Shanahan is just the man to make the NHL better

Publish date:

I don't put a great deal of stock in the fact that Brendan Shanahan chose to announce his retirement through the NHL offices rather than what's left of the NHL Players Association. But I don't dismiss it, either.

As is the case with so many things in hockey, politics may have played a role in how the end of one of the great careers in NHL history was announced. While Shanahan wasn't and isn't considered anti-union, he did throw his lot in with the NHL when he pushed for rule changes and a reinvention of the game during the 2004-05 lockout. He was a driving force behind a committee charged, in part, with re-inventing the game once the lockout inevitably came to an end and he deserves hockey's undying thanks for that.

Still, there are those in the game, and especially within the hard-line ranks of the NHLPA, that felt the All-Star left winger, the second greatest scorer in the history of the game at that position, was just a tad too cozy with the Commissioner's office during that turbulent time and may have given strength to the NHL in its protracted battle with the union simply by not being more vocal and active in standing up for the players and their cause.

Truthfully, it is an issue for the history books to determine, but the significance of Shanahan's retiring statement coming from New York rather than the NHLPA's offices in Toronto is something that should be noted. Yet, the suggestion from former New York Rangers teammate Steve Valiquette that Shanahan might be a tonic for what ails the NHLPA should not be dismissed, either.

Speaking of the veteran forward after the announcement was made public, Valiquette told the Associated Press this week that: "Maybe he can help us out with our NHLPA situation. Maybe he will be our new executive director."

The Rangers backup goalie and freshly-minted NHLPA player rep went on to say: "Shanny is a leader through and through, so his leadership will be valuable in any capacity. He is either going to be a general manager or he could work for the NHLPA.

"He could do a million things that would influence hockey. He will do something great in hockey, you'll see."

We just might.

Shanahan commands that kind of respect. He could well choose the path that former teammate Steve Yzerman and others are taking, that will undoubtedly lead to a GM's office. He could very well work for the NHL, perhaps as the resident head of the ever-changing NHL Competition Committee, a committee that truly needs a clear, coherent voice that can speak to the needs of both the players and the overall good of the game. He could also be the person who unites the fractured NHLPA and, if he doesn't actually lead it, is a behind-the-scenes force that helps direct the eventual executive directo to the realization that the job isn't just about power, money and running a major business, it's also about growing the game in cooperation with the league and taking a stand that elevates player safety to a point where it can no longer be ignored.

That's a large challenge for any man, but Shanahan has never shied away from challenges. He's also not much for politics, choosing to simply follow a path that has served him well throughout his career and his life. First: make sure you believe you are right. Second: act accordingly.

That's a big part of the reason wht he brought his services to the NHL table. Sure, there were lots of people who felt the game needed to be reinvented after the lockout and I would personally argue that Commissioner Gary Bettman had a rather thick file in his bottom desk drawer filled with notes and suggestions and even a game plan as to how to do exactly that. But the Commissioner is also smart enough to know that it would be far better if the suggestions came, at least in part, from the players' ranks, or at least from the ranks of the more respected players who had a mind for the game and a passion to see it be better than it was.

Shanahan was a near-perfect fit in that regard. He had been around the game long enough to see what it was and what it had become as it moved from the glorious high-scoring days of the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins with Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux to the dead puck era that was suffocating the product and the players in the seasons leading up to the lockout. He had the kind of curious mind and affable banter that made talking about change both easy and effective. Perhaps most importantly, he had respect from owners and managers for the way he conducted himself and played the game. He also had respect from players who appreciated that he was willing to stand up and defend if from detractors as well those who had a more personal agenda.

In short, Shanahan was his own man, a player who had the good sense to listen and absorb the best of thinking regarding the game, but one who was equally able to dismiss the sometimes overwhelming short-sightedness and personal pettiness that often consumes it. His position was molded by a lifetime of experience in hockey, holding court in different places and playing in different systems and for different coaches, managers and owners.

The second player chosen overall in the 1987 Entry Draft and a player many inside hockey projected to be a far better contributor to a winning cause than Pierre Turgeon, the one player who preceded him, Shanahan didn't disappoint. He won three Stanley Cups in Detroit and was every bit as responsible as Yzerman for turning that franchise, then mockingly known as the Detroit Dead Things. He had noteworthy years in St. Louis and with the Rangers and New Jersey Devils. He was even a force in Hartford and though fans there aren't likely to forgive him for forcing his way out of that star-crossed town in a trade that eventually landed him in Detroit, players applauded him for showing the way to making it happen, thereby breaking a chain that seemingly bound most to their teams whether they wanted to be there or not.

