So, let’s take Brendan Shanahan in 1987 in Piestany — whaling away on some Russian kid in the dark — and freeze him in carbonite.
At that moment, I bet you couldn’t have slipped a dime between Shanahan’s opinions towards Europeans, and Don Cherry’s — they were so similar.
Now, fast forward to 2015. Shanahan wants his Leafs playing puck possession hockey, and he’s collecting European kids like he wants a Russian 5. And a Swedish 6. And maybe a spare Latvian or two [just for parts].
So, why did he change? What happened to move Shanahan’s attitudes towards Europeans and Russians?
Now, let’s forget being fancy here and just say some things outright. A guy like Don Cherry got voted in — by millions of people — as one of the Greatest Canadians of all time. Don has made it a regular feature of his schtick to dump on Europeans. He says they’re too little or too scared — like he did with Nylander. And make no mistake, Don’s still on the air because millions of Canadian hockey fans like his routine, and would go ape-shit if he got the hook.
While on the other hand, what I’ve been laying out here, stage by stage, has been an argument that Brendan Shanahan has moved to almost the opposite pole from Don in terms of how he thinks the game should be played, how the Leafs should draft, and what the mix should be on the roster.
So what we’re looking at are a lot of Leaf fans still sitting with Don — older ones mostly. And there are a lot of Leaf fans who started there, but have moved over the years, and who now find themselves lining up more with Shanahan. Because he, too, has moved.
Now, the best thing about this piece is that you don’t have to listen to me speculate as much. It turns out Shanahan has laid down a very public record of his views on this issue for almost 25 years.
Time to listen to Brendan Shanahan tell it direct.
Wherein Shanahan hearts old-man Jagr [’cause Jaromir be jammin’]
It’s 2007. Shanny’s 38 years old, and winding down his career. He has a nice 62-point season with the Rangers, but it’s another vet, Jaromir Jagr, who blows the scoring roof off with a 96-point year.
The only problem is Jagr’s resurgence attracts some extra attention from the clutch-and-grab crowd. Shanny not only didn’t like it, he decided — to hell with the fines — he was going to let rip. Rip on the NHL’s referees, that is:
The NBA didn’t let people grab Michael Jordan by the waist every time he went up for a jump shot. But Jaromir Jagr has to carry guys on his back all season long. I don’t know what the deal is, if there’s some sort of prejudice against him or what it is. Guys hit him late, guys hit him high, guys hook his hands. He doesn’t complain. He just goes out and plays and plays and plays.
The referees just seem to have a different set of rules for how people get to play against him…. Not since Fetisov came over from Russia have I seen a star player get ignored like this by the referees. And I know the reason they were ignoring him [Fetisov] back then….
And it’s not just tonight’s refs, it’s every night. I’ve played with other superstars and they get a whole lot more respect. I’m trying to eliminate the reasons why that’s the way it is.
Now, that’s Shanny, age 38, laying a smackdown on the league and its referees for being biased against European and Russian skill players like Jagr and Fetisov. And there’s not a lot of NHL’ers with the gumption to do that — to call out the league and the refs for being straight-up biased. But, from the sounds of it, Shanahan’s views were already pretty well-formed before he got to New York. So let’s roll back another 10 years and see how he sounds.
It’s the Wings 1997 Cup run, and this time Shanahan’s a bit tired of the media and the way they’re going on whining about Vladimir Konstantinov’s rough play. So he says:
“If Konstantinov were from Moose Jaw, he’d be up for the Norris every year. He’s no more dirty than Chris Chelios or Kevin Hatcher.”
And then he spelled it out further, nice and plain. He said the media didn’t give Konstantinov sufficient credit, “because he’s Russian, and not Canadian or American.”
That made some people angry — media people, hockey people. Anyone who hated the Russians, really.
Shanny didn’t seem to care.
Now, that was another pretty clear moment, and he was only 28. Again, it takes a bit of gumption because he’s not just complaining in general, he’s spelling out precisely how the refs are being biased. And moreso, he’s doing it during the playoffs, and in this case, in defence of Russians. But again, it sounds like his views had started changing even earlier. So let’s go back to the 80’s for a second.
