Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Brendan Shanahan: The Atypical Hockey Player

Brendan Shanahan shouldn't have been a hockey player. He should have been tasting wine, or taking in the theater. Or maybe he should have been in the aisle behind you at the bookstore, helping some pretty young thing pick out a title for her dad on Father's Day.

Instead, he elbowed, bulled, and plowed his way into goalies' nightmares. He put his movie star good looks on the line every night, until slowly his face got that Etch-a-Sketch look that befalls all hockey players, if they play long enough.

Shanahan played long enough. He said so, retiring yesterday at age 40, which in the NHL is the new 30 anymore.

Before Shanahan, power forward was a basketball designation. "Cerebral" and "hockey player" were antonyms. Someone named Brendan was probably a Pistons assistant coach.

Shanahan started and ended a Devil, and it's only fitting that he bookended his career, because he was a library on skates.

He knew his movies, for one. Shanahan didn't only play on lines, he could recite them. From many a flick. That's another thing he could have been: a movie reviewer. He wouldn't have looked out of place in a camel jacket, a sweater vest, and glasses.

Brendan Shanahan brought the word "refined" to hockey, both in terms of his demeanor off the ice and his goal-scoring skills on it. He was, at his best, perhaps the most complete player in hockey. He might have led the league many a season in the Gordie Howe Hat Trick: a goal, an assist, a fight.

Yeah, he could fight. Can't all Irish men? In his career, he scored 656 goals and was whistled for over 40 hours worth of penalties. Often, that was the only way to keep Shanahan off the scoresheet---by hoping he'd end up in the penalty box.

The Red Wings grabbed him in his prime, hoodwinking the Hartford Whalers into coughing him up for an aging Paul Coffey and a meh Keith Primeau early in the 1996-97 season. Shanny was 27 at the time and coveted by every team in the league---at least those interested in winning hockey games.

Forget all the Detroit jokes. Shanahan couldn't wait to get here. He was traded the afternoon of the Red Wings' home opener, and made like those poor folks on "The Amazing Race" just so he get to Joe Louis Arena in time for pre-game introductions.

So he makes it and it's his turn to have his name called, and the roar is deafening. They stood and cheered and hollered and the guy hadn't even taken a shift yet as a Red Wing.

But the people of Detroit, so knowledgeable about their hockey, knew their team had fleeced the Whalers and had brought to town a player the likes of whom hadn't been spotted wearing the Winged Wheel since Bobby Probert turned people on with his own kind of hat trick: a goal, a fight, and another fight.

Shanahan was more talented than Probert, though. That, too, was no secret.

Shanny looked like a matinee idol and played like an action hero. The ladies who showed up at Joe Louis Arena wearing oversized Red Wings sweaters were smitten. He might have seemed like just another sniper on a team that was full of them, but then you'd look up and some poor sap was in a headlock and Shanahan---Brendan---was using the guy's noggin as a punching bag.

He scored 309 goals as a Red Wing, nearly half his career total, and his best years were spent in Detroit, both in terms of individual accomplishments and those of the team. Three Stanley Cups he won playing with Yzerman and Draper and Lidstrom and Maltby and the rest.

Oh, and there was the time when he saved hockey.

Exaggeration? Sure---like calling water that's at 210 degrees boiling.

It was after the horrific canceled season of 2004-05 that Shanahan went to work, making like Jimmy Carter and bringing the Players Association and ownership together. Others helped him but Shanny took the lead, putting his big brain to use and being instrumental in chiseling out an agreement that took the game out of conference rooms and put it back onto the ice.

Without Shanahan, the NHL might still be in hibernation. Another "exaggeration."

It ended for him in Detroit shortly after Steve Yzerman retired in July 2006. Shanahan didn't care to be part of the good old days. He thought his continued presence in the Red Wings locker room would stunt the growth of some of the kids, so he made like Sinatra and wanted to be a part of it---New York, New York.

But Shanny was getting closer to 38 and he could no longer score his age in goals. He popped in 29 pucks his first season as a Ranger, 23 the second. It used to be that he could score that without breaking a sweat. Now it was all he could muster without needing an oxygen mask.

Then a swan song last season with the Devils, the team he broke into the NHL with as an 18-year-old in 1987. In New Jersey he couldn't play his age---at age 40 he skated in 34 matches. He scored six goals. The action hero was now just an extra.

So now it's done---21 years in the books as an NHLer, 1,354 points scored, and all those penalty minutes. And three Stanley Cups. And still a face for movies.

He shouldn't have been a hockey player, much less one helluva one.

Yet he was both. Go figure.

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