ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said he got chills as he walked up to Michigan Stadium Tuesday afternoon. Not sure if it was the prospect of leading his team into the Winter Classic against the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday or the prospect of having locked up a seven-year contract extension that will pay him $49 million over the life of the deal.
"It's such an exciting day for me personally to be able to sign this contract and with the Winter Classic it's just an unbelievable thing for me to be able to do it and to do it here," Phaneuf told reporters shortly before the Leafs took the ice for their only pre-Winter Classic practice.
Phaneuf's deal will kick in next fall and he admitted that he and his agents did discuss the alternatives had he not signed an extension and instead became a free agent next summer. But, in the end, Phaneuf said he believes in this Maple Leafs team and its ability to bring a championship to Toronto, which has been without a Stanley Cup since 1967.
"That's a big reason why I re-signed because I believe in the group we have and the pieces we have in place," Phaneuf said. "To be completely honest with you, you do have meetings about if it does go the other way. But it was an easy decision for me to stay here and be part of the Toronto Maple Leafs. I really believe that we're building something special
"It was an easy decision for me."
The defenseman has in some ways become a polarizing figure since becoming a Leaf. He was named captain shortly after being acquired from Calgary in what was a lopsided deal in favor of the Leafs in January 2010, and while there have been periods of tremendous play, there has also been enough intermittently impulsive or reckless play to keep Phaneuf from being truly embraced by Leafs fans.
Still, he has been the team's steadiest defender this season and GM Dave Nonis defended the deal, saying Phaneuf's numbers and level of play stack up favorably with the top defensemen in the game.
"We feel his game is getting better. He's a player we can build around and add to and keep moving forward," Nonis said.
The GM insisted this wasn't a case of signing Phaneuf to an extension because there were no other options.
"You look at his numbers, and people love looking at numbers these days," Nonis said. "I would tell people to look at them. Look at where he stacks up for minutes played, points, who he plays against. He's done a lot of good things for us. So, he's earned this contract. It's not that we don't have anyone to replace him. I think if that's why we were signing him, we'd be making a mistake."
Still, the fact of the matter is that there were no obvious options for the Leafs had they not re-signed their captain. The free-agent market for the summer of 2014 is incredibly thin in general, and specifically the market is bereft of top-end defensemen in their prime.
While there will be questions about the term of the deal for the 28-year-old, Nonis said he expected Phaneuf to have the ability to play through the seven years and then earn another contract. The Leafs have locked up core players Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk, David Clarkson, Tyler Bozak and now Phaneuf, but Nonis said it's not just the core players that they're counting on to win a championship.
"We feel we have some pieces coming but we're not where we need to be yet," he said.
On this day at least, Phaneuf, who will be joined by his parents, brother and wife at the Winter Classic, was exactly where he needed to be.
Let's talk about the ice
NHL ice man Dan Craig said that even though the ice was in good shape in frigid conditions on Tuesday, it doesn't necessarily hold that it will be so on Wednesday.
He recalled the game at Wrigley Field in Chicago, when he felt the ice during the pregame practice was among the worst sheets of ice he'd made in 30 years, but 24 hours later the teams skated on ice that might have been among the best.
As usual, the National Hockey League Players' Association will be in close contact with NHL officials Wednesday to monitor ice and weather conditions. Officials representing the two groups will be rinkside until the start of the game and then will meet during the game if conditions deteriorate and they need to discuss delaying or postponing the game. In Pittsburgh in 2011, for instance, the two sides agreed to delay the game to a night match about 30 hours before the original start time because of persistent rain.
At the start of the third period, the two sides will decide whether the whistle will blow at the 10-minute mark of the third, at which time the teams will change ends to ensure that if wind is an issue that both teams play the same amount of time with and against the wind. If wind is an issue -- and several players discussed the wind factor after practice Wednesday -- the teams would also switch ends halfway through overtime and would have the option of defending the same net in the case of a shootout. Former NHLers Rob Zamuner and Steve Webb will be the point men on safety issues for the NHLPA.
As for the ice, Leafs defenseman Cody Franson said after Tuesday's practice that it was the best ice he'd ever skated on and that it bodes well for a fast, up-tempo hockey game Wednesday.
"It was fast, it didn't break down," Franson said. "It didn't get slushy and slow towards the end. It was quick the whole time we were out there. It was really good."
Franson acknowledged that the Wings might have an edge, having taken part in the 2009 Winter Classic in Chicago.
"I'd say that probably helps. When you've got a team of guys that have been through it before, they know what to expect, that'll help," Franson said. "But, for us, we've got a couple of guys that have done it before but for the rest of us it's a new thing and you'll adapt to the adversities of playing outdoors and do the best you can and hope for the best."
JVR knows the outdoors
James van Riemsdyk is the master of the outdoor game, having played in two while with the Philadelphia Flyers. He was also part of a segment in the most recent HBO "24/7 Road to the Winter Classic" reality series, when he was seen playing shinny with his brothers and father outdoors during the Christmas break. At one point, van Riemsdyk sets up his dad for a nice goal.
He was asked Tuesday whether his father was enjoying his newfound fame.
"It's funny. I've had a lot of buddies texting me about that; that were getting a big kick out of that," van Riemsdyk said. "It kind of worked out perfectly. The rest of the clip was, I think, it went from my middle brother who's the defenseman up to my other brother on the wall and my other brother passed it to me and I passed it to my dad.
"We'll probably remember that for the rest of our lives."
Van Riemsdyk's dad blamed his old skates for his previous lack of success. With the new blades, though, "he was moving around pretty good for a guy that's as old as he is."