Wherein Brendan Shanahan meets his first genuine ROUS [Russian Of Unusual Skill]
It’s 1989, the Berlin Wall is falling, the Cold War has finally broken, and Slava Fetisov crash-lands in the New Jersey Devils locker room.
Next to a 20 year old kid named Brendan Shanahan.
It’s a big event, and everybody from the US national media through to that one-eyed old skate sharpener up in Kapuskasing has an opinion on it.
Because boy oh boy, let me tell you.
Opinions on the Russians — we’ve heard a few.
The day Slava Fetisov arrived, the faces of all those fourth line wannabes and third-rate goons and second-string goalies they hired into our TV and hockey talk radio stations lit up like they’d been raptured.
Then, when their cameras and mics went live, their heads exploded. Opinions came blasting out everywhere, like shrapnel. But if you listened long enough, it turns out that was all they had to offer — opinions.
In reality, almost no one in the NHL — player, coach, owner or media — actually had any direct, first-hand experience of playing with top-end Russians, beyond a handshake after a game or a facewash during. [Excepting Wayne Gretzky, who had shown real courage by inviting the top Russian players over for a BBQ at his house in 1987. Truth beats Fiction once again, eh?]
For Shanahan, all this speculation on Fetisov and Kasatonov was a waste of time. He was playing alongside them, practicing with them, having meals with them, and talking to them.
And direct experience of people is a hell of a thing.
Most of us have gone through that learning curve where we discover some group of people are actually –- from our direct experience — drastically different than the media or our churches or our parents or the politicians told us they’d be.
Most of us, faced with that experience, change.
Only a very few people — you’ll usually meet them at your 30th high school reunion — will tell you they haven’t changed anything. They’ll tell you how they haven’t changed in 30 years. Oh, how they’ll tell you. How they still wear the same things, go the same places, like the same music, and basically think the same about everything.
Well, Brendan Shanahan isn’t like that. He changes.
Like I said, in 1987 at Piestany, I’ll bet Shanahan’s opinions were equal to Don Cherry’s. But by the time Fetisov and the Russians landed in New Jersey two years later, Shanahan and Cherry might as well have been on different planets.
Anyway, Shanny was kind enough not just to make a few polite public statements on what the Russians arrival was like, but to spell out the inside story. Here he is, spelling out the splits amongst the North American players and coaches. From Sports Illustrated in 2000:
A lot of guys – mostly older players and a few fringe guys who felt their jobs were in jeopardy – were really anti-Russian… Growing up, we’d been taught that Russians were the enemy… In the 1987 Juniors we had a bench-clearing brawl with the Soviets…. But we also had a lot of younger guys, like Ken Daneyko and Kirk Muller, who saw what [Fetisov] and [Kasatonov] could do for us as a team.
He even notes how some teammates’ anti-Russian feelings carried over onto the ice:
Cold shoulders in the dressing room were the least of it. The real freeze-out happened on the ice…. Fetisov’s own team-mates were hoping he’d fail. If he made a mistake, no one would be covering for him….
The early NJ coaches had no idea what to do. Some wouldn’t play the Russians, some wouldn’t speak to them. Hell, one coach wouldn’t even look at them.
So Shanahan, age 20, faced a stark choice right in his own dressing room: A choice between the anti-Russian side — “older” guys and “fringe” players, worried about their jobs or locked into Cold War attitudes — and the more pro-Russian players, younger guys like Muller and Daneyko, who saw the talent the Russians and Europeans brought.
Even though it made him a minority in the NHL’s brotherhood, Shanahan made his move.
So by around the age of 20, he’d begun to shift his attitudes, whereas — in his view — a lot of the older guys, and the more fringe ones, didn’t. To me, I find that kind of a quote revealing.
Because that same dressing room split is there in the broadcast booths today.
Shanahan even went further than that. He seemed to feel that his decision wasn’t just a practical one, but almost had a moral dimension to it. Here he is comparing Fetisov’s willingness to turn the other cheek to Jackie Robinson — a near-saint in modern sports:
You had to be a real jerk not to like [Fetisov], because he was a real gentleman…. That’s why I have so much respect for him. If he’d fought every guy who threw an extra elbow at him, he would’ve been fighting every shift. For Russians, he was the Jackie Robinson of hockey. He opened doors. He took all the cheap shots and played with a smile.
