By Cece Scott cecescott.com
Maintaining the right balance between obsession and solitude keeps this family guy on his game.
For tried and true Toronto Maple Leaf fans, there is no middle ground, no centre ice; it is a roller coaster of breakaway emotions, playoff dreams, and dare we say it, a Stanley Cup parade, all the way down Yonge Street and back up Bay to the team’s home at the Air Canada Centre.
It has been decades of unrequited dreams but with the new face of the 2015-2016 Leafs’ team, coach and management, hope, once again, springs eternal. A key driver and strategist of these new initiatives is Brendan “Shanny” Shanahan, President and Alternate Governor of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Shanahan, 46, comes with the goods. A career packed with goals, gold medals, and thousands of penalty minutes. At the time of his retirement in 2009, Shanahan was a leader among active NHL players for goals scored. In fact, he is a walking trophy case.
In June, 2011, he became the NHL’s chief disciplinarian, delivering numerous suspensions to players via video replay of the disputed infractions, a process which is now a de rigueur NHL policy of discipline around regulatory violations. On November 8, 2013, Shanahan was inducted into hockey’s revered Hockey Hall of Fame.
FAMILY AND FRIENDS
While Shanahan’s world has evolved exponentially from his family home in Mimico, his dedication to both family and his childhood friends is constant. By the time he turned 16, Shanahan had left home to play hockey in London. At 18, he was in the NHL.
While thousands of young would-be hockey stars would salivate for such an opportunity, it was a bittersweet time for Shanahan, whose dad, Donal, a chief inspector for the Etobicoke Fire Department, was stricken with Alzheimer’s at the young age of 52.
“My dad never got to see me play in the NHL,” Shanahan says. “He started to disappear on me when I was 16 and died when I was 21.” After Shanahan won his first Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 1997, he made a private Saturday afternoon visit to his Dad’s grave to show him the Cup and share in his happiness.
There is an irony to Shanahan’s interpretation of his initial hockey-playing success, an endearing detail that reflects his down-to-earth persona. “I thought my friends’ lives were so much more interesting because they were doing all these new things,” Shanahan says.
“I was certainly the more interesting at the ages of 16 to 18 because I was starting my career as they were finishing high school. But then my friends went to college, started a job, got promoted. They said to me, ‘What are you doing?’ I felt a little bit envious of the variety of their lives while I still had the same job over a 21-year period.”
AN OFFER HE COULDN’T REFUSE
While Shanahan did that “same job” with five different teams over the course of his career, including the St. Louis Blues, Hartford Whalers, Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers, and two stints with the New Jersey Devils, he always had one eye on “his” Toronto Maple Leafs, a commitment to the team which is deeply personal.
“I watched the Leafs while I was growing up and always kept one eye on them,” Shanahan says. “I understand what it means for people in this city for the team to have success. And how it feels when it doesn’t appear there is hope. It’s like a kid growing up in Dallas being asked to run the Cowboys, or a kid in the Bronx being asked to run the Yankees.”
“I’ve always been someone who, even at a young age, was able to recognize when I was in a moment. I’ve never looked back and said, I wish I’d realized what great times those were.”
Shanahan’s ties to Toronto run deep. His Mom, Rosaleen, who Shanahan calls his hero—she drove to London most weekends to watch him play hockey. She still lives in the same family home. So when he was approached with the offer to be the Leafs’ president, Shanahan tried to weigh the decision objectively and without emotion. It became a family decision that included his wife, Catherine, his 13-yearold twins, Jack and Maggie, and daughter Cate, 11.
“My wife has been incredible. She has given me a great gift in allowing me to come here and do this. When we finally made the decision—with the kids a part of it—my wife gave me a hug and said, ‘I knew you were taking it the day they talked to you about it’,” Shanahan says with a smile.
STRESS AND SOLITUDE
Shanahan’s jam-packed schedule reflects the pressure and expectations that die-hard Leaf fans have around this season’s team. As a stressbuster and a means to staying physically fit, Shanahan runs, something he did a lot of throughout his NHL career. When asked whether he runs long distances, Shanahan replies sardonically, “They seem long to me.”
A big believer in being totally immersed in the challenges at hand, often to the point of obsession, Shanahan is also a firm believer in solitude as a means to strategize and decompress. Often he will sit in the corner of a restaurant, iPad in hand, and spend some time thinking.
“People in this town must think I’m a very lonely guy,” Shanahan says with a wry grin. “It’s part of my treatment for myself, just getting alone with my own thoughts.”
WHETHER YOU WIN OR LOSE
One of the hardest transitions of aging for Shanahan is recognizing life’s victories and failures, a fact that he says was not nearly as hard when he played hockey, where the victories were obvious and clear cut.
“One wins and the other loses,” Shanahan says. “As a hockey player you get hit over the head with your victories. When you score, people cheer. The thing I had to learn in my five years at the league is balance. That means having a thick skin. It is learning how to take in the good and block out the bad.”
Another factor that hockey players deal with when they retire is the feeling that a part of them has died; the ability to go out on the ice and perform is taken away at a fairly young age, somewhere between the mid 30s or early 40s as was the case for Shanahan.
“You look for other ways to get going,” Shanahan says. “I’m definitely a challenge-oriented person. I don’t mind sitting back and relaxing in the midst of having a challenging job, but I wouldn’t enjoy sitting back and relaxing without knowing that the wheels were turning somewhere in my mind with a challenge that I had taken on.”
EVER YOUNG AT HEART
Fatherhood is at the top of the list when Shanahan counts life’s gifts. “It is a blend of me getting older and my children getting older too. Each age has been so much fun. With my kids I’m part dad and part kid. Oftentimes, my wife will say she is laying discipline on all four of us children,” Shanahan says with a boyish grin.
“I really don’t focus a lot on age. When I was younger I felt older, like a 28-year-old man who had a job and responsibilities. Now that I’m older, I feel younger, until someone calls me ‘sir’ on the street that I think is way older than me, or I see a photo and I see I have a lot of grey hair. I remain young at heart and mind by being around the game. That’s the gift that hockey gives to us; it allows us to be kids at heart.”
GO LEAFS GO!
And at the end of the day, hockey is what quickens the spirits of Torontonians, arguably one of the most hockey-crazed cities in either division. Shanahan, Toronto’s home-grown Mimico boy, understands that, lives that, is committed to that.
“I don’t forget what the team meant to the people that I grew up with, to what hockey means to the entire city. Underneath my smile is a fierce determination to do whatever it takes. My single biggest dream, the one that I am committed to achieving, is to win a Stanley Cup here in Toronto. I won’t be entirely happy until I achieve my goal here.”
May the force, in the guise of Mike Babcock, Lou Lamoriello, Kyle Dubas, Mark Hunter, and the entire Maple Leafs roster be with him and all of Toronto too.
A member of the elite Triple Gold Club, Shanahan won three of the most prominent titles in ice hockey (see the first 3 below):
• Gold at the 1994 World Championships
• Gold with Team Canada at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City
• Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings (2001-2002 season); 1 of 3 Cups with the team
• Played on the NHL All-Star team 8 times
• The King Clancy Memorial Trophy
• The Mark Messier Award
• The only NHL player with over 600 goals and 2,000 minutes in penalties