Shanahan's school of hard knocks
After 21 seasons of suiting up as an NHL player, Brendan Shanahan(notes) now wears a suit as an NHL executive. Instead of skate blades, his job requires razor blades.
"Yeah, it’s grown-up time, I guess," said Shanahan, 41, less than a year since officially "retiring" and becoming the league’s vice president of hockey and business development. "I said to somebody the first few weeks, 'The hardest thing for me was shaving every morning.’ "
The grooming of Shanahan continues with the NHL’s Research, Development and Orientation Camp on Wednesday and Thursday in Toronto.
Unlike the Shanahan Summit – the get-together of hockey minds Shanahan hosted during the 2004-05 lockout, leading to transformational rule changes – the RDO Camp was not Shanahan’s idea. It was NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s.
But it is Shanny’s show.
Bettman said he assigned Shanahan to run the camp with dual purposes in mind: to test ideas for improving the on-ice product at a time when it has never been better, and to give Shanahan a project that would educate him as an executive.
After all, Bettman hired Shanahan with dual purposes in mind: to tap into Shanahan’s passion for hockey and unique expertise, and to give Shanahan an experience that would be "like going to business school for him."
While working on the game, Shanahan is researching, developing and orientating himself. Not long after he started his new job in December, Shanahan marveled at the logistics required to run a major sports league.
"He said, 'You know, as a player, I’d show up at the rink at 4 o’clock, and I’d get ready, and I’d play the game, and I never thought about how all of this happens,’ " Bettman said. "And he goes, 'I’m utterly amazed to now see what goes into having our games played, even one of the 1,230 regular-season games.' "
Shanahan has been getting a taste of that with this camp. He hasn’t been able to do it by himself. He has had to do what an executive does – delegate, coordinate, pull together the entire organization.
First, Shanahan had to survey coaches and general managers to see what ideas they wanted to test. Then he had to pare down the list. Then he had to find coaches and players to participate. Then he had to worry about everything else – the equipment, the rink set-up, sponsor involvement, PR …
"It just doesn’t happen," Bettman said. "You don’t make an announcement and say we’re going to have an R&D camp and it’s going to come together. To the contrary, there are things you have to do, and there are occasionally frustrations when it doesn’t work exactly the way you want."
Bettman sounded like a professor eager to see what his student can do.
"He’s the general contractor of this event, and he’s got all the subcontractors doing what they need to do," Bettman said. "And if the house turns out looking well, it means that everything got coordinated."
Shanahan could do nothing, or he could do anything. He accomplished enough as a player and made enough money that he could sit back, relax and wait for his ticket to the Hall of Fame. He would be a natural on television, with quick wit and insightful commentary. The NHL Players’ Association could use him. So could a team’s front office.
"Believe me, he had an array of possibilities from one end of the spectrum to the other," said Rick Curran, who represented Shanahan from age 15 until he retired as a player. "I’m not suggesting he was offered jobs in each of those different areas of hockey. But the potential was there, the opportunity was there, and he knew it. At the end of the day, he chose where he felt he would be most useful to the game."
Shanahan learned through two lockouts that he wasn’t the type to do nothing. He couldn’t sit still during the last one. After reading comments Paul Coffey made decrying the state of the game around his Hall of Fame induction in November 2004, Shanahan figured if the people who love hockey weren’t playing the game, they might as well use the opportunity to talk about it.
So with the blessing of Bettman and NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow, he invited a cross-section of people to a posh Toronto hotel for two days in December 2004, footing the bill himself. Players, coaches, officials, team executives and TV executives brainstormed. Shanahan learned about the game. He also learned how to learn about the game.
The group discussed potential punishments for icing. The consensus was that a penalty was too drastic. Someone threw out the idea of not allowing the coach to make a line change.
"It was met with the players and the managers and even the refs with a sort of like, 'Eeh,’ " Shanahan said. "And the coaches were like, 'Whoa. Whoa. That would drive us crazy.’ No. 1, we knew we had something there. But No. 2, you realized that you wouldn’t have learned that if all these people weren’t invited to that meeting."
The Shanahan Summit spawned a research and development camp, a competition committee that included active players and several new rules, including the new icing idea. When the NHL resumed play in 2005-06, it was a different game – more open, more skilled, more exciting.
"I think sometimes as a player you feel like, 'Aw, what can I do? No one’s going to listen to me,’ " Shanahan said. "And I got a rare opportunity as a player to realize that if you’re willing to do the work that people will listen. And if you’re willing to ask the questions, people will contribute to the answers.
