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This Isn’t Only Passionate Time for Shanahan

THE SPORTING NEWS

It’s a warm and humid Saturday afternoon in early August 1997 in Toronto. The sky is cloudy. Weathermen are talking about the possibility of thunderstorms. But for Brendan Shanahan, it is the most peaceful time he has spent in months.

The fun-loving Red Wings left winger has relived the team’s first Stanley Cup since 1955 every day in some way since Detroit swept Philadelphia on June 7 of last year. Each player gets to spend time with the Cup -- and the loquacious Shanahan celebrates the championship with friends and acquaintances, raising it above his head in front of hundreds of people.

But that’s just window dressing. Shanahan saves a special time for himself, the Cup and his father, Donal, who died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1990. After arriving at his father’s grave Aug. 9, Shanahan chokes on his words, he’s so overcome with emotion:.

“Dad, look what I’ve got.”

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“For a Saturday afternoon, the place was totally empty,” Shanahan says. “I stayed for about an hour. It was just me, my dad and Stanley.”

For anyone who never thought of this 6-foot-3, 218-pound power forward as anything but a raw-boned macho player who makes his living dishing out checks and scoring goals, the passion that comes through is the side of Shanahan we don’t often see. The free spirit that we have come to know in his days with the Devils, Blues, Whalers and Red Wings is speaking from the heart. And it’s this passion to the game, to life, that is one of the biggest reasons the Red Wings are trying to win their second Stanley Cup in the two years Shanahan has been with the team. He is more than just a 50-goal scorer; he’s the reason the team’s chemistry changed from playoff flop to playoff winner.

Overcoming adversity at home helps build character -- and that’s part of what makes Shanahan a special player.

“It’s tough going away to play hockey at 18,” Shanahan says, misty-eyed, “knowing that when you come home your father might not remember anything you just said to him.”

Brendan and Donal Shanahan surely never will forget that Saturday afternoon in Toronto last August.

The sensitive side of the players often gets shoved aside like a poorly executed hip check. But it’s clear that every drop of blood leading up to the Stanley Cup finals is real. And acquiring players with passionate leadership is more than just lip service.

Trading a popular player such as center Keith Primeau, an icon such as defenseman Paul Coffey and a first-round draft choice in 1997 for Shanahan wasn’t met with overwhelming support from Red Wings fans in October 1996. But the players knew they had just added their best chance to change their losing playoff image.

“The moment Brendan walked into our locker room, Marty Lapointe and I approached him with about a million questions about how we could be power forwards like him,” right winger Darren McCarty says, laughing. “Up to that point it was just pick a fight once in a while to protect a teammate or go to the net and try to cause havoc, hoping that a shot might go in.”

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The questions were as simple as what kind of stick he uses, or how he knows when to jump into a hole for a scoring chance, or what is the key thing you look for in one-timing a shot like he and Brett Hull do so well.

“Brendan could have told us to take a flying leap, but he didn’t,” Lapointe says. “He calmly put up with every question. And he did it in a way that made us all feel more at ease.”

In 1996, when the Red Wings were rolling to an NHL-record 62 wins, I said the team would not win the Stanley Cup because the environment in the locker room was nothing like the other championship teams I’ve covered. It was true, although no one wanted to admit it. Players were cocky and didn’t really know the price they had to pay to win in the playoffs.

All of that changed when Shanahan came on board. “You can see the Shanahan influence, the confidence, in the way McCarty, Lapointe, Kirk Maltby and some of the others are playing,” Avalanche left winger Claude Lemieux said, after Detroit ousted Colorado in the conference finals last year. “It’s a complete turnaround for that team from the last couple of years.”

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You don’t have to be a power forward to be passionate about the game. It’s just that banging wingers who play on the edge, creating havoc in front of the net, catch our eye.

Go back to gritty power forwards Clark Gillies and Bob Nystrom of the Islanders during their Cup run (1980-83) and Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson and Esa Tikkanen, who put the fire into Edmonton’s attack and helped the Oilers win five Cups in seven years from 1984 to ’90.

The Penguins won in 1991 and ’92 with power forwards Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Kevin Stevens and Rick Tocchet. John LeClair’s amazing run of overtime goals in the finals was key to the Canadiens’ title in ’93; Messier, Anderson and Tikkanen were still doing their magic -- this time for the Rangers -- when they ended a 53-year Cup drought in ’94; and Claude Lemieux helped the Devils win it all in ’95, then injected the same passion into the Avalanche in ’96.

“Just look at the teams that are still alive,” Lightning Coach Jacques Demers says. “You’ve got Mathew Barnaby running around like a star in Buffalo, you’ve got Brian Bellows and Esa Tikkanen coming over near the trade deadline to add that power forward mentality to Washington, you’ve got Dallas counting on Pat Verbeek to produce and you have a whole group of forwards who like to get into the scoring zones in Detroit.

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“When we won it all in Montreal in ’93, we found out you have to have players who are willing to pay the price in front of the net, to show that it’s true that if you can make the opponent blink -- by any means -- you’ve got ‘em. And, believe me, these forwards make things happen.”

Shanahan says hunger is as much a key to developing that passion as anything -- and he credits being stranded in Hartford, without a chance to make the playoffs, as his driving force.

“I remember (Red Wings coach) Scotty Bowman asking me what I thought Brendan could add to this team after I came back from playing with him in the World Cup,” captain Steve Yzerman recalls. “I told Scotty that the one thing I learned about him aside from the way he plays is that he is a great guy in the locker room.”


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