Let’s make one thing clear: Brendan Shanahan never used fighting as a tactic. There was nothing strategic or calculating about it. From the time he was seven years old, he knew what it was to defend himself or someone close to him. His father, Donal, was a big, strong man who preached pacifism, but as a child, the future Hockey Hall of Famer often could be found rolling around on sidewalks and lawns in suburban Toronto, taking on physical challenges the way kids often have to in order to prove their mettle.
It was simple, really: he either did the beating up, or was the beaten-up.
So as he got older and Shanahan’s two sporting loves – hockey and lacrosse – came calling, he was naturally prepared for what came next. That is, to a degree. Like everyone who goes from playing for fun to playing for keeps, he still needed an education. His experiences in major junior and the NHL created arguably the archetype of the modern-day power forward of the 1980s: a player who could give as good as he got, who had a universal respect for his fairness, and who never asked anyone else to settle his scores.
And those experiences, that education and that evolution still guide him – through his first off-ice career as the NHL’s chief disciplinarian, and now as the new president and alternate governor of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Shanahan showed up in London, Ont., in 1985 to play for the Ontario League’s Knights as a high first-round pick, tall and lanky and just 16 years old. As such, he was a target for opponents right off the hop. Then-Knights coach Don Boyd and team brass were surprised when they saw him more than hold his own in his first OHL fight – and Shanahan quickly realized a no-guff-taken attitude carved out a bigger place for him on the ice.
“It got me respect and room and space to score goals and be a better player,” Shanahan said. “There was no advantage growing up to being a decent fighter, but I found that during my first trip through each team I got treated one way, and my second trip through each team, I got treated differently.”
That correlation between a willingness to mix things up and a grudging respect from the other team was never lost on Shanahan again. But he still had painful lessons to absorb about fighting. As a kid, he’d learned his opponents wouldn’t always play fairly when a kid sucker-punched him after Shanahan granted his request for a timeout in the fight. And during his OHL career, he discovered the price of being cocky: when he began to take after players who’d drop their gloves in a stylized, dramatic fashion, he encountered an opponent who took advantage of his posing and punched him so hard in the face that his neck muscles were strained. After that he realized it probably wasn’t a good idea to jut out his chin, invite someone to fight and then fling his hands down; so he learned to either throw his gloves off as he brought up his hands to start throwing punches, or to take a few steps back.
When he entered the NHL after two years of junior, Shanahan's brand was well established. He continued playing a robust physical game and never shied away from fighting the toughest men hockey had to offer: Bob Probert, Marty McSorley, Willi Plett, Donald Brashear. His last fight before he retired in 2009 was against Eric Boulton. But he never concocted any scrap out of thin air and flimsy rationales. He had more respect for the game than that, because he never fooled himself when it came to the cost incurred by teammates who had to fight more regularly than he did. He roomed with many of them – including Troy Crowder in New Jersey and Kelly Chase in St. Louis – and was acutely aware of the physical and mental toll the task took on them.
“Most of my fights were spontaneous,” Shanahan said. “No matter how many times I fought, I knew it two seconds before it started, so I only had two seconds of nervous nausea. I wondered how a guy like Kelly Chase handled it. I’m thinking about a big rematch against Chicago, how I’ve got to play well and we need this win, and he’s thinking about (Mike) Peluso and (Stu) Grimson. And I thought, ‘How do you eat tonight? How do you sleep tonight?’ ”
As the years went on, Shanahan noticed a change in the habits of some enforcers. Whereas players such as Bob Probert, Tie Domi and Chris Nilan worked to become better players in all elements of the game and move from, say, the fourth line to the third line, a new class of fighters began training solely to become better fighters. They didn’t want to expand their role. They aimed to perfect the role they already had. But Shanahan still admired them for what he calls “the protective gene” he recognized in himself. He respected that most of them were great athletes who’d been pushed into a role they may not always have enjoyed. So he wasn’t going to embarrass them, even if it meant taking lumps and even if he disagreed with the dubious reasoning behind the fight.
To wit: Check out a fight Shanahan had with Colorado enforcer Jim Cummins in 2004. There’s about 90 seconds left in the third period of a game in which Shanahan’s Red Wings had just scored an empty net goal. Shanahan lines up on the wing for the center ice faceoff. He’s playing with Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov. The Avalanche send out Joe Sakic, Chris Drury – and, right beside Shanahan, Cummins. Shanahan can sense Cummins doesn’t feel good about what he’s been sent on the ice to do. However, when Cummins says, ‘Shanny, we’ve got to go’, he obliges and they go at it. The fight lasts about 40 seconds. Cummins gets in a handful of punches at the beginning, but Shanahan breaks Cummins' nose. There’s no real joy in it for either player.
“I felt bad for him,” Shanahan said. “I didn’t want him to get in trouble. So we fought.”
In nearly three years as the NHL’s senior vice-president of player safety, Shanahan still saw himself as trying to keep players out of trouble. That might not be easy to reconcile for some, because his office was the trouble. After he'd doled out justice with his fists on the ice for so many years, he went on to punish players through fines and suspensions off of it. But he took the job because he was genuinely interested in making the game safer. He wanted (and still wants) a high standard of care and expectations for players, including the enforcers he knew so well and empathized with so easily. He thinks the pendulum in regard to fighting is switching back to the way it was in the 50s and 60s, when all players on a roster had to contribute in more ways than one.
And that’s why, while he’s not ashamed of his past or the role of an organic fight in the sport, he’d never suggest to a junior hockey-playing kid that he work on being a better fighter to succeed at the game’s top levels. The education and evolution of Brendan Shanahan – and his own protective gene – inspire him to push the next generation to play the right way.
That’s something that will continue now that he’s moved on to lead the Leafs.
"I would do everything I could to encourage a young player, if it’s his dream to make the NHL, to work on his skills,” Shanahan said. “There will always be intimidation in the game of hockey. There’s intimidation in baseball. But the answer is no, I would not want to give anyone advice on how to be a fighter. I don’t think it’s a life I’d hope for for my children. The idea of teaching a young person how to develop that skill as a tactic is not something I would ever do in good conscience.
“For me, that’s not a condemnation of these men who have the protective gene. It’s me displaying my protective gene for them, if I could go back and grab them when they were 14 or 15 years old. For the people who spent a career and a lifetime protecting us, this is the responsible thing to say as far as protecting them."