Commentary

Shanahan fought for success in NHL

Updated: November 7, 2013, 4:31 PM ET
By Katie Strang | ESPN.com

Brendan Shanahan Stephen Dunn/AllsportBrendan Shanahan's lasting reputation is that of a guy players wanted as a teammate.

The details have become more difficult to recall and the particulars have grown a bit hazier, as they often do when stories are retold 20 years later, but the memory is still vivid for Kelly Chase.

There he was, sitting in the back of a car, dumbstruck, dazed and largely toothless after having what he described as "the snot kicked out of me," by a few unruly bar patrons when a young Brendan Shanahan came rushing out to his teammate's defense.

It was both the compassion Shanahan showed in injecting a sense of humor into the situation ("Chaser, now you look like Bobby Clarke.") and the instinctive loyalty he showed in confronting Chase's attackers that sticks with Chase to this day.

"The next thing you know, all hell broke loose and him and I were in the middle of it," Chase said of the street fight in St. Louis that became the subject of local lore soon after.

Though both Shanahan and Chase, who played together in St. Louis from 1991-94, declined to go to the police or to the hospital to seek medical attention after the scuffle -- instead, they casually called the Blues team dentist -- word still got around.

"Put it this way: everyone in town knew about it the next day," said Chase, now in his 13th season as color analyst for the St. Louis Blues radio broadcasts.

That is the night that Chase immediately remembers when asked to define Shanahan's legacy as his old teammate and roommate who is now one of the most influential executives for the NHL enters the Hockey Hall of Fame as a member of the 2013 class of inductees.

Shanahan, 44, is a three-time Stanley Cup Champion who finished with 656 goals and 2,489 penalty minutes in more than 1,500 games throughout his 21 years in the NHL.

But the best accolade Shanahan has earned?

"The one thing that someone can say about you is, 'I'd want that guy on my team,' because people forget in a hurry and that is the best thing," Chase said. "And I think that pretty much anyone he played with would say, 'I'd want him on my team.'

"He was just this tough Irish kid with three older brothers. And he always had everyone's back, on or off the ice."

An exceptional career

Shanahan grew up in Mimico, Ontario, playing lacrosse and hockey under the watch of his brothers. Shanahan observed how Danny, Brian and Shaun always made the full effort in any game -- "whatever was necessary in that moment for their team" -- and that's who he would always emulate as his career progressed.

[+] EnlargeBrendan Shanahan
Elsa/Getty ImagesBrendan Shanahan won three Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings.

And though it seems absurd to suggest a hockey player with the talent Shanahan possessed wasn't a phenom from an early age, that is indeed what he claims to be true.

"I was not an exceptional player growing up or in the NHL, but the coaching and the teammates I had allowed me to have an exceptional career," Shanahan said from his office on the 12th floor of the NHL offices in midtown Manhattan. "I have a lot of people to thank."

Those coaches and teammates served him well, as did the intense desire to succeed that eventually separated him from his peers.

Following a 92-point season with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, Shanahan was selected second overall in the 1987 draft by the New Jersey Devils. When he arrived as an 18-year-old in New Jersey, the Devils had a problem. He was too good to send back to his junior team -- Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello feared that his size and strength could lead to him forming bad habits had he returned to play with his teenaged cohorts -- but he wasn't quite ready to play in the NHL.

Lamoriello recalled Shanahan being so impatient that he decided to fight his way into the lineup. And it worked. Shanahan scored only seven goals and 26 points in 65 games his rookie season, but he made a strong impression with 131 penalty minutes. That toughness became part of his signature, and it remains one of his defining characteristics.

"Brendan was indisputably one of the best power forwards to play this game," Lamoriello told ESPN.com. "The way he played as far as the scoring he accomplished and the physicality end of his game, that never left him. He always stood up for his teammates."

That, of course, is one of the qualities Chase remembers best about Shanahan's time in St. Louis, a four-season stint during which he amassed a whopping 156 goals and recorded an 102-point campaign during the 1993-94 season. It was also one of the attributes that prompted Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland to pull the trigger on a blockbuster deal that would bring Shanahan to Detroit from Hartford in exchange for Keith Primeau, Paul Coffey and a first-round pick in 1997.

