Mailbag: Brendan Shanahan

This is The Tribune Mailbag, a series in which athletes answer questions sent from our readers. Our past editions have featured athletes from all corners of the sports world, including Megan Rapinoe, Brian Scalabrine and even the Founding Publisher himself.   

For this edition, we asked NHL Hall of Famer and Toronto Maple Leafs President & Alternate Governor Brendan Shanahan to answer your questions about mentorship, management and misguided chirps.

How do you deal with the nerves and pressures of not only running the hottest show in North America, but also giving it an internal overhaul. Big Fan!


I think it’s a combination of utilizing certain skills that I acquired during my days as a professional athlete, and then combining those with everything I learned in my five years at the National Hockey League. While working for the NHL, I was able to study all 30 teams and just what a challenging job it is to run an organization. My philosophy has been simple.

A. Do what I believe in.

B. Do the thing I was hired to do.

C. Surround yourself with smart, driven  people — and then let them do their jobs.

D. Drown out the white noise.

Hello Mr. Shanahan,

I was curious what you’ve considered the most challenging part of your NHL career. Is it your current position as president of one of the world’s largest hockey franchises? Was it your time dishing out supplemental discipline with the league? Or was it something during your playing career? — Chris (aka ChocolateAlmondFudge on /r/hockey)

If you’re a motivated person then I think whatever you’re taking on at any given moment is your most challenging job. I always embrace challenges. For a job to be attractive to me, it has to challenge me fully.

I recently watched the movie Red Army, which is a depiction of the Soviet hockey system through Slava Fetisov’s perspective as narrator. As someone who was on the relevant Detroit Red Wings team that won the Cup with the Russian Five, did you watch this movie and/or what are your thoughts about Detroit’s role in making the NHL a global game? — Ryan

I feel like the push to make hockey a global game occurred well before Detroit. Slava is one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. He’s a good friend. And when I think about him, and really the immersion of Russian hockey into the mainstream, I think about our time together earlier in our careers when we both played in New Jersey. So, to me at least, what was significant about watching the Russian Five play and succeed was seeing the vision Slava had when he first came over to North America finally come to fruition. They really represented a different interpretation of the sport. The idea of cycling back with the puck, rather than just going north. They utilized every inch of the ice in a way that had never been considered before.

It was interesting when you saw all these North American players watching these guys with bewilderment. By the time we won in ’97, I think a lot of teams started adopting the Soviet style. So while being on that team was great and significant, the Russians had already left their mark well before that. Of course, you don’t really get recognition until you win, and before ’97 the knock some people would make on those guys was, Yeah, yeah, they’re talented players, but will they show up in a Stanley Cup finals. I always felt that was unfair. So to me, winning that Cup was kind of the crowning moment after several years of struggling for Slava. Having him get the credibility at the NHL level that he deserved was probably what was most special about it to me.

And going more into the team itself, I didn’t see those guys as a unit, really. Mainly because they didn’t always play together. Scotty changed our lines constantly. I played the entire ’97 Finals with Igor as my centerman. Sergei played on a line with Kozlov and Doug Brown. So during that playoffs, the Russian Five was only really put together as one unit during our second-round series against Anaheim, and maybe on certain power plays here and there. Otherwise, they were mixed and matched in the lineup by Scotty.

I do remember that anytime they all went on the ice together, the entire road arena would start chanting, “USA!”

What’s your take on the Wings-Avs rivalry? How did the guys really feel about each other and what was going through your head when you made that flying tackle on Patrick Roy? — u/TheOtherPachman

We had a lot of respect for them, but we also felt a lot of animosity. I can tell you, it was very real. There were enough hotheaded people in both lineups for there to be some real dirtiness on the ice.

When I look back on that rivalry, I think about all the stuff that was said or done that was never caught on camera or by the referees. Just the stuff said between the benches and the coaches. Yeah, it was real. It was very real.

