When Brendan Shanahan was 16 years old and leaving home for the first time, he was asked to fill out a form listing, amongst other things, his hometown.
This required a family meeting.
“I went to my brothers and said, ‘Y’know, should I …” – and here Shanahan screws himself into a posture of extreme discomfort – “… should I say Toronto?’”
A small, comedic pause. Shanahan clasps his hands in pre-penitence.
“And my brothers said, ‘Eff that. You’re from Mimico.’”
Throughout his long career, Shanahan’s hockey cards listed Mimico as his birthplace, though the neighbourhood at the west-end of Toronto proper is not a borough or a town or any sort of place at all. It’s a state of mind.
Shanahan was once asked by a friend in New York to explain Mimico, and the only point of reference he could come up with was Hell’s Kitchen. That’s an apt parallel. If you want to understand Shanahan’s view of life, Mimico is the key.
It is – speaking in non-specific ethnic terms – the north-of-49 nexus of Irish Omerta.
Mimico is The Fight Club of Toronto neighbourhoods. No shame in losing, as long as you went down swinging. And for God’s sakes, keep yourself to yourself. Nobody needs to know your business.
Shanahan hasn’t spent a significant amount of time in his birthplace for 15 years, but he still talks about it in those exceptional terms.
“Toronto has changed a lot,” Shanahan says. “Mimico hasn’t changed at all.”
Neither, it seems, has he.
On Wednesday, exactly one month into his new job, Shanahan went to the Buglers of the Apocalypse who cover the team. He spent about an hour with each of the four daily papers explaining in broad, learned terms why he wasn’t going to explain anything to them.
Upon arrival, we knew nothing about the Shanahan style, or whether he is interested in any particular style at all. We still don’t.
Asked which team he currently likes most, Shanahan said, “Whichever one wins the Cup.”
We do know that he is not an admirer of the Leafs compulsive and often disastrous habit of oversharing.
“I think there were some unfortunate remarks made over the course of the season,” Shanahan says. One gets the strong sense that the word ‘unfortunate’ is superfluous in that sentence. Shanahan is not a great fan of remarks, full stop.
In turn, I’m a great fan of body language as the truest thing anyone says to you. Watch a man sit down, and you know where you stand with him.
Shanahan maintains the physique of his playing days. He is an imposing specimen. When he sits, he angles himself away from the person he’s addressing, leg crossed, but hands still entwined in front of him. His body is at odds with itself. His posture says, ‘I don’t want to intimidate you. But I could.’ It is the affect of a man who expects to be the most formidable in any room he enters.
If his frame is speaking to you, his words are not.
What I gathered from those 45 minutes: the Leafs may look very different before the start of next season. Also, they may not.
What could be improved? Everything. Does it need to be? Not necessarily. Also: Yes.
Is there a plan? Of course. What’s the plan? Next question.
This is the most heartening sign yet about the Shanahan Era.
(Note: Taken alongside the re-upping of coach Randy Carlyle, it is also only the second sign of the Shanahan Era.) There is one sort of organization that should talk a lot in sports – one that’s winning.
Buoyed through their short window of success by oversized presences like Pat Burns and Pat Quinn, the Leafs got used to saying too much.
Coaches like Paul Maurice and Ron Wilson never said a bunch, but everything they did served as a misplaced arrow. The media was able to pull it out of a nearby tree trunk and then stab them with it until they died.
Brian Burke built his public-speaking approach in winning organizations – say many things, and loudly. The same line that’s witty on a Cup winner is professional suicide on a loser.
When someone in our meeting mentioned Randy Carlyle’s “confusion” about the problems that beset his team, Shanahan jumped in to correct him.
“Mind boggling,” he said, referencing Carlyle’s ill-chosen go-to term.
We left the day no wiser about what route Shanahan plans to take, and with no expectation things will become clear until they’ve already happened.
This is alarmingly prudent and judicious given the landscape of the market, where every decision taken by the Leafs is wrong because it was taken by the Leafs.
That’s the lesson of Mimico (and every other sensible place) – that the guy doing all the talking before the fight starts is the one who’s going to lose.