SHANAHAN’S QUESTION MAY GO UNANSWERED

THEY showered in silence. They dressed in silence. Brendan Shanahan dressed faster than most. He was on fire, burning from the inside. He exited swiftly, avoiding eye contact. He got on the bus with his head down.

This was last Friday night, in Colorado, where the hockey season ended so ignobly for Detroit. Shanahan could not speak to reporters. He barely spoke to anyone. In the two days that followed, when family members asked about the series, “It was like talking about a death,” he says.

True competitors die a little with every loss, but there were two daggers sticking in Shanahan’s heart this time. First, and more crucial, was the Red Wings’ stunning defeat at the hands of the Avalanche.

Second was how little Shanahan could do to stop it.

His playing time had steadily decreased since the start of the playoffs. For some reason, he was no longer used on the first power-play unit — even though he led the team in goals this year.

And then, in Friday’s season finale, Shanahan was demoted to the fourth line, getting little ice time until the game was all but out of reach.

He wanted to do more. He felt fresh. He felt unwrapped. He wanted to scream,
“Use me!” But in hockey, you don’t speak up, you wait for them to call you. Scotty Bowman, for whatever reason, did not call him often.

The Wings lost. The season ended.

No explanation was given.

Then came Monday.

Bursting the outburst bubble

Shanahan arrived at Joe Louis Arena, like his teammates, to clean out his locker, take the final team picture, and say so long. Naturally, the media were there. And naturally, because Shanahan’s name had been atop the list of
“players who didn’t do what they were supposed to do” — which in his case meant score — the questions came fast.

Are you disappointed? …Why didn’t you do more? …How much of this was your fault?

And Shanahan spoke.

Or, to hear some reporters tell it, “He went off!” “He let them have it!”

Well. I’ve heard that before. Makes for a good headline — especially when there are no games left to cover.

But if you really examine what Shanahan said in his “explosion,” you’ll see it was pretty measured stuff. I spoke to Shanahan later Monday night, and he was already concerned that his words would be deemed an outburst rather than honesty.

“I spoke up because I felt like I was dying. I want my future here. I want to play with these guys and this coach. I think we’ve got more Stanley Cups in us, I really do. I thought we had one in us this year.

“When I walked in today, (the media) threw a lot of questions at me. They asked me how I felt. I said I felt extremely disappointed, frustrated, angry and disillusioned — not only because we lost, but because I wasn’t given more opportunity to help the team.

“I didn’t want more ice time so I could get a good mark for the playoffs and we’d still be out in the second round. I want to win Stanley Cups. It’s a waste to be paying me what I get paid to sit on the bench, and I don’t want to waste anyone’s money.”

Just trying to be a straight shooter

Now, let’s be clear here. None of this would be news if Scotty Bowman were the kind of coach you could approach with your issues. But when it comes to communication, hockey is still a Little Red Schoolhouse where you don’t question the teacher — especially when the teacher has eight championship rings as a coach.

Nobody explained to Shanahan why he was demoted to the second power-play unit
— which meant, instead of being one of four deadly options, alongside Steve Yzerman, Nick Lidstrom and Sergei Fedorov, he was now clearly the “shooter” on the second unit, and the defenses knew it.

And no one explained why Shanahan was broken off the potent line with Yzerman and Pat Verbeek, thus interrupting his rhythm, which a streaky scorer like Shanahan needs.

No one explained why Yzerman’s and Fedorov’s ice time increased as the Wings searched for more offense, while Shanahan’s decreased. The truth is Shanahan had a better plus-minus in the playoffs than Yzerman or Lidstrom, he was tied for third in playoff points, and he got off more shots than any other Red Wing. But somehow he was in the doghouse.

If you were Shanahan, wouldn’t you like a few answers?

He won’t get them. Bowman does what he wants — and to be honest, many of us media types are so in awe of his reputation, we don’t question him as much as we should.

That’s a mistake. But so is taking a player’s rather common desire — to get as much time as he can — and announcing it as an explosion or a controversy. I’m glad Shanahan cares enough to be upset. He isn’t saying give me the damn ball, he’s responding to accusations that this is somehow his fault.

It’s not his fault, nor could he have fixed it by himself. He’s a shooter who was suddenly given less time to shoot and a less empowering cast to shoot with. Why? That’s a fair question, even for Scotty Bowman.

As for an answer?

I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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