In sports, you are always being judged. Sometimes by fans. Sometimes by coaches. And sometimes by a man with a notepad and binoculars.
This man appears throughout your sports life. When you’re a child, he is the dad who chooses up the peewee teams. When you’re a teen, he is the high school coach during tryouts. Later he becomes the college recruiter, sitting in the stands. Eventually, he is the pro scout up in the press box, with a stopwatch and a stat sheet and a report that he will file.
Usually, if you are lucky enough to make the big time, you are done with the man with the notepad and binoculars. You have proved yourself. He is gone from your shadow. Certainly, in hockey, if you have won two Stanley Cups, if you have led your team in goals three of the past four years, you no longer need concern yourself with his probing eyes and weighty judgment.
Usually. . . .
On Wednesday night, at Joe Louis Arena, the man with the notepad was back for Brendan Shanahan. His name was Wayne Gretzky, maybe the greatest player ever to lace up skates.
And now he was The Judge.
Gretzky is picking the Canadian Olympic hockey team. Not alone. There are others. But his word is the hammer. Everyone knows it.
“There’s a guy here who’s trying hard to make a good impression on you,” someone joked with Gretzky.
“Yep. I know.”
“So? Is it working?”
The Great One grinned. “We already knew he was good.”
Shanny’s still on the outside
There is an interesting connection between Gretzky and Shanahan. Both of them were on the 1998 Olympic team in Nagano, Japan. Remember? The one that fell off the rainbow? Finished out of the medals — no gold, silver or bronze?
The crushing loss came against Dominik Hasek and the Czechs. Gretzky was crying after that game. Shanahan, who missed the final shot in a shoot-out, emerged afterward like a zombie. That 1998 finish was a hole in the heart of the Great White North.
The 2002 Olympics, only a few months away, could be Canada’s retribution. Steve Yzerman, who was also on the 1998 team, will get his crack at it, as one of eight players already chosen for the new squad. Same with Rob Blake, Joe Sakic and Chris Pronger, all returnees from ’98. Gretzky, as the executive director, will have his moment as well.
Shanahan, however, is still on the outside. Unfairly, if you ask me. But outside nonetheless.
“I think Brendan really would like to be on that team,” Wings coach Scotty Bowman said. “It means a good deal to him.”
Here is Shanahan’s case to date: He is leading the NHL in scoring, and leads the streaking Red Wings in goals, points and — lest you question his toughness — penalty minutes.
“How can you ignore that?” Gretzky was asked.
“You don’t ignore it,” he said. “We know he’s great. He’s won Stanley Cups. We want guys like Brendan to be on the team. We want them to make it impossible for us not to put them on it.”
But when asked whether he felt he owed a preference to Shanahan, as the only real star from 1998 not already on the squad, Gretzky would not commit.
“It would be a good story,” he admitted, “but the really good story would be us winning a gold medal. That’s what we all want — Brendan, too.”
How can Gretzky deny him?
In the locker room, after the Wings’ sixth straight victory, Shanahan, who added another assist to his pile, was surprised to learn Gretzky had been in the house.
“Nobody said anything,” he said. “But it wouldn’t have made a difference. I’m not playing for (an Olympic team berth). I’m playing for this team, right now.”
He laughed. “Back in juniors they used to tell us when the scouts were outside. They’d say, ‘Boston’s here,’ or ‘Montreal’s here.’ We’d come out looking for the men in the fedoras and the trench coats.”
Asked whether he felt his lofty numbers would make him “undeniable,” he shrugged.
“They’re picking 20 guys. They can’t lose. No matter who they take, he’s not gonna be a bum.”
I have said it before. Shanahan deserves a spot. He deserves it for his talent, for his efforts last time, and for his heart, which is more firmly entrenched in Canadian pride than he will ever let on.
Isn’t it funny? Shanahan is 32 years old, with everything you could want on his resume. Yet someone is still upstairs, taking notes, making a decision. It is as true for hockey players, I suppose, as it is for every one of us. No matter how old you get, every now and then, you still have to try out.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.