BRENDAN Shanahan doesn’t worry about much. He could be pushed from an airplane with no parachute, and he’d raise an eyebrow and say, “Cool! When I get out of this, I’m gonna have a really good story to tell the guys.”
Even his wife, Catherine, is so astounded by his unflappable nature, she often asks, “When you were in the womb, Brendan, did your mother read you confidence books?”
It’s a fair question, considering the grinning, eye-rolling, shoulder-shrugging approach that Shanahan brings to nearly every moment in life. You can’t seem to hurt him; he takes slashes the way summer campers take mosquito bites. You can’t embarrass him; he used to fool reporters by making up Forrest Gump-like stories about himself. You can’t rattle him; remember the playoffs the last two years, when the pressure was supposedly the greatest, but the Red Wings locker room was rampant with childish pastimes like the
“name three actors in a movie” game?
That was Brendan.
He plays a violent game without a violent nature, he makes comic references that nobody else gets, he reads books in a sport where many players never get past the sports section — yet everyone seems to like him, or at the very least, laugh with him. His biggest problem seems to be finding a comfortable way to smile, since whenever you see him, his lip, cheek or chin seems to be held together by stitches.
Then again, you might argue, what’s not to smile about? Here is a man who landed in Detroit the way Aladdin landed on a magic carpet. No sooner had he gotten here than the Wings whisked to a Stanley Cup. Then another Stanley Cup. Two years, two rings. That’s what you call high-percentage success. Shanahan went from finding his way to the rink to sitting on “The Tonight Show” couch showing Lord Stanley’s Cup to Jay Leno.
Let’s face it. Since the day of the big trade that sent Keith Primeau and Paul Coffey packing, the Wings have not lost a playoff round, and Shanahan has been nothing less than blessed.
Or, as he puts it, “I got here senior year and immediately went to the prom.”
So I was curious if his Disney-like happiness was tested this season when the table suddenly tilted, the stars went behind the clouds, and reality set in. I’m talking about “the slump” — as Shanahan followers now know it — which began the day after Christmas. Shanahan went not one, not two, not five or nine, but 15 games without a goal. More than a month. He was challenged openly by his coach. He was benched for many power plays and penalty-killing shifts. He became the target of swirling trade rumors and was bad-mouthed by a small but vocal pocket of fans and media hysterics.
“It’s time to get rid of Shanahan,” they moaned. “He’s served his purpose. He’s not the player he used to be.”
That thump you heard was the magic carpet hitting a sand dune.
Living through the slump
Shanahan sits now in a Birmingham bagel shop, mashing a peanut butter and jelly bagel together in a gooey union. It is a few days before tonight’s playoff opener against Anaheim. Shanahan is talking about the “bad stretch.”
“Did you count the scoreless games during that slump?” I ask.
“Oh, sure,” he admits. “You count seven, eight, nine. You don’t want to get to 10, you don’t want double figures. But even when I did — and at that point, I had no reason to be confident — I would still come to the rink and say,
‘Tonight’s the night it’s going to end.’ “
It didn’t. It went on like a nightmare after a spicy meal. But something else began. A groundswell of support within the locker room.
“Around the ninth or 10th game,” Shanahan says, “Steve Yzerman came up to me and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just keep doing what you’re doing. You’re getting good shots.’ And so did some other guys. They kept saying, ‘Keep playing the way you’re playing. It’ll come.’
“That was so important. Because the worst thing in hockey is to get a look from a teammate like you’re not pulling your weight. All during that slump, when there was trade talk and everything, I admit, it bothered me. I didn’t want to leave Detroit. I knew how good this team was, and I wanted to stay a part of it. I was like, ‘Don’t kick me out of the club! I like this treehouse.’
“But no matter what was said about me elsewhere, my teammates stood by me. They were pushing for me. They said, ‘Keep getting chances. It’ll come.’ It’s easy to be a buddy when the team is winning and you’re doing well. But I learned a lot about what my teammates were really like in that slump. They pulled me through it.”
His coach was a different story. Scotty Bowman is not known for small, friendly pep talks — or for talking with his players at all. He talks with his actions, and his use of Shanahan indicated a decline in confidence. When there was trade talk, Bowman didn’t deny it. At one point, he challenged Shanahan and Sergei Fedorov by saying if they wanted more ice time, why weren’t they more productive with it?
