TORONTO – Teammates chuckle at his intensity on the ping-pong table.
But it appears in the heat of competition, Dion Phaneuf knows no other way.
"It gets heated," Keith Aulie told the Leaf Report. "He has the whole team laughing at him just because of the way he gets so aggressive playing ping-pong."
The 26-year-old Leaf captain is by no means a perfect leader, but one evolving under the glaring spotlights of Toronto. Gazing through the lens of a pair of teammates – Aulie and Carl Gunnarsson, his two regular defensive partners – it's apparent the Edmonton native is a uniquely styled captain, one with relentless energy on the ice and behind closed doors, a personality striking in contrast to his public persona.
"They probably perceive him as a guy with his eye-brows down, angry all the time, but that's definitely not him at all," Aulie said.
"In practice he always wants to go first, wants to go hard," Gunnarsson said. "All that energy, you just feed off it. I think it's good. He's always on his toes, no matter what time of day it is or when practice is or if we had a game the night before, he's always going 100%."
A solid two-handed chop to the midsection of 21-year-old Nazem Kadri sets the tone at a Monday practice from MasterCard Centre. Perhaps in jest, but certainly not lacking in tension, Phaneuf glares almost menacingly at his rookie teammate from centre ice.
"That guy hates to lose," Gunnarsson said. "Even if it's just a one-on-one battle on the boards in a five-on-five [drill] or three-on-three, doesn't matter. He just wants to win it all. Sometimes you look at his face at practice, after a game, the day after a game, he goes out there and you see his face on the three-on-two and he just wants to go out there and not kill guys, but really finish off and not let any goals in."
"In practice he's obviously a vocal guy," Aulie added, "maybe not so much now with his sore cheek, but normally he's a pretty vocal guy. He'll chirp at guys and make sure guys are working hard, but at the same time, he understands everybody personally and knows what makes everybody tick, the different personalities in the room, and I think that's one of his best assets in the room."
In spite of the brash personality, Phaneuf isn't breaking down each shift with a fine-tooth comb on the bench – as some players prefer to do – but he is accountable for his mistakes.
"If he's done something wrong, he's honest about it," Gunnarsson said. "He says 'Gunnar, my bad. That's my goal' or whatever happened. I think if you make a mistake, he will hold you accountable to it, but he's not the guy who's going up to you and telling you to go somewhere else. He's not that guy, but you know when he holds himself accountable out there, he's doing the same thing to you."
A 4-3 victory over the Wings on Saturday was not without its hiccups for the Leafs, including a momentum-sapping second period dominated by Detroit.
"When we had that bad period against Detroit, he lets us know that it's not going to be enough to win the game," Gunnarsson said. "He's the one to talk about it in the locker room."
Aulie recalled an intermission chat with Phaneuf during an off-night at the Bell Centre last season.
"He just came in and talks about it and says 'Hey don't worry about it. It's a hockey game. It's all about what you do next. Young guys are going to make mistakes and it's all about how you deal with it. If you just take it in stride and learn on it, then you'll be better off than sitting there and thinking about it and letting it brew in your mind and pouting'."
"He's always got a real positive outlook and I think that's what's brought him so much success in his career," Aulie continued. "He started at such a young age and he's always just had that 'Go get 'em' mentality. I remember watching him in World Juniors when I was just a young guy, but watching him out there and seeing how aggressive and mean he was on the other teams and just that 'Go get 'em' positive attitude, it's really contagious in the dressing room.
"When the game's on, when it's between whistles, he's completely focused on what's at hand and he understands what it's all about."
"Every time he comes to the rink, it's like he's had 10 coffees," Aulie said. "He's just zipped up and ready to go every time. I've never seen him come into the rink mopey. I can't even remember the last time he said he wasn't feeling well or feeling sick. He just comes to the rink ready to go every day. Obviously he's not a robot, obviously some days he isn't feeling great, but he comes to the rink and says he's feeling great and works hard every day and I think that's all you can ask a captain to do."
"He's got the most energy of all the guys I've played with," Gunnarsson added. "Showing it to everyone else, talking, screaming, shouting it in the locker room to get everyone else going. I think he's just one of a kind."
"With me, he's always known that I don't have to be yelled and screamed at," Aulie said. "He just has to let me know. I think he kind of understands that that's how I learn best and he adapts to that really well.
"I think that's one of his strengths as a leader is just understanding that about players and understanding what makes everybody go. I think that helps him motivate."