Commentary

Hard-hitting Phaneuf is hockey's latest Terminator

Updated: January 3, 2008, 1:26 PM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

In his day, Larry Robinson was, for obvious physical reasons, nicknamed Big Bird.

But give him an unwitting target meandering through the middle of the ice or along the wall with his head down and he could instantly morph into Oscar the Grouch.

Case in point: The YouTube video of Robinson absolutely debilitating poor Gary Dornhoefer of the not-so-big, none-too-bad Flyers along the boards at the old Montreal Forum in 1976.

Bob Miller, longtime voice of the Los Angeles Kings, called it the hardest check he had ever -- has ever -- seen.

[+] EnlargeDion Phaneuf
Phillip MacCallum/Getty ImagesThe aftershock from one of Dion Phaneuf's hits on Ottawa's Denis Hamel last season.

"Yeah, I caught him good," recalled Robinson, who is back this season as an assistant coach with the Brent Sutter-propelled New Jersey Devils. "A lot of buildings back then, Buffalo pops to mind immediately, had all kinds of give. You watch the old replays and the boards almost wobble on impact. But the boards at the Forum in those days were like the ones today with seamless glass. Hard as concrete.

"So, when I hit Dornhoefer, there wasn't any kind of cushion. He was spitting up blood."

As one of the most ferocious open-ice hitters over the last half-century, Robinson is fully qualified to assess hockey's current Big Bang Theory: Dion Phaneuf of the Calgary Flames.

In an ESPN.com players' poll released in January, The Dion, as he sometimes refers to himself, garnered 43 percent of the popular vote as the top hitter in hockey. Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins, who has an extra seven inches in height and 39 pounds in weight on Phaneuf, finished well up the road in second at 11 percent.

Who's the best player in the game today? Sidney Crosby, Vincent Lecavalier, Henrik Zetterberg and Jarome Iginla would all get serious consideration.

The best goalie? Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo both have their champions.

Nicklas Lidstrom certainly has an iron-clad grip on best defenseman accolades.

But it's also pretty clear who takes hardest hitter honors. And the 22-year-old Phaneuf, remember, is only into his third full NHL season. With all due respect to the governor of Cah-lee-fo-nia, this guy is today's Terminator.

"He's the new Scott Stevens," said the Big Bird. "And, believe me, that's the highest possible praise anyone could be paid. Scotty Stevens won us as many Stanley Cups with his body checks as [Brodeur] did with his big saves.

"I remember the game [Stevens] hit [Eric] Lindros. Our whole bench stood up. You could see it developing. And Bobby Holik turned to me at that very moment and said 'We're going to win the Stanley Cup.' I still get goose bumps thinking about it. Phaneuf has the same sort of capacity Scotty did. You can't teach it. It's all feel.

Dion hit him and knocked him about three feet in the air. And I'm like 'Whoa!' The way he hits people, you wonder how he'll be feeling himself at 30 or 35.

--Flames center Craig Conroy on teammate Dion Phaneuf

"It's a lost art, really, that big hit in open ice. Nobody carries the puck anymore," Robinson continued. "It's dump, dump, dump and chase. In my day … well, J.P. Bordeleau, it was almost too easy. I remember just hammering him three times in one game. Same spot. Head down. On the third hit, I looked down at him, lying on his back again, and told him 'I don't know about you, but I'm getting tired of this. Will you please watch where you're going?!'"

Unsurprisingly, Stevens was the player a young Phaneuf modeled himself after.

"As I got older, he was the guy I looked up to," Phaneuf said. "Such a force physically. That hit on [Paul] Kariya [in the 2003 Stanley Cup finals] is one that stands out in my mind.

"[Hitting] is all timing. You can't get caught out of position looking to make that big hit. You can't force it. There's a fine line. It's got to be there, and you've got to take advantage of the situation."

Energy. Appetite. The instinct to read a developing play. The dispassionate willingness to finish off the prey after it has been identified and targeted.

"Dion sees the play in front of him so well," said Flames assistant coach Jim Playfair, who himself was a former NHL defenseman. "He gets such great leverage from the bottom, from his feet, up. And he steps in at just the right moment, when a player is vulnerable. Just like Scott Stevens.

"It's an art. It really is, because if you're a second or two late arriving, you're looking at a penalty, not a clip on the TV highlights."

In the Calgary dressing room, everyone has a favorite Phaneuf rocket launch.

[+] EnlargeDion Phaneuf
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesDion Phaneuf has made a name for himself since coming into the league in 2005.

"On Jeff Cowan," Flames center Craig Conroy said. "Last year, when Jeff and I were teammates in L.A., Dion hit him and knocked him about three feet in the air. And I'm like 'Whoa!' The way he hits people, you wonder how he'll be feeling himself at 30 or 35. That's got to hurt the guy dishing the punishment out, too."

Phaneuf rates himself, too. "Oh, I'd say the hit on [Denis] Hamel in Ottawa last year. Or this year, on [Jiri] Hudler."

The art of hitting takes on more than one form.

"There are different types, in different areas of the ice," Playfair said. "A player like Robyn Regehr, for instance, is really effective from the blue line down to the goal line. He can ride people out, lift them off their feet and deliver them into the boards.

"Dion's more of an open-ice explosion. He's also a great counter-hitter. By that I mean, when he and another player are going after the puck, he has the ability to hit before being hit, knock the other guy off balance and take the puck."

Phaneuf's renown, however, rides on his ability to sap people of their senses. He currently sits a comfortable second in Western Conference All-Star voting among defenseman, trailing only the inevitable and unavoidable Lidstrom. And Phaneuf isn't getting that kind of broad-based love at the ballot box for nimble poke-checks, stylish tie-ups or witty repartee.

He will develop over time and become a more well-rounded defenseman. He may even add some curly-cues to his repertoire. But what fans relish, and opposing forwards dread, is Dion Phaneuf, the Terminator.

"Do I enjoy it?" Phaneuf seems surprised you'd even ask. "Sure I enjoy it.

"You're supposed to enjoy your work."

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.