The 40-year-old retires as a sure Hall of Famer once his waiting period has passed. He scored 656 career goals, second at his position only to one of this year's Hall of Fame inductees, Luc Robitaille. And while Robitaille was great, anyone who knows hockey will tell you that Shanahan was by far the more complete player. He ranks 11th on the career goals list and is the only player with 600 goals and 2,000 penalty minutes. No small measure in either category.

"He was a very intelligent player," said Brent Sutter who played both with and against Shanahan and also had the opportunity to coach him when both were in their least year with the Devils. "He knew the game very well. A really good leader. Intelligent in the sense that he could pick things up in games and he knew how to translate it from player to player inside of a dressing room. Very well-spoken guy. He will do very well at whatever he does."

Of this we have no doubt.

If I can inject a personal memory of Brendan Shanahan, it would come at the time when his career thoughts might have been at his lowest. It was also a time when Shanahan, the person, was at his best:

A number of us media types were waiting in the mixed zone outside the Team Canada locker room in Nagano, Japan, after Canada lost to the Czech Republic in a shootout in one of the most memorable hockey games ever played. The 1998 Winter Games were the first time that the Olympics featured pro players and Canada naturally assumed the pressured role of favorite.

But with Patrick Roy in net and with the whole world watching, the Canadians lost when Robert Reichel, the Czechs' first shooter banged one in off the post. Shanahan, Canada's fifth and final shooter, failed to get his offering past All-World netminder Dominik Hasek. He doubled over in pain from the weight of his miss, and was later one of the last to leave the locker room. When he did exit, the media jumped to the rail (media does not get locker room access at the Olympics) to question him.

At first, he paused and started to make an excuse that family was waiting, but then, mindful of how important this game was to Canada and to all of hockey, he stopped, gathered himself and with his head as high as he could raise it given the circumstances, answered every question.

It was a class act and one that has never been far from my mind. In an age of self absorbed athletes, many of whom who feel they are privileged and owe nothing to anyone, Shanahan stood separate and apart. He did what he knew he had to do, pulling himself up from what was surely the most miserable moment of an otherwise spectacular career and fulfilling an obligation that many would have excused him from doing had he simply walked away.

That's character. In my mind, that's the kind of character that made Shanahan a winner in hockey and in life.

It may not seem like much to a fan and there are some who argue that he should not have even been asked to address his miss, but Shanahan understood the importance of holding himself accountable win or lose.

I've never forgotten that moment and hope I never will.

The press release issued Thursday states that the Columbus Blue Jackets "loaned" forward Nikita Filatov to the CKSA Moscow team in the Kontinental Hockey League, but there is much more to the story.

Sources tell that the talented 19-year-old was unhappy with his playing time and the way he had been used and treated (mostly fourth-line assignments) by head coach Ken Hitchcock. Others maintain that how Hitchcock used Filatov was the source of some disagreement between the coach and GM Scott Howson as to how best to develop the young player.

There may be a grain of truth to both those allegations, but the clear issue here is that Filatov, who advocated before his draft year that he wanted to play in the NHL and nowhere else, simply wasn't ready for the rigors of the big leagues and his play suffered for it.

There is a "loaned" spin to all of this because the Blue Jackets are hopeful they will get Filatov back for next season when he's a bit more rounded in his game and a bit more mature, but there is no guarantee. Russian-born players who don't thrive in the NHL often find both success and happiness in their homeland where the schedule is shorter, the demands are a bit less, and the money is almost as good.

Filatov was Columbus' first pick, the sixth player taken overall in the 2008 Entry Draft during which many clubs shied from drafting Russians in the early rounds because of the lack of a transfer agreement between the NHL and the Russian Federation, and the fact that Russian players had success at jumping their NHL contracts by returning to their homeland. That's borne out by Nashville's loss of Alexander Radulov to the CHL despite his having a valid NHL contract.

Filatov is a true first-line prospect and the Blue Jackets are working under the cover of kid-glove treatment so as not to antagonize a a kid they still hold in high regard.

SI's longstanding claim to the notion that the apocalypse may well be upon us gained traction in the hockey world this week when the Philadelphia Flyers inducted Dave "The Hammer" Schultz into their Hall of Fame.

From all accounts, Schultz is a good man, a good father and he was a good son. He was also a fair hockey player in his day, once scoring 20 goals in a season. But he's in the Flyers Hall for one reason and one reason only: He beat people senseless.

A great day for hockey? Only in Philadelphia!