Although Shanahan kept a respectful silence, and dug into his game and himself even deeper, it was clear that he had landed in Scotty’s doghouse. Not, as Seinfeld used to say, that there’s anything wrong with that. Pretty much every player on the Wings — including Yzerman, the hallowed captain — has been in that position at one point or another.
It’s not going in the doghouse, they’ll tell you. It’s getting out that matters.
For Shanahan — who for a while had to wonder if there were a bone in his locker and the name “Spot” spray-painted atop — that freedom finally came last month, in a meeting before the game in Tampa. Bowman called him in to his office. The coach spoke his mind. The player spoke his.
Something clicked. Shanahan had six goals and three assists in his next nine games. He was feisty. He was suddenly back to major ice time.
And despite the nights when he came home and told his wife, “This slump has gone on too long, I can’t save it, I’m destined to have a bad year” — he still finished the regular season with 31 goals, which led the team, and 27 assists.
We should all have such rotten years.
So now the dark-haired, heavy-whiskered son of Irish immigrants prepares for the best part of the year, when the drag of the regular season is behind, and the glorious promise of another championship is within sight.
“People always ask me what’s the hardest part of winning a Cup,” he says. “I tell them: ‘It’s the anticipation of winning a Cup.’ “
Of course, this year, as in the year that he arrived, the Wings are going into the playoffs with some new big names who haven’t done post-season battle under a Detroit flag. It worked out well with Shanahan, and he believes the same will be true of Chris Chellios, Wendel Clark, Ulf Samuelsson and Bill Ranford.
“I heard some people down in Dallas trying to stir things up, saying, ‘That’s a lot of egos in one dressing room’ and ‘There’s only so much ice to go around.’
“But that’s the thing about getting players who have been around. When you’re first coming up, it’s important to prove to yourself what you can do. It’s important to win a big trophy like the Hart or the Norris, or to score 100 points in a season, 50 goals, lead the league in plus-minus, whatever.
“And once you get that out of the way, then the next thing you learn how to do is win as a team. That’s where this group is. Hey, I’ve had seasons where I scored 50 goals and had a miserable summer. These guys are like that, too. The individual stuff is behind them now. They’re proven themselves. Basically nobody on this team cares who scores the game-winner, as long as our team gets the game-winner.”
Shanahan, who turned 30 this year, enters this post-season a bit differently from ones in the past. For one thing, he’s married. Did it last summer. His reputation as an out-every-night guy, which characterized his years in St. Louis, is behind him. He says he’s having fun in a different fashion, because
“I married my best friend.”
“How has it changed you?” I ask him.
He gets that impish grin. “Well, for one thing, if this interview were a few years ago, I’d be hung over and complaining that 10 a.m. is waaaay too early to be talking.”
He drops his head in a mock hangover, then laughs. Shanahan is still one of the first players reporters go to for quotes — so much so, that he sometimes stays out of sight for fear that he is getting quoted on nights when he is not the integral player. But one thing has changed. There are no more lies about his past.
For years, whenever Shanahan showed up to start a new season, he would tell reporters that he had done amazing thing in the off-season, like auditioning for the role of Dino in “The Flintstones” movie, playing an extra in “Forrest Gump” or climbing mountains or wandering through foreign countries. Amazingly, many writers took him at his word and printed it. Even a few media guides listed his off-beat accomplishments.
The only problem was, none of it was true.
“What happened?” I ask.
“The jig is up,” he says, shrugging. “Somewhere along the line, I must have admitted that the stories were false, and now I can’t go back on it. I was just having some fun with a few reporters. I didn’t know they would actually print that stuff!”
So the phony bio sheet is gone, so is the single status, and perhaps some of the innocent belief that life as a Red Wing would never have a bad moment. It’s called growing up, and eventually, even in Hockeytown, there will be a moment when that happens for everyone in this current state of euphoria. The parades will end. The second-guessers will appear.
“That’s why winning this year is so important to us,” Shanahan says. “A lot of guys on this team will get another chance to win a Stanley Cup, if not here, somewhere else. But how many will ever have a chance to win three in a row? That’s history.”
And that’s what they’re after. Sooner or later, Shanahan has to end a Detroit season short of Camelot. He has to lose. But for now, he curls his lips around the stitches into what constitutes his current smile. Why not think positive? The slump is behind him, the best time of year has arrived, and for Mr. Optimistic, it’s still senior year at the prom, with his buddies at the table, and the band playing a song that makes you feel like staying young forever.
To leave a message for MITCH ALBOM, call 1-313-223-4581 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to “ALBOM IN THE AFTERNOON” 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM