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100 Greatest Players

Brendan Shanahan: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Gritty wing won Stanley Cup three times with Red Wings

by Bob Duff / Special to


Brendan Shanahan always was asking questions.

He still is.

Curiosity has always driven Shanahan. He is someone who is forever thirsting for knowledge.


Video: Brandan Shanahan won Cup three times with Detroit


"I've always been the kind of player and person who wanted to pick people's brains and learn as much as I can," Shanahan said.

He views every day as another opportunity to learn.

"As a player, I used to ask (Detroit Red Wings general manager) Kenny [Holland] how hard it was, how much work he had to do," Shanahan said.


Games: 1,524 | Goals: 656 | Assists: 698 | Points: 1,354


You never knew in what direction the left wing's quest for knowledge might take him. It was an all-encompassing pursuit.

One afternoon in the Red Wings dressing room following a practice, Shanahan burst into the room, a pressing matter on his mind.

"Who sang the song 'Hungry Eyes'?" he blurted out to no one in particular.

"Eric Carmen," a reporter answered.

"Thanks," Shanahan said, quickly disappearing again.

A moment later, he was back, seeking out the same reporter.

"I just felt you should know that I'm ashamed of you for knowing that," Shanahan said before suddenly vanishing once more.

During his 21-season NHL career with the New Jersey Devils, St. Louis Blues, Hartford Whalers, Red Wings and New York Rangers, Shanahan was quite comfortable cloaking his non-stop research efforts behind a cache of Irish blarney.

Shanny's supposed summer activities were the stuff of legend.

According to media guide lore, Shanahan served as Ireland's backup goalkeeper at the 1994 World Cup, appeared in the movie "Forrest Gump," failed a screen test for the role of Dino in the film "The Flintstones," worked as a ball boy during Andre Agassi's matches at the U.S. Open and played saxophone at the Canadian Jazz Festival.

None of it is true.

"I'm just a quiet Canadian kid who spends his summer in the Muskokas," Shanahan said, referring to the popular cottage country two hours north of Toronto. "I saw some of the exciting stuff some of the other guys were doing in the summer and just figured I ought to liven up my life a little bit."


Shanahan suggested his ultimate dream would be to run with the bulls at Pamplona, Spain, but no one really knew whether they should believe him.

The man known simply as "Shanny" could have fun with the vagaries of life but when it came to hockey he was deadly serious.

He still is.

"I didn't want to be a movie star," Shanahan said. "I wanted to be a hockey star."

Shanahan certainly was that. He scored 656 goals, 13th in NHL history, won the Stanley Cup three times with the Red Wings, had two 50-goal seasons and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013.

The faithful followers of the Toronto Maple Leafs would argue that Shanahan still is a hockey star. Even though he hung up his skates in 2007, as president and alternate governor of the Maple Leafs Shanahan oversees the fortunes of the team at the center of the hockey universe.

Having grown up watching the Maple Leafs in nearby Mimico, Ontario, he sees the task of returning the Leafs to their former glory as a personal challenge.

"Success here would be more important than anything I did as a player," he said.

This from someone who did a lot as a player, with a unique style of play.

With a quick-release wrist shot and the ability to muscle his way into open space, Shanahan was selected by the Devils with the No. 2 pick in the 1987 NHL Draft. He was twice selected to the First All-Star Team and once to the Second All-Star Team. Shanahan was chosen to play in seven NHL All-Star Games and, in 2002, scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal for the Red Wings against the Carolina Hurricanes.

If you needed a big goal, he could deliver that, either through skill or the strength that allowed him to battle in the dirty areas around the net. If someone was taking liberties with his teammates and required straightening out, Shanahan could handle that as well.

Shanahan was acquired by the Red Wings early in the 1996-97 season, when they would end a 42-year Stanley Cup drought. His coach at the time, Scotty Bowman, said later, "I don't know that there was another player like him in the League. He was a winger, a power winger who could score."

"He was the type of player we didn't have," Holland said.

A leader on the ice and in the dressing room, Shanahan had the presence of Eric Lindros, the shot of Brett Hull and the toughness of Bob Probert.

Off the ice, he was not so easy to sum up.

