He left the league’s hockey operations department to join an NHL team because, after a long-and-storied career that featured both a Stanley Cup championship and international hockey success, he wanted to go back to a job where wins and losses mattered.
Brendan Shanahan? Yes, soon, after Shanahan officially joins the Toronto Maple Leafs in a senior front office position, perhaps as early as next week.
But the same career trajectory also applies to Rob Blake, who joined the Los Angeles Kings as an assistant general manager last summer after spending three seasons working with Shanahan in the NHL’s player safety department.
Working as the NHL’s disciplinary chief is an inherently difficult job, made all the more complicated by the fact that the league is trying to shift some long-standing attitudes about what constitutes a legal hit in an era of increased concussion awareness.
The demands of the job can lead to burnout – people who hold that position too long often age right before your very eyes – and they don’t want to be in it forever. Nor does it their competitive juices flowing the way working for a team does. When Shanahan joined the league in December, 2009 as the vice-president of hockey and business development and then shifted over 18 months later to head the newly created player safety department, he knew it wasn’t going to be forever – and that it would ultimately serve as a vast learning experience for whatever happened to come next, a trial by fire that you couldn’t get in any business school.
One of Shanahan’s predecessors in the NHL’s hockey operations department, Brian Burke, also used the position as a springboard to a general manager’s post.
Presumably, when Shanahan eventually explains his motives for making the switch, he will echo comments made by Blake in an interview last week, in which he said the primary reason for leaving the league to join the Kings was so he ditch his studied neutrality and start caring about wins and losses again.
According to Blake, when you work for a team, “the wins and losses matter so much more, the losses more than the wins actually. The feeling of losing three in a row and walking into the dressing room or going in the office the next day and trying to figure out what to do next is a challenge. You don’t have that on the NHL side.
“But I’m glad I worked at the NHL first, because now, when I watch us play and I see a call go one way or the other and I hear our management chirping, I know the league is not trying to screw the West Coast teams or the Los Angeles Kings. I’ve seen it first-hand.
“I know how passionate you can get towards the league when you’re on a team. So I’m glad I did it the other way, so I can be a little calmer about things. At least, I can this year. I’ll give it a couple more years and see if I still feel the same way.”
Shanahan had received overtures to leave the league job in the past, most notably an invitation from the Calgary Flames last summer to discuss the job that Burke eventually took, president of hockey operations. It wasn’t the right fit for him then, not on a personal level or a professional level. Toronto is different. Even though he never actually played for the Leafs, Shanahan grew up in Mimico, Ont., and has a lot of family and friends in the area.
Once the Leafs interest in Shanahan became clear, the fit seemed so logical that the only real question was going to revolve around the timing.
Would it be immediately, which in the Leafs’ case, means Monday, when the players clear out their lockers and rehash for a final time, the disappointing ending of the 2014-15 season? Or some time after the NHL playoffs ended, so that Shanahan could finish out the season administering discipline?
But once negotiations started, it would have been difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. Transparency and neutrality are essential in administering supplementary discipline. Even though the Leafs didn’t make the playoffs, the primary responsibility for monitoring on-ice conduct will have to shift elsewhere, either to Mike Murphy or Brian Leetch, who has starred in a few Shanahan videos earlier this season, suggesting a succession plan was already shaping up.
This tendency and temptation for teams to hire generational stars to work in a team’s front office has intensified in recent days, with Trevor Linden joining the Vancouver Canucks earlier this week as president of hockey operations.
Shanahan is a consensus builder, the same as Linden. When Linden was head of the players association during the 2004-05 lockout, Shanahan proposed a joint league-player summit that would address some of the on-ice issues that were undermining the game. The net result was a faster, better product. Linden, Shanahan, Blake, Joe Sakic of Colorado – all are smart enough to know what they know and what they don’t know, which is the key for any talented, but inexperienced executive coming in to run a new company.
Competency eventually will trump all, and determine who succeeds and who doesn’t. But in a position many believe is impossible to do – and ultimately satisfies no one – Shanahan did a credible job.
Apart from the chance to perhaps run one of the New York-area teams, so he could stay put, there would be few hockey jobs more appealing to Shanahan than Toronto. Commissioner Gary Bettman was his biggest fan. He would not stand in the way of that opportunity.
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