"I always said when I did that summit, 'These are not my rules or my ideas. They’re a collection of some of the smartest people in hockey. I just paid for the buffet.’ "
But Shanahan was being modest. He not only was recognized by the media, but he was recognized by Bettman. The two stayed in touch, and as the end of Shanahan’s playing career approached, Bettman spoke to him about an opportunity that would be mutually beneficial.
"He could help make sure that what we were doing on the business side was, for lack of a better word, authentic to the game," Bettman said. "He could do that while he was learning the business side."
Here was a guy with impeccable credentials, going beyond the 656 goals, three Stanley Cups and Olympic gold medal. There was little in the game that Shanahan hadn’t experienced. He had played for several teams. He had been traded. He had been a free agent. He had played before and after the rule changes.
Sure, he also had 2,489 penalty minutes. He had been fined and suspended. He had criticized the officiating and had to meet with director of hockey operations Colin Campbell. But even that was viewed not as ironic, but as an asset; not just as Shanahan’s Irish temper, but as evidence of his passion. (Bettman jokes that Shanahan "hasn’t tapped anyone on the shoulder in the office" and "thinks the officiating’s much better now.")
"One of the reasons why [Campbell] thought I was able to pull it off was because I wasn’t just a scorer and I wasn’t just a guy who played in All-Star Games, but I was a guy who got into trouble, who pushed the boundaries of the rules, who got into fights, who lost his temper, got suspended," Shanahan said. "I had run-ins and flare-ups with the league as a player rep on occasions as well. I think that all of those perspectives have better prepared me for the job I’m doing right now."
This is someone with an informed opinion and unafraid to express it.
"I’ve always felt that if you ask him something, he would respond with an honest opinion of what he feels," Curran said. "He would not cloud his answer with politics or diplomacy.
"However, having said that, he’s smart enough to know that when he has something to say, he has to respect not only what he’s saying but whom he’s talking with. He was always diplomatic enough to respond appropriately, but never compromise the integrity of his answer."
Shanahan splits time between his offices in New York and Toronto. He is on the 14th floor in Manhattan, one floor below Bettman’s suite, one door down from chief operating officer John Collins, near departments like events, marketing and PR. He has a view of 6th Avenue, but otherwise, his space is unremarkable. No memorabilia. No door.
If he keeps regular hours, they’re probably 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. But he’s also out and about, catching up with players at the rink or at lunch, staying current with what’s going on in the game.
Lately he has been working on the RDO Camp, looking forward to subtle experiments like not being able to ice the puck when you’re shorthanded. He wants to see if switching ends for overtime will create more odd-man rushes because of the long change.
Next week, he will participate in another summit in Toronto, with a cross-section of hockey people discussing the game. Only this won’t be a Shanahan Summit. It will be the World Hockey Summit.
"One of the reasons I took the job is my job changes every week," Shanahan said. "I didn’t just want to be in hockey operations, and I didn’t just want to be on the business side. I’m put in a position where I learn something new about either the game or the business of hockey almost every week."
So if this is business school, what happens when Shanahan graduates?
"Anything he wants," Bettman said.
All the things Shanahan could do before, he can do in the future – but with even more experience on his resume.
"I think what he did, the path he chose, it reflects a real high level of sophistication. This sets him up for anything he wants to do," said Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who once worked for Bettman as the NHL’s director of hockey operations. "When you work for the league, you get in front of all 30 owners, you get in front of all the GMs, and Bettman is a smart …
"He’s not smart. Bettman’s brilliant. Bettman’s a brilliant guy. You work for him and you sit in front of that room, and people say, 'Hey, this guy must be smart, too.’ You work for a league, it gives you an aura of expertise. It gives you credibility."
Shanahan declines to look ahead.
"I’m not sure where it leads," he said.
He has been in the job less than a year, and like a player, he said he is focusing on the task at hand. Bettman said he hopes Shanahan stays with the league for a long time, and Shanahan just might. Working for a team would stoke his competitive fire, but this does, too.
"I’m proud of being in hockey simply because I’m competitive with the other leagues and the other sports," Shanahan said. "I like when people say hockey is on an upswing."
There must be deep satisfaction in that, after all Shanahan has done, with what he’s doing now. The RDO Camp will be at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ practice rink, next door to the Lakeshore Lions rink the Leafs used to use. Shanahan skated there growing up. His mother still lives in the same house, a half mile away from where Shanahan is shaping the game that shaped him.