Ready for a change after nine seasons and three Stanley Cups in Detroit, the 38-year-old scoring star was about to sign as an unrestricted free agent with Montreal until a late offer came in from New York Rangers boss Glen Sather. The Mimico, Ont., native opted to sign for one year with the Rangers.
“We had the neighbourhood and the school – we were ready to go,” he recalled Tuesday at the Bell Centre of his courting by Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey and owner George Gillett.
“I had offers from teams on the West Coast and teams in my old division, but I really focused on Montreal. I really thought it would be Montreal, and then New York got into the picture.”
Shanahan said there is something “special” about playing for an Original Six team and he was also attracted to the Canadiens by the presence of the respected Gainey, by Gillett’s hospitality and by the presence of old teammates Guy Carbonneau and Kirk Muller on the coaching staff.
Gainey even took Shanahan and his family on a helicopter ride over the city.
But it may have been an omen that when the Shanahans were due to visit, they encountered passport problems at the airport and were unable to get into Canada. Once those problems were fixed, they couldn’t get tickets for the next flight, so they elected to visit New York first and ended up signing with the Rangers.
“I was in a really fortunate position to chose between two great organizations, plus Detroit, and I had to pick one,” he said. “It was a tough decision.
“I love playing in New York, but I knew the experience of playing in Montreal is fantastic as well. There was nothing ever said bad about Montreal by me to anyone. I just had to make a decision.”
After losing Shanahan, the Canadiens signed winger Sergei Samsonov, who has been a bust in Montreal, not even dressing for games during the playoff drive.
Meanwhile, Shanahan, who leads active NHL players with 626 career goals, helped transform the Rangers.
New York had a strong 2005-06 season, ringing up 100 points to finish sixth in the Eastern Conference after missing the playoffs for seven straight years.
But they were stomped in the first round of playoffs by New Jersey – outscored 17-4 in four straight losses.
Sather elected to change the mix to add some grit to a team dominated by skilled players, led by Jaromir Jagr, and it started with signing Shanahan, a left-winger with skill and muscle.
“He comes from a huge tradition of winning and when we came home to being a more responsible team defensively, Shanny led the charge,” coach Tom Renney said. “His presence in general has been good for us. He’s a pro and a terrific man.”
It has taken most of the season, but the Rangers have a new look of late, particularly since adding nasty forward Sean Avery to the mix in a Feb. 5 trade with Los Angeles.
From mid-December to Feb. 6, the Rangers were in a 7-14-1 funk, but they went into Tuesday night’s game in Montreal on a 14-4-4 roll during which they gave up an average of only 1.68 goals per game.
Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, the NHL’s first star last week, has been a big part of the surge, but he has benefited from tighter defensive play by the team.
“It was a commitment from us to be better defensively as a team, to be harder to play against, more disciplined,” said Shanahan. “While it hasn’t always been successful, it’s brought us the record we have since the all-star break.
“There was some resistance at different times in the season and there was a while we were playing that style and not getting results. It didn’t happen overnight, that changing of the style and personality of our team.
“But with success, a lot of people buy into things. There was a recognition that with what happened in the playoffs last year we needed to get a little grittier and be able to win those 1-0 and 2-1 games as well as the high-scoring ones.”
Shanhan missed much of the success of late while recovering from a concussion suffered in a high-speed collision with Philadelphia’s Mike Knuble on Feb. 17. He was sidelined 15 games and returned last week.
“I’ve played three games now and each game I feel better,” he said. “I’m getting my legs and my timing back.
“I haven’t had any side effects from the head injury. I just want to get back to where I was after being out five weeks.”