Jackie Robinson versus the Cheap Shot Artists. That’s pretty clear.
And he said more. Shanahan’s view isn’t that we should be grudgingly accepting the European and Russian entry into the NHL. He thinks we should be actively celebrating the Europeans and what they’ve brought to the game:
Can you imagine the NHL right now without Selanne, Jagr, Forsberg, Lidstrom?… What a dull place it would be! Thank God we’ve got Pavel Bure and those guys. Thank God we got them. And Slava Fetisov started it.
Remember: The entire movement he’s talking about to bring the Europeans in — opposed throughout by the old-guard “paranoid” owners, GM, coaches and players — was led by Lou Lamoriello, the very man Shanahan says helped guide him and formulate his approach to life.
What we see is that Brendan Shanahan has consistently made clear – from 2015 back to 2007 back to 1997 back to 1989 – that he is a very big fan of what the Europeans and Russians bring to the game. And from looking at his statements, and dropping them on a timeline, it would appear that the triggering experience was the arrival of Slava Fetisov in 1989 — how he was treated, and how he handled himself.
Let’s look at a couple of final events, ones which I suspect helped turn Shanny’s new opinions into rock-solid life stands.
Wherein Shanny’s friends face some hard times [but keep calm and carry on]
In 1996, Shanahan asked to be traded. And when given a choice, he chose Detroit.
He knew full well that Detroit was the team of the Russian 5, and of Scotty Bowman, and of puck possession hockey. He had other choices — he could have gone to a very good Flyers team, one with Eric Lindros, Ron Hextall and co.
But Shanahan chose Detroit. He dove in and learned everything he could about the new system, and even started dropping the gloves in defence of his teammates. Yes, that was the year he fought both Probert and McSorley — by Christmas.
Frankly, he appeared to be really enjoying himself on his new, multi-national team.
Now, as a teammate, Shanahan was well-known for being a talker, a joker, a storyteller. From those stories he would have learned a few things about his teammates, and what it cost them to get to the NHL.
Because the Russians… well, they had some stories.
Like how in the Red Army, Fetisov and Larionov had to endure eight to ten hours of practice plus workouts every day for 11 months a year, while being kept — as grown men with families — in locked-down camps and barracks.
Or about how Konstantinov and Andrei Nikolishin (Shanny’s teammate in Hartford) grew up in places like Vorkuta and Murmansk, north of the Arctic Circle. That meant – among other fairly hard things — playing all your minor hockey outdoors.
Or how when Fetisov spoke out against the system he was arrested, tied to a chair, shocked and beaten. And yet, rather than defect, he stayed and fought so other players could leave freely.
Or how Sergei Fedorov’s grandfather was taken to the gulag under Stalin, and never seen again.
Or how Andrei Nikolishin’s father spent 25 years in the Arctic prison-labour gulag of Vorkuta (while the rest of the Ukrainian Nikolishins made it to Western Canada).
Or of Fetisov’s terrible car crash as a kid, when his brother killed. And Slava Kozlov’s crash, where his teammate was killed while Kozlov suffered a broken skull and brain damage and was in a US hospital for months.
Yet, just as Shanny was learning this kind of thing from his teammates, large sections of the hockey press were absolutely hammering them just for coming over from Russia.
The thing is, when you take a group like Shanahan and his teammates — smart, skilled, disciplined — and put them under heavy, external fire, like the media gave them, well… they tend to react one of two ways.
Under pressure, they either break or they bond.
These guys bonded.
And after that, they dug in. And worked harder. And won.
But there’s always that one guy, right? [The one that never changes]
That media assault – on European players in general, but on the Russians in particular – shouldn’t be underestimated. It was pretty relentless. I’m just going to give one example, and it should be enough.
Here’s Don talking about Detroit’s “Fabulous” Russian 5:
“The Russian 5? They suck. And they always have sucked.”
That bit would almost be funny, except Don is so angry he’s actually transparent. His fans can spin it all they want, but right there it’s clear:
Don Cherry just plain hates Russians.
And look, really? He always has. The Cold War never ended for Don.
See, Don’s that guy at your 30th high school reunion.
He’s never changed his views, not on anything. “I’m not changing,” he says, and he’s proud of it.
