When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book...
--WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
Brendan Shanahan was dining in a Chicago steak joint with some
of his new Detroit Red Wings teammates a month ago, tearing into
a porterhouse and into life with uncommon appetite. This was
special: Having been traded to the Original Six team seven days
earlier, he was relishing the fact that he was finally in a
situation that appealed both to his sense of history and to his
desire to win a Stanley Cup. For most people this was the type
of meal they might have reason to look back on 10 years later
and say, "Remember that night when...." But Shanahan was not
only wolfing down steaks with new pals, he was already weighing
the impact that being in the company of these players might have
on his career.
Shanahan doesn't so much seize a moment as much as he freezes
it. Even when life is imperfect, he can't help but step back and
try to frame it. Take Oct. 5, opening night of the 1996-97
season, in Hartford. Shanahan was still a member of the Hartford
Whalers although he had renounced the team's captaincy and had
taken to driving to the rink with his suitcases because the
trade he had demanded seemed imminent. He scored 44 goals in
1995-96, playing hard and well after ligament damage to his left
wrist early in the season had healed. But that year in Hartford
had seemed like a mistake. To play with his childlike
fervor--his first nickname in the NHL was Big, in honor of the
Tom Hanks movie--Shanahan needs a sense of community, and
Hartford, a franchise so fragile that a February gust might
topple it, offered none. When the St. Louis Blues traded him to
the Whalers in the summer of 1995, he received 17 messages of
consolation on his answering machine at home, including one from
another player who reminded him that the good news was that he
wouldn't have to make any more road trips to Hartford.
Now, on opening night last month, after scarcely cushioning the
insult to a franchise he had been brought in to revive,
Shanahan's eyes toured Hartford's Civic Center, reading the
bedsheet handiwork of southern New England's poets.
SHANNY, KISS MY FANNY
ET TU, SHANAHAN?
"Anyone can rhyme Shanny with fanny," says Shanahan, who has
played for four teams in his 10 NHL seasons. "But I really
thought that ET TU, SHANAHAN? banner was terrific." Of course,
he had to explain to teammate Nelson Emerson that "Brutus was a
friend of Caesar's, and...." Arguably Keith Tkachuk of the
Phoenix Coyotes and John LeClair of the Philadelphia Flyers
surpass Shanahan as the game's premier power left wings, but he
is the only one who provides footnotes.
Although card games and HBO movies are his favorite ways to fill
idle hours during the season, he has familiarity with an
expansive bibliography for someone who never finished high
school. He adores J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and Leon Uris's
Trinity, and is bowled over by Fitzgerald but not by Hemingway.
("He's supposed to be a man's writer. Short, choppy sentences. I
don't know. Doesn't do it for me.") After his first NHL season,
in 1987-88, Shanahan tackled Shakespeare in summer school and
has applied his lessons since.
While Martin Lapointe was getting stitches in his hand and Doug
Brown was doing sit-ups in the Red Wings locker room after a
tough 2-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 17, Shanahan
recalled Pyramus's first speech from the play-within-the-play in
A Midsummer Night's Dream. "O grim-looked night!" Shanahan
blurted. "O night with hue so black! O night, which ever art
when day is not! O night, O night! Alack, alack, alack." This
might have been the first time the word alack was used in the
Detroit locker room other than in phrases such as a lack of
toughness or a lack of playoff scoring.
After two maddening springs when the Stanley Cup could have been
theirs, the Wings retooled four days into this season by
shipping center Keith Primeau, defenseman Paul Coffey and their
first-round draft pick in 1997 to Hartford for Shanahan and
journeyman defenseman Brian Glynn. Detroit paid a hefty price
but not an outrageous one considering that Whalers general
manager Jim Rutherford had been negotiating with six NHL teams
that figured they were one player away from the Cup--and that
one player was Shanahan.
If he is richly textured off the ice--Shanahan is a gregarious
27-year-old with easy charm and workaday concerns who also
happens to know Jay Gatsby from Hall of Famer Bill Gadsby--he
also can be several things at once on the ice. In 1993-94, while
with the Blues, Shanahan tallied a hat trick of versatility by
scoring 50 goals, exceeding 100 points and being penalized more
than 200 minutes. He has averaged a goal every two games in the
'90s while playing like a ruffian.
"When Shanahan was in St. Louis, one of the Blues did something
and our bench was chirping, 'Who's going to fight your battles
for you?' says Chicago assistant Lorne Henning, who then coached
the New York Islanders. "Shanahan skates by and says, 'I will.'
Our whole bench shrunk." Detroit sought Shanahan for his scoring
and toughness, although next June, if it needs a creative
explanation for another Cup failure, his strong sense of
narrative should help.
