THE ROAD BACK TO HOCKEY

Hockey returns tonight, after 16 months away, and what a long, strange trip it’s been – none more so than the odyssey of Brendan Shanahan. When we last saw him he was near tears in the Red Wings locker room.

Now, he’s Winston Churchill.

OK. Maybe that’s a stretch. But not much, once you hear his story.

In the beginning, it was all a vacation. Shanahan, like a lot of NHL players, figured there was nothing he could do about the hockey lockout, so he made the most of the time. He flew to the Ryder Cup and wound up drinking with the European golfers. He traveled to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox end the Curse of the Bambino.

He took up paddleball. He coached lacrosse at a high school. He even dropped the puck for his old junior team as it played for a championship in London, Ontario.

“Aside from the fact that we were locked out,” he jokes, “I was having a pretty good year.”

But even vacations get old, and Shanahan, in his heart and muscle memory, was hockey. He didn’t want to be “another player sitting by the phone, buying the Toronto Globe and Mail, looking for info.”

And so one day, using his cell phone, he made a few calls, and then a few more. He had this idea to get some people together to talk about hockey’s future – not the money, not the collective bargaining – just the game. And pretty soon, despite some naysayers, he’d scheduled a small summit of players, ex-players, GMs, refs and broadcast types, for two days at a hotel.

He had never tried anything like this before. He didn’t know from booking a ballroom, or catering, or restaurants, but he got some help and he learned fast.

And finally, last December, at the Four Seasons in Toronto, Shanahan stood before a buffet breakfast and welcomed the group with a few words, then sat down and let the others do the talking.

It was a big success. It got ideas flowing. It lasted two full days and resulted in several rules changes that eventually would be adopted when the sport resumed. Shanahan went home tired and satisfied.

He had no idea that was just the beginning.

Off to the boardroom

He went to Russia, then Europe, then home for Christmas and New Year’s Day, enjoying his newborn daughter – which made three children for Shanahan and his wife, Catherine. And then he began to get calls. Other people with other ideas. Players encouraging him to keep active, make something happen.

In April, he was invited – with a handful of other players – to the NHL’s general managers meeting in Detroit.

Then in May, in the middle of a day in Boston with his wife, his phone rang.

“Can you come to New York for a meeting?”

It was Bob Goodenow, the chief of the players’ union. Remember, this was in the heat of the lockout, with the owners having already canceled one season and the players hoping to salvage the next.

Shanahan, curious, said OK, he’d come. When?

“Tonight,” he was told.

He flew to New York, figuring to be back the next afternoon.

Instead, he was there for two days and 23 hours’ worth of meetings, wearing only the clothes he’d brought with him (“unfortunately for the people sitting next to me” he says). From that point forward, Shanahan was a sort of fifth Beatle in the labor negotiations, a shadow to the process, a tagalong that everybody accepted.

He was in on every negotiation session. He went to New York. He went to Toronto. Although he was not an elected officer, nor a member of the negotiating team, he got the same calls and briefings, he says, as the seven NHL players who were on the executive committee. He sat next to them. He ate with them. He was even given an official “alias” when he checked into the hotels, presumably to hide from the media.

“I was ‘Brandon Lee,’ ” he says. He laughs. “I tried to tell them Brandon Lee was an actor – and he died.”

An unexpected part

In truth, they could have used a different movie moniker: Forrest Gump. Because that’s what Shanahan became. He was in the picture, but he wasn’t official. He was in attendance, but absent credentials. If you know Shanahan, this doesn’t surprise you. The 36-year-old power forward has a knack for being fearless and easygoing and charming and next thing you know, he’s doing a cameo in a Farrelly Brothers movie or drinking with Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington in an Irish pub.

So there he was, at all the meetings, constantly reminding the others that he was “happy to step away” and constantly being told he should stay.

“Other guys in the league called me and said they liked my being there because they wanted an outsider to sort of watch the process,” he says.

And that process, he insists, was more sweat than some believe. While most of the NHL’s players begrudgingly accepted the new labor deal (which instituted pay cuts and a salary cap, among other concessions), Shanahan has a different take on the process.

“Being in those rooms gave me a greater appreciation of the reality we were facing,” he says. “We were dealing with very sophisticated, serious men, who had billions of dollars at stake. …

“I went to the meetings for two months. … Some days were 16 hours long. It gave me a feeling for all this work” the executive committee “was doing for us for more than a year, even though, in the end, a lot of players felt it was a failure.”

Shanahan, who didn’t have a vote on the committee, nonetheless wore a suit every day to the meetings. He took notes. He burned a hole through his cell phone. He tried to placate his wife, who understandably wanted him home.

The final verdict

At some point in the late spring, Shanahan realized he had traded in a world of cheering crowds for a world of leather chairs, coffee from silver carafes, and a pad and pen laid out in each place.

“One day, I forgot my dress shoes, and during a lunch break, I went across the street to buy some,” he says. “Three guys volunteered to come with me! That gives you an idea of how stir crazy we had gotten. Three guys to buy one pair of shoes!”

Still, he got to see the business side of his sport in action. He got to see how the owners behaved, how they negotiated, how the commissioner, Gary Bettman, conducted things away from the TV cameras. He was there for all of it, a man in the room, a counsel, an observer, a trusted adviser, a guy to buy shoes with.

But he was still Forrest Gump. And when the final deal was announced at a union news conference, “it was those guys at a head table, and I was sitting in the back with 300 other players. I just looked up at these guys and they all looked very tired and they looked like they were being attacked and I felt sorry for them.

“For two months, I saw hockey players who had to act like executives” since the 2004 season ended. “To the guys in our sport who have issues with certain parts of our deal, I say, hey, I sat with these guys, these hockey players, and listened to them talk about strangers who they didn’t even play with and say, ‘We have to make sure the fourth-line players are protected in this,’ or ‘We can’t just worry about the star players, we have to protect the guy who goes up and down in the minors.’

“They honestly, truly, did their best. So it offends me when players openly criticize it. These guys worked really hard.”

Tonight, Shanahan will skate out on the Joe Louis Arena ice and get paid, once again, for playing a sport. He’ll be wearing a sweater, not a suit. Skates, not dress shoes.

Like the rest of the Red Wings, he’ll be back to what he loves the most. But he’s wiser. Wise enough to say it was “an honor” to be part of the process and “as much as some of it was hard, you need bad moments to appreciate the good.”

Or, as Gump might put it: Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get – or how you’ll spend your summer vacation.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This