- The Maple Leafs president watched Alzheimer's disease take his father before his Hall of Fame NHL career even began. Now he's using his position to promote more research in the fight against the disease.
NEW YORK — Beneath the dim purple lighting, Brendan Shanahan looks into the crowd. It’s Tuesday evening, Oct. 25, and at this moment the Maple Leafs are getting clobbered by the Lightning at home. Their team president, however, is here, onstage inside a cavernous restaurant across from Grand Central Station, at a black-tie gala hosted by the Alzheimer’s Association, which has just given him its “Champion Award.” After a brief quiet, he opens with a nod to his introductory speaker.
“Thank you,” Shanahan says. “I think I just heard commissioner Gary Bettman call me a nasty man.”
The room laughs. It’s true. Moments before, Bettman had described Shanahan’s playing style as “a bit of a paradox,” citing his status as the NHL’s only player with 600 career goals and 2,000 penalty minutes. “Brendan has brought that same toughness to his fight against Alzheimer’s,” Bettman then said, “no doubt because it took his father’s life.”
When Donal Shanahan died in 1990 of Alzheimer’s Disease, the most common form of dementia by far, his youngest of four children—all sons—was in his third season with the Devils. Five years prior, at age 16, Brendan had left their Ontario home for junior hockey, desperate to climb high before time ran out. “I was in a rush,” he tells the crowd. “I was in a mad dash to make it to the NHL. I made it when I was 18 years old, but it was too late. He was alive, but he wasn’t with me.”
There would be so much that Shanahan wished he could’ve shared. Three Stanley Cups with Detroit. One Olympic gold medal, one world championship and one Canada Cup with his country. The brainstorming summit that he convened in Toronto during the 2004-05 lockout, which Bettman credits at the gala as helping create “the game we see today.” His work at league headquarters as its director of player safety. His induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in ’13, when Shanahan took a deep breath before his speech and dedicated it to the firefighter with the Irish brogue.
Tonight, Shanahan's words hold similar power. He recalls the day Donal took Brendan to get his driver’s license. By then the family had seen enough signs to know something was wrong. In particular, Donal seemed to lose faith behind the wheel, changing lanes slowly and sometimes driving on the wrong wide. “We were hoping that medicine or rest or whatever could come our way, that he would get better,” Brendan says. At the DMV, once Brendan received his license, Donal handed over his car keys and never drove again. “The shift in balance between father and son had changed at that moment.”
Shanahan has told this before, one story among many at the ready about his father. It takes voices to fight a disease that silences its victims, and memories are his swords. He has also organized charity events for Alzheimer’s research, like slow-pitch softball tournaments in St. Louis when he played for the Blues. Before tonight’s gala, he wrote letters to MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL officials, asking that each league consider helping the cause, which all of them did. It’s also presumed that, without Shanahan’s involvement, guests wouldn’t have been bidding on a Leafs jersey autographed by rookie Auston Matthews during the pre-dinner auction.
Mostly, though, Shanahan sees his role as the celebrity spreading awareness, the Hall of Famer who knows what it’s like. In the U.S. today, another person develops Alzheimer’s every 66 seconds; research projects that rate to be cut in half by 2050, at which point the CDC estimates 14 million Americans will be afflicted. Everyone has stories like Shanahan. Not all of them wish to share.
“Sometimes there’s shame involved,” he tells the crowd. “There’s guilt involved, especially afterwards. And for a lot of us here who have had experience with a family member, I think it is healthy to get out to events like this, and actually see people who know exactly what you’re talking about. It becomes a lot more emotional at that point.”
The morning of the gala, Shanahan settles into a booth at 3 Guys, a diner on the Upper East Side. He orders without looking at the menu, a regular since his time working for the NHL. Shanahan’s wife and three children also stayed when he left to rebuild Toronto in April 2014. Like today, trips back often involve walking the young ones to school, and then rolling over to the breakfast spot near Central Park.
Over omelets and coffee, Shanahan spends the next hour downplaying his credentials for the honor he’s due to get. The doctors conducting research, the chairs organizing events, “those are the people in the frontlines really doing the heavy lifting,” Shanahan says. “I haven’t been to Congress. I haven’t done any of that stuff. I think there are people who are really champions in that sense. I feel like what I’ve done is a very, very small sliver.” But he also believes that professional sports, as a collective group, could pay more attention to this country’s sixth-leading cause of death among adults.
“There are players, there are coaches, there are general managers, there are commissioners, there are owners that this disease has affected,” he says. “You just don’t often see the sports world shining a light on this particular disease. If we got a little more attention, if we got the sports world talking about it in different ways, I think the people who are being affected by it, or were affected by it, it’d bring them a little bit of peace.”
Before Donal Shanahan received his diagnosis, he had risen to the rank of chief of fire prevention for the local department. “In Backdraft, he was Robert De Niro’s character,” Brendan says. “He went in afterwards and figured out how and where the fire started.” The job required an active mind, and Donal fit the bill.
“He was a smart guy,” Shanahan says. “He was in charge of his department. And he was strong and fit, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, ate healthy. So when someone says it’s early Alzheimer’s, and this is what happens, your response is, ‘No, that’s not going to happen to him. He’s too disciplined.’ There are some diseases where you take a pill or change your diet or you have a procedure and you fix it. No, this one’s taking him over.”
So Shanahan rushed—to London, Ontario, for juniors, to the second pick in the ’87 draft in Detroit. Donal attended the event with his family, looking well-dressed in a suit. “He faded in, drifted in and out mentally,” Shanahan says, “but he had a general idea that it was a good thing for his son.”
Shanahan clung to these little moments of recognition—slight smiles or twinkly looks that indicated Donal was still present, that he realized Brendan was soaring to the top of his sport. After his father’s death, Brendan began praying during the national anthem, asking Donal to watch over him. Upon winning the Stanley Cup in 1997, he spent an hour alone with the trophy at the gravesite. Before hopping in the limousine for his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Shanahan jotted a few speech reminders onto a postcard purchased at the hotel. Only one topic was listed twice. It read, “DAD.”
As the plates clear, the wine keeps flowing, and the Leafs stumble toward a 7–3 loss, Shanahan again speaks from the heart. He shouts out Bettman, the commissioner who shared that his mother-in-law had endured Alzheimer’s for 10 years. He tells the DMV story. He recalls praying during the national anthem. He recalls learning about something he once had no idea existed, and how the stats are now seared into his mind. “When we got the diagnosis,” he says, “the education process did begin.”
Without a cure, without concrete prevention methods, with only medicine available to slow down symptoms, it never stops, either. A few years ago, Shanahan sought out Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgery professor at Boston University and leading authority on concussion research. He explained Donal’s history with Alzheimer’s, and his own with almost 100 recorded NHL fights and several diagnosed concussions, including a late-career collision that left him experiencing vertigo. Shanahan wondered what many do: Will this happen to me, too?
“I’d say the uncertainty worries everybody who sees it happen to someone in their family, but I felt comfortable after talking with him that there wasn’t anything I’d done playing hockey that could contribute to Alzheimer’s disease specifically,” Shanahan says. “But while everyone in the science world is either trying to say there’s a 100% link or a 100% not link, I’m not going to wait.”
So he donates. He writes letters to leagues. He attends galas and summons more memories. Small slivers of action, maybe. But every little bit matters. “The one thing I could hope to bring is use some of my relationships in the sports world to bring people to an evening like this,” he says over breakfast, “to hope that one of them—some of them—get the hook and just feel, the next time they get a phone call from the Alzheimer’s Association, they want to have an evening dedicated to that disease, maybe they say yes.”