As far as the dive tackle, it all happened pretty quickly. I was locked up with Adam Foote, and I was watching Darren go after Lemieux. And then, all of the sudden, I saw that Roy was skating full speed at Darren. He was gunning it. I managed to shake off Foote, and then I took off. The only thing I was thinking was, I got to get to him before he gets to Darren. And then, what’s funny is that I think Roy saw me coming and realized I would get to him before he could get to the scrum. I don’t know how I knew it, but I could tell he was going to jump. I just knew it. So we both just kind of coiled and jumped in the air at the same time.

It was weird. I don’t know why we jumped or how we knew the other guy was going to jump. But … it just happened.

It’s funny, the following year at the Olympics we were both playing for Team Canada, and Patrick (who I’ve really come to like and respect) told me that he had hurt his shoulder on that jump and that it hadn’t been the same since. I expressed my sympathy, but in my head what I was really thinking was, Good.

Like I said, it was very real.

When you played in the NHL you were one of the fiercest, most hard hitting, no b.s. players in the league. Much like yourself, there are many former NHL players who have now found themselves in much different positions within the NHL, whether as a coach, GM, hockey ops executive, etc. My question for you is, has there ever been a time where you had an awkward run-in with a former player that you had a past on-ice history with? — Tyson

I like to think that on the ice I played by a certain code. That’s not to say I didn’t cross the line on certain occasions and had to answer for it. Similarly, when I saw someone cross the line against our team, I did my best to make them answer for it. But any grudges I might have had during my career basically ended when I hung up my skates.

We all enter this profession knowing there are days when you’ll be on the giving end of punishment, and days when you’ll be on the receiving end. I think most hockey players subscribe to the attitude that they’re all doing a job. What happens on the ice stays there. So to answer your question, no.

When I do bump into guys that I battled with and we discuss old times, we both sort of know not to go there. We’re both aware of our history, but we let it go. Quite honestly, I think we both miss those days and value each other because we both played a role in what was a very memorable and meaningful part of our lives.

What is your opinion of the changes to goaltender equipment, and do you think they could go further specifically in things like glove-perimeter? — u/varro-reatinus

I think that as long as the goalie is protected from injury, it’s an area where we should continue to go further to get to the right place. I know people from the outside say, Just do it. But I also know the hard work that the league has put into evaluating the problem. We all want more goals. We want to get rid of oversized pads. We want to see more net, basically.

Essentially, we want the best, most athletic goalies to be recognized and rewarded for their talents, rather than the size of their equipment.

That being said, it’s a balance. Nobody wants a goalie to get hurt because we’ve restricted their equipment size. So it’s about wanting to do what’s right for the game while also making sure the goaltenders aren’t more susceptible to preventable injuries.

Can you talk about how prevalent analytics is inside NHL front offices these days and maybe give the average fan an idea of some of the things that are measured? Lots of fans want to know more about what actually goes into player evaluation and there’s a lot of speculation out there -— nobody really knows how much weight is put into advanced stats and what teams are doing these days. — Brandon

I would say that I don’t think anybody should know precisely what any club is doing to evaluate talent. Whatever you want to call information — whether it’s traditional or analytics — it’s only as valuable as the people who dissect it. To me, all information is good information, and to turn a blind eye to any of it out of some sort of bias towards “old school” or “new school” would mean you’re not doing your job. I’m a big believer in having whatever data you can have available to the organization, while also ensuring that you have a diverse, open-minded group to determine how to interpret that data. Basically, you need to have people in place who can look at a lot of information and determine what’s actually going to help your club and what’s a waste of time.

I saw a photo of you with your family on vacation last year looking shredded.  How do you stay in shape post-hockey? — Drew

I like to run, but unfortunately it’s not the best thing for my knees. I stopped running when I turned 33 or 34 for that reason. But I picked it up again after I retired. I grew up playing lacrosse, and running outdoors has always been a way to unwind for me. And with the amount that I like to eat, I’m lucky I like running.

Are you further along [with the rebuild of the Maple Leafs], right where you expected to be or facing challenges that you didn’t anticipate based on where you guys are now? — Carl

I would say we’re somewhere between where we hoped to be and a little further along. Those are all off-season judgments though. It really comes down to how the players who are currently showing promise ultimately develop. We have a group that is very young and that has shown some potential, but that potential doesn’t mean much unless it’s fulfilled. You’d rather have it that way than not, but getting it done on the NHL level is all about results, and that’s the challenge this young team faces.