So, back in 1956 when Scotty Bowman’s eyes were being opened to Tarasov’s methods… Don was locking in on how to play lunchpail hockey. In 1972, when all of Canada saw the Soviets’ talent and began thinking about what we could learn from them… Don shouted that we should break their ankles. In 1987, it wasn’t just that the Russians fought us on the ice at Piestany — to Don, they had to be in some vast conspiracy.
Then, in 1996, he stared straight at the Russian 5 — part of the greatest influx of hockey talent in decades — and Don’s analysis was that…
Then, he went on a rage-rant where he spelled out — for all you kids listening out there — that it was somehow completely legitimate and perfectly Canadian to not just bodycheck them or fight them, but that it was fine to try and break their ankles and to cut them for 42 stitches.
Now, to be clear on this bit, personally. I never had a problem when I played, not once — and certainly not while playing in Europe — with bodychecking people or dropping the gloves and fighting. No problem, not ever.
But when you’re talking about deliberately cutting people up, and stick-swinging to break bones, you’re not talking hockey anymore.
You’re talking rollerball. Or maybe the Eastern Hockey League circa 1955.
Wherein Brendan Shanahan wins a Cup [down at the Joe]
It’s June, 1997.
Shanny’s out for a twirl around Joe Louis Arena, holding the Stanley Cup and celebrating with a few of his brothers-in-arms — the guys who went through it all with him — and all the fans and the media.
For any objective hockey fan, it was a big day.
Detroit hadn’t won a Cup in 42 years. It was Stevie Y’s 14th year with no Cup, and the 10th for Shanahan. After the Cup was handed to the captain, it was handed next to the two veteran Russians Larionov and Fetisov, together, out of respect for all they’d gone through. And then over to Scotty Bowman, who took this Cup win personally enough that he put on skates and took a turn around the ice. Then it went to Shanny, and when he was done it went to Sergei Fedorov — which was funny, when you consider that back in 1987 Fedorov had been there fighting in the dark at Piestany, too, only on the other side. Same as teammate Vladimir Konstantinov.
Cup teams become famously bonded. Each player skates a lap with the Cup, and the whole team celebrates with them, both for what that player contributed to the team and also for what each one has come through individually.
The difficulty of the journey. The sacrifice required. The years.
For Shanahan — after what was now already ten full years in the NHL — that day down at the Joe was one of his happiest days ever.
Then, of course, came the after — the six days after.
Six days after they won the Cup down at the Joe, Konstantinov and Fetisov had hired a limousine to celebrate with friends. The car crashed, Konstantinov went into a coma, and the whole team — the whole city of Detroit — followed his progress hour by hour.
After 39 days, he woke up, but not to a miraculous recovery — instead to a wheelchair, and a lifetime of working to overcome brain damage.
The Wings left his locker untouched that year, and wore patches that read “Believe,” in English and Russian. They dedicated the season to him, and won the Cup again. Konstantinov was wheeled out onto the ice during the presentation.
They handed him the Cup.
As Shanahan said:
It was one of the greatest moments I’ve ever had. Not too often does a moment in hockey transcend sports, but that was one of them. That’s a greater victory than winning the Stanley Cup.
16 years after, when Brendan Shanahan was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, he singled out that exact team and those teammates.
“That group of players, I’m telling you guys, I think about you a lot, and I will never forget you.”
He then quoted the lines from Fred Shero, from a previous Finals:
“Win today, and we walk together forever.”
On Borje Salming, Leo Komarov and being a Toronto Maple Leaf fan
So we’ve now looked at how Shanahan — in his own words — has changed over 25 years. And we’ve seen how what Brendan Shanahan learned back then — and what he experienced and suffered and celebrated during those years — will now shape his new Leaf team, from who he picks to go behind the bench, to whose names ends up on the sweaters, to what style of hockey his team plays.
And how these teams play will then shape what they add to the team’s legacy.
And with one last link in the chain, who these Leaf teams become will then shape who we become as fans. Because not all teams, and not all fans, are alike.
