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NHL czar to Toronto Maple Leafs president? The future's wide open for Brendan Shanahan

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Former Devils player Brendan Shanahan poses for a picture after being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto

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Former Devils player Brendan Shanahan poses for a picture after being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, November 8, 2013. Shanahan was amongst one of five inductees for the 2013 class of the Hockey Hall of Fame. REUTERS/Aaron Harris (CANADA - Tags: SPORT ICE HOCKEY)

In November, before he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Brendan Shanahan sat down for an interview in his corner office at NHL headquarters in New York. We were talking about his role as league disciplinarian. I asked him a direct question: “How long do you want to do this?”

Colin Campbell had done it for more than a decade. Shanahan was in his third season.

Shanahan answered carefully.

“I don’t know,” he said, pausing. “I don’t know how Coli did it as long as he did. I would like to … I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that. I like having … I do like being involved in hockey, but I don’t know the answer to that.”

We might know in the near future. The Toronto Maple Leafs are indeed talking to Shanahan about a job – team president, director of hockey operations, something like that – and I think Shanahan is interested and qualified. The question is whether it is the right fit for both sides (and maybe the timing because of his current job and the approaching playoffs).

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Shanahan has never declared this as his ambition, and he was unavailable for comment Thursday. But I have long thought he would take over a team someday in a president-type role, and I think Toronto is one of the few teams for which he would leave the league.

The reason isn’t that Shanahan grew up in Toronto, though that’s part of it and would make for a great story. Shanahan is smart enough to know PR isn’t enough. (See: Clarkson, David.) It’s that he can afford to wait for a plum opportunity, and the Leafs, despite their issues, are a plum opportunity – an Original Six team with immense resources in need of a new direction. Teams often gauge Shanahan’s interest. He interviewed with the Calgary Flames last year. He hasn’t bitten. Yet.

Shanahan has never been a team executive. But he knows how to bring people together and effect change, and he knows how to build and run a department – have a vision, create a plan, manage people. He has dealt with people throughout the hockey world. He has handled scrutiny and criticism. These are the qualities of a president or director of hockey ops – distinct from the qualities of a general manager or personnel guy – but he has worked long days and watched a hell of a lot of hockey, too.

This has been a long time coming. Not only did Shanahan play 21 seasons in the NHL and score 656 goals and win three Stanley Cups, he played for coaches like Scotty Bowman and Mike Babcock. He played under GMs like Ken Holland and Lou Lamoriello. During the 2004-05 lockout, he gathered a cross-section of hockey minds for the “Shanahan Summit” in Toronto. The group brainstormed, leading to rule changes that transformed the game.

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When Shanahan retired in 2009, he could have worked for a team or in the media. “Believe me, he had an array of possibilities from one end of the spectrum to the other,” Rick Curran, his former agent, once said. “I’m not suggesting he was offered jobs in each of those different areas of hockey. But the potential was there, the opportunity was there, and he knew it. At the end of the day, he chose where he felt he would be most useful to the game.”

He chose to work for the NHL. Commissioner Gary Bettman compared it to business school. Bettman was the professor, Shanahan the student. Bettman gave him projects – the research and development camp, the all-star game format – and he worked in a non-descript gray cubicle coordinating disparate groups of people. The R&D camp generated data about potential rule changes. The “Fantasy Draft” format enlivened the all-star game and has been copied by the NFL for the Pro Bowl. I once asked Bettman what would happen when Shanahan graduated. “Anything he wants,” Bettman said.

“This sets him up for anything he wants to do,” Brian Burke, who had worked for the league and later taken over the Leafs, said in October 2010. “When you work for the league, you get in front of all 30 owners, you get in front of all the GMs, and Bettman is smart. … You work for him and you sit in front of that room, and people say, ‘Hey, this guy must be smart, too.’ You work for a league, it gives you an aura of expertise. It gives you credibility.”

Shanahan always insisted he wasn’t sure where it would lead. He didn’t foresee it leading to the job of NHL disciplinarian or the creation of the department of player safety. When Bettman and Campbell approached him in 2011, he was unsure. He thought about it for a few weeks before he gave them an answer. In the end, he felt he couldn’t say no. Eventually, he moved from the gray cubicle to the corner office – because when he argued with GMs on the phone, he was so loud that he bothered his coworkers. The job was hard and thankless and important and rewarding.

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In November, I asked Shanahan if he envied former players in other jobs.

“Sometimes,” he said. “Definitely you look at your friends in different roles in hockey, and sometimes you look at what other guys are doing, and you might think the grass is greener on the other side. But in all these jobs, whether you’re a team executive or in media, they have their bad days, too. I don’t feel sorry for myself, because although a lot of people like to say it’s the worst job in hockey, those are also very difficult jobs that those guys have.”

He talked about how working for the NHL was good for his wife and kids, because he didn’t have to uproot them from New York. He talked about how he enjoyed having an impact on the game itself.

“For me to grow up in Toronto, I wasn’t just a Maple Leaf fan,” Shanahan said. “I was a fan of the NHL. I was a fan of the whole production of the NHL. And then to be a player and actually be a part of the first competition committee that was part of some massive rule changes … Although there were some growing pains, it had a pretty positive effect on the game, I felt. I guess that’s why I wanted to work a little bit for the big picture and not necessarily … I didn’t want my first job to necessarily be, ‘OK, what is good for my specific team? What is good for my one team?’ ”

He didn’t want his “first job” to be for a “specific team,” eh? That was interesting. And so was this: As much as Shanahan embraced being impartial in his role as NHL disciplinarian, he obviously missed being part of a team. He said in that interview it took him years to get over his retirement and all he wanted as he entered the Hall of Fame was for his peers to say: “I wanted that guy as a teammate.” Like a lot of former players, he still loves competition and camaraderie.

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A lot of things still have to happen here: The Leafs and Shanahan have to decide whether the structure of the front office will work for them. If you’re Shanahan, you must be the only connection between ownership and the rest of the front office. You must have autonomy over hockey ops.

The Leafs and Shanahan have to work out when he would start. Can he leave the league office before the playoffs? Can he join the Leafs and still work for the league during the playoffs? Though Shanahan has set up the department of player safety to run without him, it still needs a leader at the biggest time of year, and there is no heir apparent.

Finally, Shanahan has to decide if moving to Toronto will work for his family, and they have to agree on a contract.

If Shanahan does take the job, then he will face hard questions beyond his qualifications. What exactly is his vision? How does he want the Leafs to play? Does he value analytics? What happens to GM Dave Nonis and coach Randy Carlyle?

We might know in the near future. But whether he takes over the Leafs or not, we can be pretty sure Brendan Shanahan won’t be the NHL disciplinarian forever – and he won’t sit back and relax when he’s done.

“If I ever left the NHL completely, I know that doing nothing would be the eventual death of me,” said Shanahan in November. “I would have to find something, a project, a business, a something. I like to be busy. I like to work.”


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