Since your tenure started a large emphasis has been placed on mentorship throughout the organization, be it in management or on the roster itself. Could you discuss some of your key mentors on and off the ice and their impact? In what ways do you look for players and personnel to be mentors within the organization and within the community? — Mike

I sometimes see fans who question certain signings or the addition of certain players who maybe don’t measure up based on some metrics. And I think what they overlook is that it’s not necessarily the superstar on the team that imparts the most knowledge to young players who are developing. There are guys who can make a huge, franchise-changing difference with the leadership they provide off the ice.

For example, people will always ask me, “Who taught you how to shoot? Brett Hull?” And I’ll tell them, “No actually, it was Doug Sulliman.” Doug was a veteran guy when I joined the Devils early in my career. Playingwise he was in and out of the lineup, but he impacted my career because he had the time and the interest to pay it forward to us young guys and help us learn how to be pros. You can learn from superstars by watching them, but those guys have so much pressure on them that they need to put all their focus into doing their job. So it’s hard for them to spend a lot of time dissecting the game of a young player who’s coming up, and explaining to them how to improve. Also, sometimes a guy with that level of talent is just so naturally gifted that they can’t really fully explain it to others.

And that’s why healthy organizations need guys like Doug Sulliman. He transformed the way I shot the puck at a young age and that made me a much better player. And then when I went to St. Louis, I learned from Brett Hull by watching him.

I think people want to assume that you learn everything from NHL All-Stars, but when you look at the Matthews, the Marners and the Nylanders, you don’t really know who’s going to say the right thing at the right moment or provide an example that will put your young players on the right course. So our job sometimes is identifying those veteran players who can impart the right values and tasking them with sharing their wisdom so that our young players can get the most out of their careers.

A legendary statement used to be on a wall in Maple Leaf Gardens that read, DEFEAT DOES NOT REST LIGHTLY ON THEIR SHOULDERS. Is there any plan to incorporate that timeless motto in the ACC for the current Toronto players? It seems a statement like that could be applied to your professional career. One to live by. — Christian

Thanks, Christian. Appreciate the suggestion, but whatever signage goes up in the dressing room is up to the players and the coaches.

With the management group of Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello, Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter, how does the dynamic work within the front office? Does everybody have equal say regarding all decisions/discussions, or does each person’s input vary depending on the issue at hand? — u/HarrisonGuord

We work as a group where everyone has input. We’ll give our thoughts and then collectively assist someone in reaching a decision. I really believe in fostering a group dynamic that is open to a lot of ideas. We try to get as much information from a diverse set of perspectives, but then yes, whoever is responsible for a particular decision must be the final say. All organizations will make player personnel mistakes at times. It’s inevitable. For long-term sustainable success, what’s more important than the actual decision itself is the process by which you determine it.

You have been involved in almost every level of this game, and perhaps may be the best person to ask:  Where is this game heading in five years, 10 or even 20? Is it going to be very different from what we see? Where do you see the sport going and/or where would you like to see the sport go? — Naved

I see people now proposing different ideas to slow the game down a bit, whether it’s putting the red line back in or allowing defensemen to hold up for each other. But ultimately I think those efforts will always be futile. Players are not going to get slower. You can’t unteach the skills that are being developed at every level now. My view is that regardless of what rules are instituted, the game will continue to get faster and the players will continue to get fitter. In coming years, it’s going to become more and more difficult to distinguish the first line from the fourth line, and also between a forward and defenseman. In short, hockey players will continue to become more complete than ever.

What is the worst attempt at chirping/trash talking you’ve seen on the ice? — u/DrCoconutsss

I remember when I was in Detroit, Sean Avery stood up as Joe Sakic was skating by our bench. Sean was a young, enthusiastic hockey player who was well liked by us old guys, and as you might know, was known for trash talking. But when he stood up and yelled, “Hey Sakic!” Brett Hull grabbed him by the back of his sweater and yanked him down on the bench. Then he said, and I’ll never forget this, “You are not allowed to speak to Mr. Sakic.” And then Sean looked down the bench at the rest of the boys and we all just sort of nodded.