Playoff Hockey without Shanahan Not the Norm in the NHLBy
Brendan Shanahan played 21 physical, angry seasons in the NHL yet he could walk into a Hollywood producer’s office tomorrow morning and be cast as the male lead.
Shanahan, 41, still has his looks; most old hockey players have faces that are zippered on and are the texture of corduroy.
Shanahan is still the best looking man in most rooms these days, plus among the smartest and most charming, and it’s enough to make guys like me sick.
I’m not telling you anything the ladies don’t already know.
He sat behind a desk in an office inside the Kennedy Ice Center in Trenton Saturday and spoke eloquently on a number of subjects, including his involvement in a fascinating story involving two local high school teams from 1999. But more about that later.
This used to be Shanahan’s time—right now. Spring hockey. The playoffs going on. Lose four games within a seven-game window and you’re on the golf course tomorrow.
Shanahan loves golf and he’s very good at it. But he never loved it enough to choose it over playoff hockey.
“I miss playing at the elite level. I miss the highest level of competition,” Shanahan told me. “I miss playing for the Stanley Cup.”
Shanahan isn’t in the playoffs this year for the first time in 14 years, because he retired last fall. That’s the only way you could keep him out of the post-season; Shanny played 21 seasons in the NHL, and he made the playoffs in 19 of them.
The last time he missed the post-season, it was in 1996 and it was because he was playing for the awful Hartford Whalers. Shanahan scored 44 goals in the 1995-96 season and those were ten more than the wins the Whalers had.
Shanahan, at that point, had played nine NHL seasons and his teams’ playoff runs lasted about as long as a 4th of July sparkler.
The Red Wings in 1996 were elite. They’d just set an NHL record with 62 wins, but were blasted out of the Western Conference Finals by the hated Colorado Avalanche.
In the early throes of the ’96-97 season, Shanahan got himself some ideas.
“(The trade to Detroit) took about two weeks to come together,” he said. “It wasn’t a phone call that said, ‘You’re traded.’”
Shanahan, unhappy with the tenuous Whalers, who would soon relocate to Carolina, looked at the Red Wings and saw an opportunity.
“They were an Original Six team, they were on the cusp of winning, and I thought I could help,” he said, adding a gross understatement at the end of that sentence.
The Red Wings had been manhandled by the Avs in the ’96 Final Four. They were humiliated by guys like Claude Lemieux and mocked by goalie Patrick Roy. The Red Wings’ overall team toughness was seriously questioned.
The Stanley Cup drought in Detroit had reached 41 years. And counting.
And here’s 44-goal scorer Brendan Shanahan, annually garnering triple digits in penalty minutes, a tough Irish guy who was as lethal with his gloves off as with them on, and he thinks he “could help”?
Yet not everyone agreed with him that Detroit would be an ideal destination.
“The players’ union tried to get me to go to Washington,” Shanahan told me. He nearly rolled his eyes when he said it. “There were others who tried to convince me that there were better places for me to go [than Detroit].”
But Shanahan wanted to make Shanny-to-the-Red Wings a reality.
I asked him about that first night as a Red Wing—when he was introduced at the team’s home opener, having rushed into town after the deal was finally done, to a mighty ovation. Thunderous, was more like it.
“When I stepped onto that ice, it was like, ‘OK, it’s official now. It’s all worth it.’”
Eight months later, the Red Wings exorcised their Stanley Cup demons. They won the thing 42 years after Lindsay and Howe and Sawchuk skated the Cup around the ice.
Shanahan played in all 20 of the team’s playoff games and scored nine goals, seemingly every one of them big—and was whistled for 43 penalty minutes. Natch.
The Red Wings weren’t soft any longer. Shanahan “helped” in that department, big time.
He’s helping in a different way now.
Shanahan, working with the folks at Gatorade, will serve as honorary coach for the 1999 Trenton Trojans high school reunion team who will take on the 1999 Detroit Catholic Central Shamrocks to settle some unfinished business. Those hockey powerhouses, fierce rivals, played to a 4-4 tie in a game at Trenton that was suspended following the horrific injury suffered to Trojan Kurt LaTarte, whose throat was slashed by a skate.
It’s all part of a TV series called REPLAY, where high school teams are reassembled to replay games that ended without a winner. The Trenton-CC game was selected for replay among over 2,000 applicants.
The CC honorary coach is Scotty Bowman. Yes, THAT Scotty Bowman.
“I want to win,” Shanahan said of the May 9 game. “I want to win at checkers. It should be an intense game. These players are blessed. They have a chance, 11 years later, to settle the score.”
Shanahan knows intense. He played hockey with a fierceness and fearlessness that I hadn’t seen in Detroit from a player of his talent prior to his arrival.
The playoffs, especially, were Shanahan’s time. He played in 184 post-season games and scored 60 goals. He racked up 279 penalty minutes. He helped import the term “power forward” from basketball’s lexicon.
And he won three Stanley Cups.
Shanahan scored, and he fought. He also increased the interest in hockey among the females. Often all in the same game. The Brendan Shanahan Hat Trick was a goal, a fight, a swoon.
I wanted to know what this time of the year meant to an old NHL warrior like him.
“You close yourself off to all other things,” he said. “Eating wasn’t enjoying food—it was just adding more fuel to your body. Sleeping wasn’t rest, it was something you needed. Everything was done for the next game. You sequestered yourself in the hotel with your teammates and you got blinders on.”
And the payoff?
“That’s what I liked most about it. When the final horn sounded and you were the winner and the season was over, that’s when you sort of pulled the blinders off and really took a look around you. You were on a mission. You were focused entirely on winning, and that was a lot of fun.”
Saturday was just the third time Shanahan had been on skates since he announced his retirement last fall. And don’t expect him to join any men’s leagues or appear in any old-timers games.
“Once you’ve climbed Mount Everest,” he said, “why step up a hill?”