Holland called Shanahan one of the "pivotal pieces of the puzzle" for the Red Wings' three Stanley Cups during his tenure. He still remembers the first time he walked into the Red Wings' dressing room at Joe Louis Arena to see Shanahan holding court and thinking of how much it changed the dynamic of their team.

They already had a strong core: the "Russian Five" of Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Slava Kozlov, Vladimir Konstantinov, and Slava Fetisov; key veteran Steve Yzerman; and promising youngsters Darren McCarty and Nicklas Lidstrom. But Shanahan added an element of grit in addition to his skill that put them "over the top."

"Shanny gave us that presence," Holland told ESPN.com.

He had a terrific shot, he had size and he was a big guy who could play on the top line. On top of that, he was a well-respected player who fit seamlessly into the Red Wings' room.

And with Shanahan on the ice, teams couldn't look to bully the Red Wings. Along with McCarty and Martin Lapointe, Shanahan was a force to be reckoned with.

"What those guys gave us was respect," Holland said. "The other team knew we'd respond and that respect allowed us to do what we did best, which was to play hockey."

Shanahan and the Red Wings won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1997 and 1998, a memorable run that will forever be remembered by Shanahan and his teammates.

"It's kind of like going through a war," said Larionov, who centered a line with Shanahan in Detroit. "Those guys go through it alongside you, the pain, the successes and the losses. With Shanny, mentally he was very strong. He was able to rebound."

Shanahan would go on to win one more Stanley Cup in Detroit in 2002 after a five-game series against the Carolina Hurricanes. Those Cup championship years remain the fondest memories of his playing career.

Though he also has the distinction of having won a World Championship and an Olympic gold medal for Team Canada, they still don't compare to hoisting the most revered trophy in sports.

"They don't touch, in my opinion, what it's like to win a Stanley Cup," Shanahan said. "I think it's just the hardest thing to do."

Shanahan eventually moved on to New York and, in his two seasons as a Ranger, he remained a productive player. He recorded 29 goals and 62 points in his first season on Broadway in 2006-07 and finished with 23 goals and 46 points the next season.

He was the elder statesman of the team, though that designation had more to do with his leadership abilities and dressing-room presence than his age. His articulate way and affable nature made him a media favorite, and he was a popular player among his Blueshirt teammates as well. He was the type of player who was able to relate to such disparate personalities as Sean Avery and Jaromir Jagr, the latter of whom was almost moved to tears by Shanahan's actions one night in December 2006.

[+] EnlargeBrendan Shanahan
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesThe night Brendan Shanahan challenged Donald Brashear in support of teammate Jaromir Jagr is one many Rangers fans won't forget.

It was a night that many Rangers fans won't ever forget.

Upset that he felt Donald Brashear was taking liberties with Jagr, Shanahan challenged the hulking Capitals enforcer to a fight. Locked up with Shanahan, Brashear gave him a chance to reconsider. Shanahan declined.

Shanahan still cringes a bit when that fight is brought up, but not because of any particular blow he received or the cheesy line he delivered right before the scrap ("Something like, 'Give me your best shot,'" he recalled, shaking his head). Shanahan's competitive fire rears its head again here, as he admits that he fared better against equally tough, arguably tougher, opponents.

How many players of Shanahan's skill level have a fight card that reads like this: Bob Probert, Rick Tocchet, Marty McSorley, Martin Lapointe?

He remains the only player in NHL history with 600 goals and over 2,000 penalty minutes, though he still seems a bit sheepish talking about his own toughness.

"If something was happening on the ice that required dropping the gloves, it was probably better for our whole team if Joey Kocur did it," Shanahan said, with a laugh, "But, I didn't want to wait for anyone to do the job that was in front of me."

New influence on the game

Since Shanahan's retirement in 2009 -- a decision that came after a short-lived second tour with the Devils -- he hasn't succumbed to any temptation of a comeback.

But it hasn't been easy.

"I think stepping away from the game for any player is a traumatic experience," Shanahan said. "I think it's more traumatic than you can ever anticipate."

Shanahan has found it helpful to channel his passion for the game into his current position as the NHL's senior vice president of player safety and hockey operations, but he knows it will never be quite the same. For that reason, he has stopped playing altogether save for a stray charity game here and there.

