He was fleet of foot, blessed with a large frame and possessing a blistering shot and a mean streak.
“He was the whole package for us. Dion was big, he could skate . . . for the junior level, he was awesome,” said Red Deer Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter, his praise directed towards former Rebels defenceman Dion Phaneuf.
Phaneuf was indeed all of that, and perhaps more. His bone-rattling hits in the neutral zone and his overall two-way game lent more evidence to the fact that he was a pro in waiting.
“Those open-ice hits he would give . . . he would drills guys, and he was tough as nails,” Sutter continued. “And he had that offence, he had that big shot. We worked a lot of stuff around that shot of his.
“He was certainly dynamite in all those areas.”
The Edmonton native arrived in Red Deer ready for full-time duty in the fall of 2001, three months after the Rebels had captured the Memorial Cup in Regina. He improved markedly in each of the four years he was in Red Deer and by the age of 20 he was in the National Hockey League.
“He was a kid who came to our league as a 16-year-old. He had to lose weight and put muscle on,” said Sutter.
The Rebels bench boss convinced Phaneuf that he could be a true force if he upped his fitness level. The future NHLer took Sutter’s advice to heart and following his first season with the Rebels arrived in training camp in 2002 with a different look.
“Dion was going into his draft year and I told him that if he went home and really dialled in on his fitness level during the summer, that he could go to a whole different level, be quicker and stronger and be a dominant player at this level,” said Sutter.
“He was around 212 pounds with a body-fat percentage around 15, and he came back with 7.5 percent body fat and about 209 pounds. He lost the wrong kind of weight and put on the right kind, and he just went to a whole different level.”
After turning in an impressive sophomore season in which he scored 23 goals, collected 44 points and racked up 219 penalty minutes in 99 regular-season and playoff games, Phaneuf was selected by the Calgary Flames in the first round of the 2003 NHL entry draft, the ninth player plucked in the annual lottery.
Phaneuf improved to 54 points (21g,33a) in 81 regular-season and post-season contests in 2003-04 and was honoured as the Western Hockey League defenceman of the year.
He likely would have suited up for the Flames the following season except for the NHL players lockout. Instead, he returned to Red Deer, fired 25 goals, recorded 61 points and claimed the WHL top defenceman award for the second year running.
Phaneuf moved on to the Flames in 2005 and was a finalist for the Calgary Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie, finishing the season with 20 goals and 49 points. He was also named to the Western Conference all-star team.
After four mostly solid seasons in Calgary, he fell out of favour with the Flames and was dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 31 of 2010.
“Dion was lights out for his first three years in Calgary,” said Sutter, who was the Flames head coach in 2009-10, his first of three years in Calgary after two seasons as the New Jersey Devils bench boss. “Then he was signed to a big contract after his entry-level deal (expired).
“What happened with him being traded was a management decision. I had a chance to coach him in Calgary and at that time a lot was thrown on his shoulders at a young age. The pressure of it all was getting to him a bit.”
Sutter had Phaneuf in his lineup one more time as coach of the Canadian team at the 2012 world championship in Finland. The rearguard was coming off his second full season with the Leafs.
“I coached him at the world championships and that was the Dion I knew. He was very humble, he was fantastic,” said Sutter, who also had Phaneuf’s services in the 2005 world juniors in Grand Forks, N.D., where the best Canadian team of all time — aided by the NHL lockout — easily captured gold.
With Phaneuf’s skills and overall physical abilities came a fiery competitive on-ice personality that was evident not only in games, but practice sessions.
The Rebels coaching staff stressed to Phaneuf in his very first WHL season the importance of treating practices like he would actual games. He caught on quickly.
“He was always in a scuffle in practice because that’s the way he played,” said Sutter. “The neat thing was he made our team better because of that. Everyone knew that if Dion was doing this, if he’s going to treat it like a game, we’d better do the same thing.”
Phaneuf, who was dealt from Toronto to the Ottawa Senators late in the 2015-16 season, has retained the same practice behaviour over the years, something he credits to Sutter.
“My practice habits I owe a lot to Brent Sutter,” the six-foot-three, 227-pound blueliner told the Calgary Sun in February of this year, prior to a Senators-Flames game. “He was a big details guy and he taught me the importance of doing it every day at a young age.
“You’re not playing as hard as you would against the competition but you’re playing hard to not only make yourself better but your teammates better. It’s just something I’ve done and something I’ll continue to do.
“I’m an energetic guy. I feel practice is important and I said when I started in the NHL I wanted to continue to get better every day. I haven’t changed that. Every off-season the game keeps getting quicker so you have to get quicker.”
Twelve years after coaching Phaneuf in his final game with the Rebels, Sutter still holds him in high esteem.
“I’ve always thought a lot about Dion,” said Sutter. “He’s an awesome guy, he was a great player here with the Red Deer Rebels and he’s had a great National Hockey League career.
“To this day, when he’s on TV I want to watch Dion play. He’s like one of your own, like they (current and former Rebels players) all are.
“Dion has gotten very wealthy playing the game he loves, but he’s put a lot of work into it. He’s put his body on the line in a lot of different situations, whether it was blocking shots or making big hits.
“He had an awesome junior career and he’s had an awesome NHL career.”