Of all the staffing coups enjoyed by the Toronto Maple Leafs in recent years, the original blockbuster was the homecoming of Brendan Shanahan. Raised in Mimico – a part of Toronto that is as much a two-fisted state of mind as it is a place – Shanahan is one of the great players this city has produced. He was also magically untainted by 50 years of despair. He was a winner and a Torontonian, two things that don’t belong together in the hockey context.
Since becoming club president nine years ago, Shanahan, 54, has developed a signature style. Rule No. 1 – don’t say much. Shanahan will pop up two, maybe three times a year to speak on behalf of the club. Otherwise, he lets his frontline employees do the talking.
If you can get him going about the glory days in Detroit, what he keeps coming back to are the player dinners. Everyone likes a long meal in a softly lit spot where all the waiters know what you like, but few enjoy it like Shanahan.
Private rooms in upscale steakhouses across Canada and the United States – that’s not the exact place where the Red Wings dynasty was built, but Shanahan would probably tell you it was one of them.
This interview was conducted in his favourite local spot. It’s the sort of place where a harried host lights up like a billboard when you say the name, ‘Shanahan’, and where the waiter doesn’t bother to ask what you’re ordering because you always get the same thing.
Like the man himself, it’s a throwback to a more cordial, more deeply considered time.
What’s your idea of perfect happiness?
Two ways. I like long friendships, long relationships and long dinners. My other addiction is to winning. Winning at anything. If I don’t have anyone to play against, I’ll play against a machine. iPad chess. Whatever.
What’s your greatest fear?
I get scared at lots of things, but I don’t get paralyzed by fear. I guess the ultimate is death, but what’s the point? Would it help?
What’s the trait you most dislike in yourself?
In spite of the fact that I was early today for this, I can at times be tardy.
What’s the trait you most dislike in others?
People who aren’t authentic.
What’s your greatest extravagance?
I grew up in a house of six. Five men and my mom. We had one toilet with no lock on the door and a bathtub. So every day that I get to go into my own personal bathroom at home, with my own personal shower, I feel like I am the ultimate snob.
On what occasion might you lie?
To preserve someone’s dignity.
Who or what is the great love of your life?
I would say my father [Donal Shanahan] because he is the great mystery and driving force of my life. I had that brilliant experience a son has with his dad where nothing he says is stupid, everything he does is amazing. He lost his faculties before I got to my teenage pushback years. So he’s become mythological to me.
I didn’t recognize it while I was a player, but looking back now, I see that I was such putty in the hands of every coach who tapped into making me want to get their approval.
What would you change about yourself?
One of the pearls of aging is realizing that if there’s something I want to change, I can do that. I try to change things constantly. If someone in my family or at work asked me to change something – maybe that’s the thing. If they asked, I would consider it.
What’s your greatest achievement?
That my children seem to respect me and like me. I mean, love is automatic. But when your children start to drift into adulthood, they have the option of respecting you or not respecting you. I can feel that respect. That’s my greatest achievement.
If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, who or what would it be?
Anything with a consciousness. I would love to come back as anything – a young boy, whatever – but with the consciousness I have now, and just sort of try it all over again.
What’s the lowest depth of misery?
Every one? Are we talking regular season, too?
All of them. Let’s say I’m watching a game at home and it’s winding down and we’re losing. My family will just, like, drift away from the room that I’m in. All of a sudden, I look up and I’m alone. Yeah, it’s the one thing I have to work really hard to manage. You learn how to do it as a professional – how to come out of it. But I still have to remind myself every time.
What’s your most marked characteristic?
Hmm. I think some people would think I’m introverted and others would call me outgoing. My brother once told me that I’m curious. I thought that was right. One of the things driving me out of that one-bathtub house in Mimico is curiosity about all sorts of things. I also think I’m relentless. It doesn’t always make me great company, but if there’s one thing I could pass on to my kids, it would be the ability to get back up from anything.
Do believe that’s become an undervalued skill?
I think it’s becoming harder for kids to develop grit. I don’t want to be one of those guys who’s like, ‘Well, when we were kids …’ I hate sentences that start like that. But I think their world is different now, more difficult.
Last one. What’s your motto?
Yeah. Your motto.
I don’t have a motto and I don’t like people who do. [Bursts into laughter] What sort of pretentious asshole has a motto?