"If I had kept playing, I'd be on my fourth comeback attempt," Shanahan said. "I had to almost just walk away completely from it. I had to make a break or I probably would've made a fool of myself multiple times by now."

Shanahan still has that insatiable competitive burn, but he's savvy and self-aware enough to understand that he can still serve the game without ripping a wrist shot or surprising someone with a stiff right.

And for as physically taxing as his last job was, his current gig matches or surpasses that in the mental fortitude it requires. In the two-plus years since he took over for Colin Campbell, Shanahan has endured endless scrutiny in doling out the league's discipline.

"I think you can make a pretty compelling argument that he's got the hardest job in sports," said Patrick Burke, who was named director of player safety in August.

Burke had what he thought was a good idea how it all previously worked as an NHL scout for the Philadelphia Flyers. Turns out, he underestimated just how difficult it would be. Every day and every decision, Shanahan and his team must deal with general managers, coaches, agents, players, the union and the media. Considering his career spanned more than two decades, Shanahan has long-standing relationships with many of these people. Not once has Burke seen Shanahan show favor or let those relationships bias his decision-making.

[+] EnlargeSteve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan
Tom Pidgeon/NHLI/Getty ImagesBoth Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman have continued to make their marks on the NHL since hanging up their skates.

"If he had to suspend his best friend, he'd do it," Burke said.

In fact, the strong foothold Shanahan has in the game and the cachet from his illustrious career are what make him able to render such decisions with accountability and intelligence.

He was a player himself and not one who shied away from the gritty stuff. He gets it.

"Brendan is a real smart guy and someone who has played the modern game at the highest level," deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com in an email. "He adds a perspective and credibility factor that would be difficult to duplicate."

Burke echoed those sentiments:

"You talk about a guy who has translated all the moments in his playing career to this expertise," Burke said. "I think that's what he does so exceptionally well; his ability to put himself in players' shoes. Or skates, I guess."

The work is not easy, but it is a labor of love for Shanahan, whose commitment to the game is well-documented (see "Shanahan Summit" of 2005). It begs the question: As much as an indelible mark he made on the game as a player, could he make an even bigger impact in his post-playing career?

Lamoriello answered that question without hesitation.

"Brendan is a winner, on and off the ice. It doesn't surprise me he's had the success he's had in the position he's in, as difficult as it is," Lamoriello said. "He doesn't show any faltering, even when something may be difficult. That takes a certain character trait."

Lamoriello said he sees the position as a "stepping stone" for what is surely to be an upward trajectory for Shanahan. Many assume Shanahan will eventually become a GM; some foresee him as a future candidate for NHL commissioner.

Shanahan knows the job is regarded as a pretty thankless role and one with a high burnout rate. He still finds the work rewarding and wants to play an instrumental role in helping the game transition in a way that is safer for the players.

"Like my playing days, I love a challenge. Like my playing days, I love the game of hockey," Shanahan said. "And while other people don't necessarily see it this way, our department feels that we're doing something that we hope is good for the game of hockey and good for the players."

In the weeks leading up to the Hall of Fame festivities, which will be held in his hometown of Toronto, Shanahan has been so busy with on-ice disciplinary issues, he hasn't had the time to think of what he'll say, who he will thank in his induction speech. His wife and three kids will be with him, of course, as will his three older brothers and other close family members and friends, but he still is unsure exactly what to expect.

Some guys embrace retirement with a move to their vacation homes in Florida or weekly tee times with their buddies. Shanahan's time is largely occupied by the likes of Patrick Kaleta and John Scott, two players who both received lengthy suspensions recently at the behest of his department. Such things preclude Shanahan from reflecting much on what was a tremendous career. Heck, he was too busy to ever let himself sulk over the Hall of Fame snub when he was passed over in his first year of eligibility in 2012. But he hasn't lost sight of what an incredible honor it is and what it will mean to him to have his career recognized and rewarded.

It will be a moment Shanahan hopes to savor and enjoy.

"I'm not someone that's spent a whole lot of time looking in the rear-view mirror," Shanahan said. "But to me, it will be an opportunity, an evening and a weekend, where I do."

Katie Strang covers the Rangers, Islanders and Devils for ESPNNewYork.com. She is a graduate of Michigan State University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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