There’s a time when you cast a shadow and a time when the shadow casts you. This, more than anything, is why Brendan Shanahan left the Red Wings on Sunday and signed with the New York Rangers.
“It was just a growing instinct,” he said via phone from his summer home in Massachusetts. “As great as the future is in Detroit, I think I belonged a little more to its great past.”
This is not your typical departing-athlete statement, which more often goes: “I had to do what was best for my family.”
But Shanahan was never a typical athlete. More cerebral than most, more risk-taking than others, Shanahan, in his decade in this city, was keenly aware of the public thermometer. He knew how rare it was to ride a wave of Red Wings fever to three Stanley Cups in six years. And now, at 37, with the local horizon filled less with championships than with melancholy comparisons, he got while the gittin’ was good.
“I guess I felt my group was leaving, our era is kind of over,” he said. “I think it’s better to walk out the door than to have it opened for you and, you know”- he chuckled -“they grab you by the scruff of the neck and throw you out.”
This is not Ben Wallace, harpooning big money and leaving behind the teammates who made him special. Shanahan took a one-year, $4-million deal from the Rangers, for the same or even less potential money than the Wings were offering, because he feels he is down to his final seasons and he wants to play them on the ice, not against his shadow. He spoke to Steve Yzerman about it. He spoke to Ken Holland about it. Both conversations, he said, ended not with anger but with them talking about how much they had accomplished together.
And while Shanahan no doubt would have made the Wings better next season – the left wing led them in goals with 40 – let’s be honest. There already were people saying “he’s not what he used to be.” Or “he can’t get it done in the playoffs.” Or “he’s not worth that much money.”
In New York, he is a fresh face. In New York, he brings championship experience to a team that hasn’t tasted a title since 1994. In New York, he’s not the first guy reporters find to ask why his team isn’t living up to its usual expectations.
Time moves like a river.
A true power forward
“Friends of mine have been telling me the last few days, You know, you will always be identified as a Red Wing,’ ” Shanahan said. “I know that. I’m proud of all we did there.”
And he likely will be more appreciated the longer he’s gone. Shanahan, 15th on the NHL’s all-time goal-scoring list, was a big, strong, resilient player in Detroit, blessed with a rare ability to be offensive in more ways than one. He shot, scored, punched and pummeled. He could notch a hat trick with two black eyes. He was crafty. He rose to the occasion. And while his recent postseasons were plagued by the same scoring droughts that shadowed most of the Wings, you never doubted No. 14 was a big-time player.
And he always made it clear how he felt about his teammates. He was on your side if you were on his.
But people forget that Shanahan played nine seasons before coming to Detroit. He wore a Hartford uniform, a St. Louis uniform and a New Jersey uniform. He knows what it’s like to begin again, to take on new expectations. In some ways, he relishes it. Although he and Yzerman became dear friends and a terrific captain/assistant captain combo, there was always a difference between the two.
“Steve is like a born son of Detroit,” Shanahan said, laughing. “I was like the kid they adopted when I was 12 years old. It was great. I have no complaints. Detroit made me feel so special. They were like, We’ll pretend you didn’t play those nine seasons before you got here.’ “
But he did. And now he’ll play in New York, where his quick wit and media savvy will be put to good use. Shanahan is a curious guy, the type who meets movie directors and winds up doing a cameo in one of their films. Playing and living in the nation’s biggest market is no doubt an attraction. And, as he said, when they see his face “with the gray streaks in my hair, they won’t say, Man, he’s getting old.’ They’ll say, That’s the new guy. Let’s see what he’s got.’ “
I don’t think he is big-timing Detroit. He had chances to do that in the past, for bigger money, but he stayed here, believing his core unit had more titles to win. That core unit is dissolving now. The days of Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Darren McCarty and Dominik Hasek are gone. The future belongs to newer guys, such as Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. The Red Wings are a franchise in transition.
Time moves like a river.
The best of times
“What will you miss the most about Detroit?” Shanahan was asked Sunday.
“It’s not so much what I’ll miss as what I’ll look back on and reminisce about,” he said. “All the guys I played with, the interaction with the fans, the faces of people I didn’t even know in the stands that I just saw, year after year, in the same seats. I’ll miss whoever thought of the idea of playing the Irish jig when I scored – except Chris Chelios always wanted me to go to center ice and actually DO the dance. …
“I don’t know. The championship teams and especially that first year, when we had to take something from Colorado. All of our guys were pretty much looking for their first Stanley Cup. It’s just amazing to think I was part of the team that was able to do those things. …
“And the bad things as well, like Vladdie (Konstantinov) or what we went through with (Jiri) Fischer last year. That stuff makes you close. Even off the ice, I know when my wife and I go back to pack up the house and put it on the market, it’s going to be very emotional. We were married during my time in Detroit. All of our (three) kids were born while I was in Detroit.”
He stopped. He sighed. There was emotion in his voice, but not regret. More like acceptance. Shanahan, more than most, understands the way the business works. It is part of why he was so effective during the labor stoppage in getting different parties together and helping to reshape the game.
He knows glory. He knows defeat. And he knows that all players eventually reach that bracing moment when they face a hook: Either they hang their skates on it, or they are given it by management. He didn’t want that happening in Detroit. He leaves with a good decade behind him, locked and laminated. It’s the smart play, maybe as positive an ending as he was going to get as a Wing.
Detroit has lost three major stars in the past week. Each had his own story. Yzerman was canonized. Wallace was jeered.
Brendan Shanahan, when the smoke clears, will be appreciated – and missed. You can be happy that he has found a team for his closing chapters, or you can be angry that he didn’t make it Detroit. But he didn’t leave spitting. He didn’t wave a bundle of cash from the train. He spent a lot of time on the ice over the years anticipating a pass or a punch, and when he anticipated his end here, he saw more shadows than light. He made a choice. And he’s right about one thing. An era has passed.
Time moves like a river. Ours is called the Detroit. And his, now, is called the Hudson.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. www.freep.com/mitch.