My, can he tell a story. Last summer he perched himself on a bar
stool in front of the pool at a cottage north of Toronto while a
dozen or so friends on deck chairs eavesdropped on his
soliloquy. He mused about life after hockey, about his possibly
becoming a teacher or owning a ranch in Montana. Of course,
summer is his most interesting time of year. In summers past he
has resided at an Irish manor, run with the bulls in Pamplona,
auditioned for the role of Dino in The Flintstones movie, was
backup goalkeeper for Ireland in soccer's World Cup, served as a
ball boy in an Andre Agassi match at the U.S. Open, was an extra
in the football scene in Forrest Gump and played saxophone at a
jazz festival. These entries in the media guides are no less
true than the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The 6'3", 218-pound Shanahan, who would look a little like Liam
Neeson if Liam Neeson were really handsome, has simply indulged
in some mythmaking. In an inspired moment of irony Shanahan
instructed the Whalers to include in their 1996-97 media guide
that he had spent the summer fishing, hunting and playing golf,
a supreme fib considering that he thinks worms are icky, he
won't kill his own meat and he is bored by golf. "At least,"
Shanahan says, "I would like to stay in a cottage in Ireland or
run with the bulls."
"He's always loved stories," says his brother Brian, a computer
analyst in Toronto, who is eight years older than Brendan. "If I
read a book, he'd want me to tell him the whole thing. He was
seven or eight, and I'd just finished [Ken Follett's] Eye of the
Needle, and he made me tell him every detail. He'd ask, 'Did you
skip a part?' Once I had to drive across Toronto to pick
something up and asked Brendan if he wanted to come. He jumped
in. For an hour and a half, he sat and listened to stories."
There were four Brothers Shanahan, the sons of Donal and
Rosaleen. Donal was from County Cork, and Rosaleen hailed from
Belfast. They immigrated to Canada in the 1950s, met at an Irish
dance in Toronto and married five years later. Brendan, their
youngest child, was a daddy's boy, their bond forged at 6 a.m.
in frosty rinks where steam from the coffee would mingle with
the condensation of breath. Donal would bring his pipe and a
rolled-up copy of the Toronto Star, encouraging the young
players by tapping them with his newspaper. This was his
benediction, and the boys called him Father Don even though his
cloth was the flame-retardant raiment of a firefighter.
Brendan was in ninth grade when he noticed his father started
forgetting things, becoming confused, driving erratically. If he
had heard of Alzheimer's disease before the doctor diagnosed it,
Brendan doesn't remember. The Shanahans went to Ireland the
summer Brendan was 16, and while his boy's name would sometimes
elude Donal, seeing a long-distant cousin would release a flood
of his memories. "That trip was the first time I kissed the
Blarney Stone," Shanahan says, "and the last time my father did."
Karen Stock, a high school English and theology teacher who has
been one of Shanahan's closest friends since she sat behind him
in ninth-grade French class, recalls the day in 1987 when
Shanahan was drafted by the New Jersey Devils--he went second
overall--and she rode with his parents to Joe Louis Arena in
Detroit, where the draft was held. "On the way home, maybe two
hours into the drive, Mr. Shanahan said, 'Who was that boy back
there?'" Stock says. "After a little while he said, 'I was very
proud of that boy back there.' I think he understood."
Donal died when Brendan was in his third season with New Jersey.
It is Brendan's belief that even if Donal didn't realize before
he died that his son was an NHL star, his father knows it now.
During the national anthem, Shanahan crosses himself, recites an
Our Father and follows with, "Dad, watch over me. Let me play my
best. Take care of me."
Brendan's faith was tested just once. In his final season in New
Jersey, 1990-91, he was struck by a teammate's slap shot and
suffered a broken cheekbone and jaw. The doctor who examined
Shanahan in the dressing room said he would be out four to six
weeks. "I was playing out my option, didn't have a contract, and
there I am sitting in an ambulance, ready to leave for the
hospital and wondering how this could happen, thinking that
maybe these prayers didn't mean anything," Shanahan says. "The
door to the ambulance is just about to close when the doctor
grabs my arm and says, 'If that puck was a half inch higher, you
would have lost your eye. Someone's really looking out for you.'
Then, I knew."
Now, whenever he reads his favorite poem, Yeats's When You Are
Old, he knows the man who is nodding by the fire, who is taking
down a book, whose face is hidden amid a crowd of stars is Donal
In St. Louis, where he signed as a free agent after the '90-91
season, Shanahan organized a celebrity softball game to raise
money for Alzheimer's research and honor his father. In St.
Louis he became part of the city's profile. Shanahan, who is
single, was more than a matinee and hockey idol in his four
seasons with the Blues because he made the effort to know St.
Louis as well as St. Louis knew him. The city's causes became
his causes. Its identity as a hard-working, loyal town became
his identity. If the city hated the Chicago Cubs, he would too.
When Blues general manager Mike Keenan traded Shanahan in July
1995, the local spin on the deal was that Keenan couldn't abide
a player so popular.
This time Shanahan is gone of his own doing. He and Detroit are
still being introduced. The Red Wings--missing Coffey's speed
and creativity on the point--began the season 0 for 33 on the
power play, and Shanahan started slowly as well. He didn't score
a goal in his first five games as a Red Wing, but he had scored
six in his last 10 games at week's end. There is, however, no
hurry. Last season Detroit settled for the fool's gold of a
record 62 regular-season wins instead of a Cup. Now it is
prepared to wait. The end of the rainbow is June. As the Irish
say, When God made time, He made plenty of it.