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Brendan Shanahan: One of the NHL’s power elite

February 22, 2011 Players No Comments

By Stan Fischler
Oct 22, 2001, 17:14

That may explain why he was the New Jersey Devils first draft pick, second overall (behind Pierre Turgeon), in 1987. Not that Brendan was an instant star. The maturing process was slow, and often painful, at the Meadow-lands. And there were times when it appeared that the tall, witty left winger would never fulfill his early press notices.There are few players in all pro hockey who combine Brendan Shanahan’s joie-de-vivre, dedication to his team, goal-scoring ability and zest for physical combat. In plain English, Shanahan is a winner.

In time, though, Shanahan emerged as a dependable power forward in New Jersey and appeared destined for a long and successful run at Brendan Byrne Arena. But a contract dispute in 1991 changed all that. Shanahan was signed by the St. Louis Blues, and in a controversial free-agent compensation ruling, the Devils were awarded crack defenseman Scott Stevens in return. At first Blues followers were dismayed at the loss of the popular Stevens, but Shanahan soon began to flower as a leader of the St. Louis attack. In 1992-93, Brendan reached a new level of offensive prowess, scoring 51 goals and adding 43 assists in 71 games. Last season he improved on those career-high numbers even more, posting 52 goals and 102 points.

In the eyes of many observers, Shanahan—now the heart and soul of the St. Louis Blues—has matured into the ideal power forward, blending skill with toughness and savvy. The following interview with Shanahan is an edited excerpt from contributing editor Stan Fischler’s book, Bad Boys II.

Tell us about your upbringing.

I’ve got three older brothers who are quite a bit older and bigger than me; six years older, eight years older and eleven years older. They were my playmates—or at least I tried to keep up with them, and run with them or play road hockey or street hockey with them, or whatever we were doing around the house—whether it was having boxing matches or playing handball upstairs in the hallway. Those were the guys that I learned from. I spent much of my youth watching them play sports, and they were always guys that I looked up to. They were never the stars of their teams, but they were hard workers. They played a lot tougher than I’ve ever played any sport. They were real team guys. I’ve never been quite as good as them in those areas, yet I’ve always tried to copy them.

If your brothers were the tough ones, how did you end up being one of the NHL’s elite power forwards?

When I played with my brothers I was too small and just got in the way, so they told me to go stand in front of the net and create a screen. I remember once being pretty young, and my brothers wanted to use a puck instead of a tennis ball in street hockey. We had a bit of ice and snow packed on the driveway and I was standing in front of the net when one of them took a shot and hit me in the face. I started screaming and crying. I was probably about seven or eight at the time. Right away they were putting their mittens in front of my mouth and muffling the noise. I was screaming, and they didn’t want my mom to hear because if she heard, she would have freaked out on them using a puck.

Anyway, they said “Brendan, you scored! What a deflection! What a deflection! You scored a goal!” All of a sudden I stopped crying and I started smiling, and it was like, “Really? Really?” Just like a little kid when he’s not really that hurt, but he’s more shocked.

Also, when I was younger, if I’d get hurt I’d lay down, because I knew the coaches would come out and pick me up and everyone would clap when I’d get up. They used to give me (grief) about that.

Interestingly, when I was with the Devils, I specifically remember getting hit in the face when I broke my jaw and my cheekbone (in 1991). The first thing that came into my head for a split second was my brothers watching the game, saying “Get up!” So I jumped to my feet and skated off the ice and walked around the corner of Byrne Arena’s hallway. Then I pretty much passed out.

Were you always characterized as a tough player?

I was first considered as a player who played to win and whose intention the ice was to score or just play the game, doing whatever it took to win, whether it was breaking up a play defensively or whatever. I never had the luxury of being a real star in hockey, but rather one of the better players on the team. When I got to the Junior level where you could take the cages off and fighting was allowed, I got to use that a bit more. I was always considered a guy who, if you did something dirty to me, then I’d fight you. Or if you did something to my teammates, I’d fight you.

Seldom did I go out and play a dirty style. I don’t run around trying to kill guys. I definitely have a code that I stand up to on the ice.

Speaking of fights, what were some of your most memorable battles?

In Junior, Rob Murray and I got two-minute minors, and when we came out of the penalty box we squared off and had a great fight. It was toe-to-toe. We ran into each other about three years later in the NHL and the same thing happened. We got penalties, came out of the box and said, “Let’s go again.” It was funny because I had grown more than he had over those three years. I was only 185 pounds when we fought the first time; the second time I was about 215. I handled that one a bit better than the first one. In pro, most of my fighting was in the first few years.

I had a memorable fight with Willi Plett—a guy I had feared when I was growing up. I had a good fight with Rick Tocchet. He was another guy I had watched growing up, and emulated. The feeling when you’re and 18-year-old squaring off is really something. There’s a second or two seconds where you’re excited and scared and happy all at the same time that you’re going to be fighting these guys.

Is it a thrill for you to be mentioned in the same breath as Kevin Stevens and Rick Tocchet, now that you’ve reached that elite level?

It really is. I have a lot of respect for all of these guys who force me to compete every night. I might not like them on the ice, but I respect them because sometimes they make me step up my level of play and my level of intensity. When it’s all over and done with, I’ll probably look back and appreciate those players that I hated a lot more than the players who were nameless and faceless.

What are your views on fighting in hockey?

To get in a fight there has to be mutual consent, otherwise you’re going to get kicked out of the game. There have been guys who have wanted to fight me but I didn’t feel that it would be valuable to fight them. I just laugh at them—unless someone wants to come up, drop the gloves and start swinging at me and take the game misconduct. There have been times when I’ve wanted to fight guys, and I’ve dropped my gloves and I’ve asked guys to go and squared off with them, and they’ve kind of turned and laughed at me.

If two guys want to fight, maybe we should let them fight.

For most of your time in St. Louis your linemates were Nelson Emerson and Craig Janney, guys who really aren’t known for their physical style of play. In a situation like that, do you have the dual responsibilities of not only being a goal scorer but also protecting your linemates?

It’s true. There’s a fine line with these new rules about instigating. I mean if I play against Rick Tocchet, he’s so disciplined and tough enough to take a good hit himself. But if I finish off one of the smaller guys on his line Rick will feel a greater responsibility to step in and do something. I can take a lot more punishment and cheap shots for the team then I’m normally willing to accept if someone wants to get Craig or Nelson. I have to pick the right time. It might not be that particular game. It might be the next game.

Hockey is a physical game, and still a game of intimidation. Whether you’re going to get the intimidator within the rules or get him behind the play, you have to do something. Fighting is still a factor where you can still try and intimidate some guys. You can still use it to draw certain players off the ice. If Kevin Stevens wants to fight, fight him. He scores 50 or 60 goals a year. Get him into the penalty box for five to seven minutes. It’s great.

Commissioner Gary Bettman’s main concern about fighting seems to be the so-called “goon tactics,” where a coach sends out a Link Gaetz or a Gino Odjick just to pick a fight with somebody and try to change a team’s momentum. What about that kind of thing?

If a Gino Odjick or a Link Gaetz comes out and grabs one of your star players, there’s not much you can do. Some people say you can just skate away or put your head down, but you might take a few Barney Rubble lumps on the head if you do something like that, so you have to protect yourself as well. It’s a fine line.

At the same time it’s a tough decision for the Commissioner to make. I’ll let him make it. l

Portions contributed by Randy Hu.

This first appeared in the 01/1995 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2011 Hockey Player® and Hockey Player Magazine®

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