TORONTO – Brendan Shanahan, the player, sees a common link between the two most famous coaches he played under, Mike Keenan and Scotty Bowman.
“I can handle a mean coach. I don’t mind a guy barking and yelling and winding me up, and I do think it had to be some of their plan with me,” Shanahan explained Monday, in conversation with Brian Burke at the PrimeTime Sports Management Conference.
“It was wind me up, get me mad, then put me on the ice. I was usually a better player when I was angry.”
Bowman and Keenan could be anger provokers, a couple of excellent if gruff bench coaches who weren’t afraid to play mind games or keep their players on edge.
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Absolutely, Keenan’s off-ice methods weren’t always well received by his charges. An example: spitefully scratching a player he’d learned had purchased a bunch of tickets for friends and family to watch him play road game.
But once the puck dropped, both men knew how to drag the best performance out of Shanahan, who won three Stanley Cups with Bowman’s Detroit Red Wings.
“Scotty hated comfort. He hated for his team and his players to ever feel complacent and comfortable. So, he created adversity always,” Shanahan said.
“Then once the playoffs started, he took away adversity. You were hardened by then. Scotty created adversity, but it wasn’t cruel.”
It is through this lens, then, that we must frame the approach of Brendan Shanahan, the president of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
We are now 16 games deep into Year 8 of the Shanaplan. Although the homegrown president’s vision has produced a resounding No. 1–overall lottery win, many secured free agent targets, and five straight postseason appearances, there’s been no winning when it matters.
“To me, it’s always about development. It’s about them dealing with the adversity,” Shanahan said, bringing it back to the Bowman method.
“If it didn’t exist in November, December, January, he found a way to create adversity, so you’d be hardened by the time the playoffs came. When things get noisy and the pressure mounts, we work internally to solve problems and solve issues.”
Internally, there is a direct line of belief in place.
Shanahan has his handpicked GM, and Kyle Dubas has his handpicked head coach. Sheldon Keefe had a major voice in selecting his current assistants. And the brain trust agreed to double-down on its Core Four star forwards, avoid blockbuster trade temptation, and re-up top defenceman Morgan Reilly before the bill came due.
The sense that this could be a make-or-break campaign for the key players involved is well founded.
Remember, Dubas declared heading into this fall: “For better or worse, I believe in this group…. I know that the decision lies on me, and the risk is for me in going ahead that way.”
A run of eight wins in nine outings (some ugly, some dominant) has helped ease the tension in Leafland from the rocky four-game losing skid that preceded it.
Shanahan joined that rocky October roadie following Toronto’s embarrassing 7-1 loss to Burke’s depleted Penguins squad, and his presence spurred (denied) speculation that someone (Dubas? Keefe? A star player?) might not be long for the Blue and White.
Adversity like that is a reminder of the radioactive market in which Shanahan must steer this ship, but it could well be directed as fuel for this spring.
During a rare public appearance, Shanahan again endorsed everyone under his employ.
“I think we’ve got a great coach. I think we’ve got a great general manager. And I think the whole staff is really committed to it,” Shanahan said, unwavering.
“We’ve got fantastic players who care a lot. They want to be the ones. Not everybody wants to play in a big city where there’s a lot of pressure, but our guys want to be the ones to rewrite history here in Toronto.
“They understand it has to happen in the playoffs. It hasn’t happened yet, but I do really believe in them all that we’re going to get it done.”
Shanahan’s company line hasn’t changed much from the tone he struck after the Leafs’ Round 1 collapse to the Montreal Canadiens.
But one of the great unknowns is how Shanahan’s own bosses, Larry Tanenbaum and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, truly feels about his plan to keep running it back through the adversity.
Tanenbaum has been spotted at multiple home games this season and went into the dressing room to congratulate the players after a win.
“Ownership has been fantastically supportive,” Shanahan said.
“And when I look at some of these players we have—good mix of veterans, young guys, many that we drafted and brought up—to me, it’s about going through these adverse moments so your stronger when the playoffs do come.
“You keep pounding on that door until you finally break the door down.”