NEW YORK — The end of the season always felt abrupt to Brendan Shanahan. For months, he would be part of a brotherhood on and off the ice, and one day … done. The games, over. The guys, gone.
Then came the end of his playing career. He signed for half a season with the New Jersey Devils in 2008-09. He came back for training camp the following September, skated in the preseason and walked away – no farewell tour, no ceremony, nothing. Like so many others, he was humbled. He watched the game go right on without him.
He took a couple more months to retire. He took a couple more weeks to announce it. He took a couple more years to get over it.
“I don’t think people realize the void I felt when I couldn’t play hockey anymore, because it wasn’t just being a pro, it was something I’d been doing since I was 4 and 5,” Shanahan said. “The weather gets like this, you start to twitch.”
It was autumn outside as he spoke, and you could feel the coming winter’s chill in the air.
“I don’t know if I’d call it a dream or a nightmare, but I probably had dreams for at least two years after retiring about playing,” Shanahan said. “I’d wake up and almost say to myself, to my brain, ‘Would you get on board with this? It’s over.’ ”
Shanahan, 44, has filled the void with work – maybe too well. He is the NHL’s disciplinarian, carrying his BlackBerry and iPad 24/7, reviewing incidents, handing out suspensions, getting second-guessed. It is an important, thankless job.
But he is entering the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday in his hometown of Toronto, and this is a time to look at Shanahan, not just the Shanabans. This is a time to remember his roots, appreciate the player he became and maybe understand a bit better why he took on this task. This is a time for him to finally find closure, too.
The man was an elite power forward who scored, fought and won. He racked up 656 goals, 1,354 points and 2,489 penalty minutes in 1,524 regular-season games. He won three Stanley Cups and an Olympic gold medal. He said he hasn’t written his speech yet – too busy – but at a time when he cannot have an allegiance to any team, all he wants is to have one of his peers say: “I wanted him on my team. I wanted that guy as a teammate.”
“I see this,” Shanahan said, “as a chance to say goodbye to something I loved.”
* * * * *
Shanahan said he wished to play in the NHL on every birthday growing up. But it was more of a fantasy than an ambition. He was the son of Irish immigrants, Donal and Rosaleen, the youngest of four brothers in a three-bedroom brick bungalow in Mimico, Ontario.
“I’m still deeply scarred by having three older brothers with one bathroom and no lock on the door,” he said with a smile, “and I won’t go any further than that.”
His brothers did not play high-level hockey. He did play at a high level, but because he was surrounded by top talent, he wasn’t the best player on his team. He wasn’t a highly rated prospect as a 16-year-old. “No one ever pointed at me and said, ‘That guy’s going to make it,’ and I seemed OK with that,” he said. He hoped maybe he could play in college so hockey could pay for his education. The Ontario Hockey League? “There were 15 teams in the OHL,” he said. “I couldn’t name five of them.”
At the same time, his father was struggling to drive and taking time off work. The family didn’t know it then, but he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. “We just had other things on our mind,” Shanahan said.
[Photo gallery: Brendan Shanahan over the years]
One day Shanahan went to a Junior B game with his parents. He bumped into a buddy in the lobby of the arena, and a scout from the London Knights bumped into them. The scout talked to Shanahan’s buddy, then looked at Shanahan.
“Do you play, too?”
“The Mississauga Reps.”
“What’s your name?”
The scout’s face changed when he heard “Brendan Shanahan.” The scout asked if Shanahan’s parents were there and if he could talk to them. At that moment Shanahan discovered he might be drafted into the OHL. He started receiving mail and visits from teams, and he had to find an advisor. Still, it was a shock he went to the Knights in the first round.
Just two years later, he went in the first round of the NHL draft – second overall. He made the Devils as an 18-year-old. His first game was a blur, but his second? That was in Toronto. On Friday night, he was sneaking away from the team to meet his buddies at a high school dance. On Saturday night, he was sitting on the bench, hearing his line called out by his coach, watching his fellow centerman coming off on a change, realizing he was about to step onto the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens. This was no longer a fantasy.
“This,” he thought, “is real.”
* * * * *
The NHL did not come easy at first. The players were bigger, stronger and faster. Shanahan had seven goals and 26 points in 65 games as a rookie. He was minus-20. He had four goals and eight points through 32 games his second season. “Lots of people start to wonder if this was a busted first pick,” he said.
Then the Devils lost Mark Johnson to injury, and they had a spot open on a line with Patrik Sundstrom and John MacLean. Asked if he could play left wing, Shanahan said sure – even though he had never played left wing before. Sundstrom and MacLean told him to go to the net, and he did. He finished the season with 22 goals and 50 points in 68 games.
That was the first of 19 consecutive seasons of at least 20 goals. Twelve times, he scored at least 30. Six times, he scored at least 40. Twice, he hit 50.
After establishing himself as a star with the Devils, St. Louis Blues and Hartford Whalers, Shanahan became perhaps the final piece of the Detroit Red Wings’ 1997 and ’98 Cup teams – the last back-to-back champions the NHL has seen. He won his third Cup with the Wings, plus his Olympic gold with Team Canada, in 2002.
He thought the 2004-05 lockout would be like an extended summer vacation. He had a young family. He had time. But as the weather cooled, he started to twitch, and as the lockout dragged on, he found he could not stop thinking about hockey. If he couldn’t play, he had to do something with the game.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t like doing nothing,’ ” he said. “I realized I was just a happier person when I’m busy. If I ever left the NHL completely, I know that doing nothing would be the eventual death of me. I would have to find something – a project, a business, a something. I like to be busy. I like to work.”