It’s not the same thing, being a fan of the ‘74 Broad Street Bullies Flyers team as opposed to a fan of the ‘67 Leafs. You’re cheering for very different approaches to the game. After all, in one, you’re cheering for the skill of a Johnny Bower and a Dave Keon. In the other, you’re often cheering for a mob beat-down on ice — and often alongside fellow fans who don’t mind wearing old German World War II helmets.
As a fan today, I like how the Leafs are changing. The direction Shanahan’s taking them. Personally, I’m looking forward to its next stages. Call it puck possession hockey, whatever. I like it.
I grew up loving the crazy Leaf brawlers like Tiger Williams and Spinner Spencer just as much as the skill of a Dave Keon or a Norm Ullman. But man, these recent Leaf teams – hell, most of the last decade – they’ve left me cold.
It hasn’t just been the players as individuals. It’s been the hockey.
The brain-dead, junkyard hockey.
I’m just not interested in watching 20 more years of “to-the-line-but-not-out” defence, or endless rounds of chip ‘n chase, and all of it backed up by a fourth line made up of paid punchers.
Look, we did it Don’s way, and Randy’s way. We spent years drafting slow-footed guys who had size, and had years of running out more goons than any other team.
We did it their way. And boy oh boy was it bad hockey.
But this season, touch wood, even though we’re playing a line-up consisting mostly of bargain basement cast offs, it actually looks like we’re developing into… a team that can skate? Well, that sounds good. A team that passes more? Hell yeah. I could go for seeing a couple of passes completed — in a row.
Without talent, we’re not going to go far. But take that framework and then add some free-wheeling kids? I’m interested. Maybe have Babcock throw in a bit of discipline? We’re in business.
Leaf hockey, done proper.
But somehow the critics want me to be upset that we’re dropping the brawlers? And drafting and trading for some European and Russian kids? Look, there’s a simple, two-word answer to any idiot proclaims they’re a Leaf fan, and then announces that we don’t want any Europeans:
Borje. Frigging. Salming.
He is on Legends Row for a reason. I was a 14-year-old Anglo Conservative Baptist farm kid when Salming broke in. And every Leaf fan alive remembers the downright assault he had to put up with from goons like the Flyers, and the commentators and “hockey people” going off on the Europeans, and the idiot fans shouting “chicken Swede” and all that.
We heard it all — everything they had to say about him. And then we watched him.
And he was fantastic.
He was unbelievable. A rookie defenceman that ran a plus/minus of +38. On the Leafs. He got Norris votes in his rookie season, and then he got Norris votes for ten years more. He was a first or second team All-Star six years straight. And he was tough as nails.
I’d fall over and die in a pool of my own drooling happiness if the Leafs ever got another like him.
You tell me: How many Leaf fans do you know who would complain if we had a Tarasenko or an Ovechkin or a Lidstrom or a Hedman in blue and white? Or if we even got halfway to a new Russian 5? You’d be crazy to turn down a new Russian 2.5.
After Salming, anyone that wants to hate on the Leafs getting Europeans and Russians?
You must be joking, mate.
Besides, this is not only 2015. This is Toronto. We’re the city that embraces people from every single nation of the world.
If the people of the city of Toronto can embrace the world, and if the big Irish kid Brendan Shanahan can learn to do it — with a shout out to the earlier big Irishman, Pat Quinn, who knew how to do it — then we as Leaf fans can, too.
So, go on. Give me some of them hot-shot skate-like-hell Russian kids. Some Swinns and Fedes. Maybe a coupla them Ukrainians and Czechs. Even them Latvians.
Truth is, I don’t care where they’re coming from anymore.
I care about where they’re going — and how they get there.
If they can skate like a Marner, or have the flair of a Nylander, or the hunger of a Soshnikov, or the power of Morgan Rielly, or a sprinkling of that Nitro Mysteron puck magic, then I say…
Put ‘em in the blue and white, Lou.
Kick open the gate, Babs.
And let ‘em rip.
Yeah, I’m excited by who the Leafs will become. But you know what? One thing I’m really not worried about is if we end up with a new Leaf team that speaks English. And Russian. And Swedish. And Finnish.
Because Leo Komarov speaks all those languages already, just on his own.
And then he goes out on the ice, and lets his game speak for him.
Go Leo Go.
And Go Leafs Go.
Read the rest of the series here:
- Brendan Shanahan gets “puck possessed” – