "other" side of his new captain to come out in Toronto. He compared Phaneuf to two captains he had with the Vancouver Canucks - Mark Messier and Markus Naslund - and said both had similar separations between who they were at the arena and away from it.

"These guys were all business," Burke said. "They were good captains, but they felt that their obligation ended when they walked out of the rink. And I have no problem with that.

"I don't think people are going to get to know Dion in a hurry. I think he's a lot like me. I don't care if people understand me as a person or if they know about my private life - I try to keep that private. And I think that's going to be Dion. I think you're going to see the exterior part that he needs to do to be an effective captain and that's all you're going to see."

As for the reputation Phaneuf earned in his four and a half years in Calgary, what exactly happened still remains unclear.

At his end-of-season address in April, Flames GM Darryl Sutter alluded to dressing-room issues playing a role in the trades he made, lending credence to widespread rumours that Phaneuf's "intense" side had clashed with veterans Regehr and Iginla.

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Burke said Tuesday that his due diligence prior to the trade left him satisfied there was no wrongdoing on Phaneuf's part.

"I think it was wrong," Burke said of the notion Phaneuf was a problem in the Flames room. "We researched this in great depth. The issues in Calgary - and Dion doesn't want to go into them and I'm not going to go into them - but trust me when I tell you, we got to the bottom of this and we're satisfied that these rumours of friction and strife within the room were totally overblown as far as Dion is concerned.

"We've acquired a guy who belongs here."

For his part, Phaneuf said he was well aware that the Calgary media had branded him difficult to deal with, but called that suggestion "unfair."

In a rare candid comment, he added - after a long pause - that the trade to Toronto was "a fresh start for me."

"Last year was an off year, I'll definitely admit that," Phaneuf said of his 32-point season split between the two teams. "I didn't have a good year statistically. Am I happy about it? No. But I'm not concerned. I know that I can still put up numbers."

Burke agrees - and as a result has staked his reputation on a young defenceman looking to regain his game in Toronto's fishbowl while simultaneously shielding his personality from it.

"You get in a situation where a player's not getting the ice time that he's going to get here," Burke said. "He doesn't have the same role in the dressing room that he has here. This would not be the first time you get a guy who's just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"Here's a guy who was not allowed to flourish as an athlete and as a leader. Now you put him in a situation where he's getting the minutes and gets the role and often that player flourishes. And that's what I think is going to happen here."

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