If home is where the heart is, then Brendan Shanahan once left his heart in St. Louis. He played there for four happy seasons, made friends, had good times, hosted a radio show, even purchased his first house. It’s a big moment when you first sign a mortgage, it makes you feel rooted, grown-up. So the dismal day he was traded to Hartford, the Siberia of the NHL, Shanahan made a vow. He would not give up his house. They could take away his uniform, pluck him like a weed.
But they couldn’t take his roots.
Shanahan held onto that house in Ladue, Mo., for nearly two years. He held onto it through the tumultuous season in Hartford, he held onto it last season when he was traded to Detroit. All the while, he rented it to former Blues teammate Geoff Courtnall, a tough player with a nasty reputation.
Then came last year’s playoffs, Detroit vs. St. Louis.
“After a few elbows to the face,” Shanahan says, laughing, “I told Geoff we need to make some other housing arrangement.”
Shanahan eventually sold the home. And he began to build a new one here, in Birmingham. He’s a Detroit guy now. A Red Wing through and through. Tonight, for the first time in his playoff career, Shanahan returns to St. Louis without a deed or mortgage in the community. When he used to come through with the Whalers, Blues fans gave him a nice round of applause.
“The day I got traded to Detroit,” Shanahan says, “a friend from St. Louis called me and said, ‘We have to hate you now.’ It was OK when I was playing for a team that was no threat and wasn’t even in the conference. But to go to the Red Wings? It would be sacrilegious for them to cheer me after that. “
Life in No Town, USA
It’s a strange part of the sports business. The idea that you can be a hero to an entire town, and then one day, through a simple business transaction — a trade — you’re suddenly the enemy. One moment you’re dressing in the plush locker room with a nameplate and all your favorite items, and the next moment you’re in the visitors locker room down the hall, under a hook by a wooden bench. One minute they’re cheering you, the next day they’re yelling drop dead.
Shanahan, 29, is used to it. He knows that fans root for their hometown. He began his career in New Jersey, where “I never felt like I was part of a hometown because there was no town. Two days after the season ended, I was back in Toronto.”
Hartford was even worse. Few people cared about hockey there and even fewer pretended to.
But St. Louis and Detroit have been home to Shanahan, a guy who takes that concept seriously. In St. Louis, as a young and unattached player, he was out most every night, at his regular restaurants, Balaban’s or Morton’s, or at pool table joints where he met the community. Shanahan, unlike many pro athletes, likes to meet people who are not in his field. One night, he met a guy playing pool, became friendly, and a few years later, went into business with him.
“St. Louis is a small town, you get to know people quickly,” he says. “I got a charge out of the people who worked in the arena. I knew the guards and the concessions workers and these old ladies who sold popcorn. They always wanted to talk. You felt like they were counting on you to do something they couldn’t do on the ice.
“Hartford was never like that. In Hartford, the only thing they said to you at the arena was, ‘Where’s your ID?’ And when you told them you were a player they’d say, ‘Which team?’ “
Shanahan, obviously, has found a friendlier nest in Detroit. People know who he is. And considering the Stanley Cup the Wings brought to town last year, conversation is no longer an issue. Everyone — the fans, the security guards, the concessions people — want to talk hockey. Once again, he feels like he belongs.
“No question,” Shanahan says, “I feel like Detroit saved me.”
A hockey original
The NHL is a geographical pizza pie, with most of the players coming from Canada and most of the teams located in the United States. That means the odds of playing for a team where you grew up are slim. Most players have to adopt hometowns. Some do it better than others; Shanahan does it well. He yearns to take pride in the place where he lives. He constantly boasts that Detroit is
“the ultimate hockey town.” He has found a whole new array of restaurants and movie theaters to indulge his passion for cinema. He’s building a dream home. He’s getting married.
“I always wanted to play in one of the Original Six cities,” he says. “I feel like I’m finally there.”
So tonight, when he takes the ice against the Blues, he might nod to some familiar faces, maybe even see some security guards he recognizes. But when they boo his name, he won’t be hurt. He won’t even be paying attention. He’s an all-Detroit guy now. Home is where the heart is.
Not to mention the mortgage.
“Last year, after you beat the Blues in the playoffs,” Shanahan is asked, “was Courtnall late with the rent?”
“Nope,” he says, “payment was made in full.”
Hmm. Either Shanahan is a pretty stiff landlord or this Courtnall guy’s not as tough as he looks.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581. He will sign copies of his best-seller “Tuesdays With Morrie” 1-2 p.m. Saturday at Little Professor in Plymouth.