Shanahan organized what became known as the “Shanahan Summit,” a meeting of hockey minds in Toronto. It led to rule changes that transformed the game when the league returned in 2005-06, making it faster, freeing skilled players.
The irony was that Shanahan had never been known for his speed. A big question was whether he could keep up in his own brave, new world.
Well, he returned to Detroit and put up 40 goals and 81 points for the Red Wings as he turned 37. He signed with the New York Rangers and put up 29 goals and 62 points as he turned 38. He scored another 23 goals as he turned 39.
He wasn’t finished until he was 40, when commissioner Gary Bettman offered him a job.
* * * * *
Shanahan leapt at the opportunity. He could fill the void, and he could do it without moving his wife and children from New York, without traveling all the time. “My retirement, like it is for all players, was a painful transition,” he said, “but it wasn’t painful for my family.”
He settled into a gray cubicle, first learning the business, then running the research-and-development camp, then revamping the All-Star Game format. But when Bettman and former NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell approached him about taking over for Campbell in 2011, he was unsure. “When I started working here, I didn’t foresee this at all, this role,” he said. He thought about it for a few weeks before he gave them an answer. In the end, he felt he could not say no.
“To say no is really ducking,” he said. “It’s like being part of a team and being asked to do a hard job and saying, ‘Can you find someone else to do it?’ ”
Shanahan had a varied experience as a player – including getting suspended and harping on officials and the league. He had played under the old rules, helped develop the new rules and played under the new rules. He was old enough to command respect, yet young enough to connect to the players. He communicated well. With concussions a major issue and rules on hits to the head evolving, he became the head of the new department of player safety. For the first time, the league produced video explanations of suspensions for transparency and education, posting them on the web, tweeting the links.
“I really hoped we could do this differently,” Shanahan said. “I think Coli did this really well. He just had no interest in Twitter and videos. I just knew that players used to be told what to do by their coaches, and now they need to be shown what to do. When I started playing in the NHL, my coach would call me in his office and tell me what I did wrong and what to do next. By the end of my career, the coach would call me in his office and show me what I did wrong and show me what to do next. It’s how these guys learn now.”
Shanahan accepted the sacrifices – staying neutral, when he had taken such pride in being part of a team; hearing criticism, when he valued the opinions of people in the game. A year ago, he moved into a corner office, 12 floors above the hustle and bustle of 47th and Sixth, with picture windows and a view of Radio City Music Hall. But that wasn’t because of power or prestige; it was because of privacy. GMs were calling to complain, it was getting loud and he was bothering people at nearby cubicles. Campbell suggested he get walls and a door.
“The conversations sometimes can get pretty passionate – I’ll use that word,” Shanahan said. “There’s nothing fun about this job, but it’s challenging. You have to have a thick skin to do this, and you’re going to upset a lot of people. But if the work is meaningful to you, and you believe in what you’re trying to do, then you can do this job.”
There are no sweaters or sticks or pucks on display in his office. There are no mementos hanging up. But because of requests related to the Hall of Fame, Shanahan dug through the attic at his place in Cape Cod and enjoyed what he found. Now there are framed items on the floor leaning against the base of the walls – the front page of the Detroit Free Press when the Red Wings won the Cup in 1997, a team picture from the 2000 All-Star Game in Toronto, a picture of him playing for Team Canada in 2002 … There is a pile of photos on his desk – his first fight, his 50th goal, his 500th goal …
He pulled out a photo of the Wings visiting the set of “Friends” and laughed. “There’s Chandler,” he chuckled. He pulled out photo after photo of his real friends. “I like the dressing room stuff,” he said. He held another photo. Here were the Wings after winning the Cup in 1998, not posing for the camera, delirious on the ice, Vladimir Konstantinov in his wheelchair surrounded by Slava Fetisov, Scotty Bowman, Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom …
“Vladdie, Slava, Scotty, Stevie, Nick, me …”
He might put up some stuff in his office, after all.
“Enough time has passed,” he said.
* * * * *
When Donal Shanahan couldn’t fight fires anymore, he became the captain of fire prevention. He visited people on his lunch break and helped with smoke detectors. He didn’t know much about hockey, but he coached his older sons and drove Brendan to the rink. He tied Brendan’s skates when he was young. He offered Brendan general advice when he was older – especially if his son was angry or frustrated or off his game.
“He was involved,” Brendan said. “He was an involved man.”
Donal knew Brendan was on his way to a hockey career, but he never got to attend one of Brendan’s NHL games. The onset and progression of his Alzheimer’s was quick. He died at the end of Brendan’s third season. Brendan took the Cup to his father’s grave seven years later.
What would Donal Shanahan think of this?
Brendan Shanahan is entering the Hall of Fame not far from that three-bedroom brick bungalow in Mimico where his mother still lives. A fantasy became reality, and then reality outgrew the fantasy. He not only made the NHL but became one of its great players.
When he couldn’t play anymore, he took over NHL player safety. His goal is to keep the game physical while reducing injuries, particularly brain injuries. He didn’t set out to do this and said he doesn’t know how long he’ll keep doing it. But he’s bringing his BlackBerry and iPad to Toronto, hoping he doesn’t need them, ready if he does – saying goodbye to the playing career he loved while keeping watch over the game he loves endlessly.
“I think my dad would just appreciate that I’ve put so much into it,” Shanahan said. “I’ve just never been sort of the type to cut and run and say, ‘OK, I’m checking out now. I’m ahead. Time to put my feet up.’ When my coaches were happy with my game, they’d say, ‘You were really involved tonight.’ And I guess that’s sort of how I’ve tried to live off the ice as well.”
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