"Let's just say Brendan is a man with many facets," said former teammate Doug Brown, who has known Shanahan since the two were rookies with the Devils in 1987-88.

"What am I about?" Shanahan asked rhetorically. "When I was on the plane with the other guys, playing cards, I was a card shark, doing card tricks.

"When I was playing paintball, I liked to sneak up on guys and pick them off. When I'm with my family, I'm quiet, because I'm the youngest. When I'm with my friends, I'm a joker, because I'm the funny guy in the bunch."

Indeed, Shanahan has proven to have a wicked sense of humor.

When Sports Illustrated portrayed him as a Shakespearian scholar after he had recited a passage from one of William Shakespeare's plays word for word, Shanahan caught the magazine in another of his famous pranks.

"We did that play in high school and I just remembered the lines," Shanahan said.

At the rink the Shanahan shenanigans are shelved, and he is all business.

"I can be a happy-go-lucky guy, but I'm very serious about my hockey," Shanahan said.

It's why it's so important to him to rebuild the Leafs to their pre-1967 expansion status as one of the League's most dominant franchises, just as it was essential to Shanahan that he get to a Stanley Cup contender during his career.

After four seasons with the Devils, Shanahan signed as a free agent with the Blues in a move that eventually saw future Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens awarded to New Jersey as compensation. After the 1994-95 season, St. Louis traded him to Hartford for another future Hall of Fame defenseman, Chris Pronger.

In his nine seasons with the Devils, Blues and Whalers he reached the conference final just once, as a rookie with New Jersey.

In the 1996 offseason, he asked the Whalers to trade him to a contender. Two games into the regular season, Shanahan was sent to the Red Wings on Oct. 9, 1996, and got his first taste of an Original Six NHL city.

"I wanted to come to a team where there is a mandate to win the Stanley Cup."

The Red Wings did that in 1996-97, defended the championship in 1997-98 and won again in 2001-02, getting 22 goals from Shanahan over those three Cup runs.

"I liked being in the big games and I liked being out there during the big moments of those games," Shanahan said.

Shanahan can appear to be a contradiction. He's as unique an individual as you will come across in the game, and yet he comprehends as well as anyone and in fact, better than most, the inherent value of the team concept.

"I feel sorry for individual athletes like figure skaters and tennis players, because I don't think their sense of accomplishment can compare to when a group comes together and becomes a team," Shanahan said.

"When I scored a big goal in a big game, the lift it gave my teammates meant more to me than the individual accomplishment.

"To me, that's what the Stanley Cup is all about."

Hockey is the driving force in Shanahan's life. It's why during the 2004-05 NHL lockout he helped engineer a summit in Detroit of hockey's top minds to discuss improvements to the game. Among their recommendations that have seen been adopted by the League are no-touch icing, the tag-up offside rule, the trapezoid behind each net and the delay of game penalty for shooting the puck directly out of play from the defensive zone. The summit also led to the establishment of the Competition Committee, which gave players some say in rule changes.

"My whole life, all I wanted to be was a hockey player," Shanahan said. "You go back to when you were 7 years old, getting up at the crack of dawn for 5 a.m. practice. Coming home and playing pond hockey until the sun went down."

He would make plenty of sacrifices to achieve his dream.

"It meant you were going to miss all of your high school dances and football games," Shanahan said. "That you were going to have to move away from home when you were 14, even though you didn't want to move.

"It meant that you were going to have to play in dark rinks filled with 3,000 fans, all of whom hated you, against guys as much as six years older than you, guys with more facial hair than you had on your entire body. And you were going to have to fight against these guys and do well.

"Then maybe -- just maybe -- if you became the big fish in that pond, they'll allow you the chance to become the smallest fish in the next pond."

Shanahan completed that journey. In Detroit he's still viewed as the component that finally turned the Red Wings into champions.

"I was a piece of the puzzle there, but I didn't see myself as the missing piece," Shanahan said. "I do believe I was a big piece of the puzzle, though."

If Shanahan, as the biggest fish in charge of the team skating on hockey's biggest pond, can put the pieces together to turn the Maple Leafs into a powerhouse, well, that would truly bring peace of mind to his smiling Irish eyes.


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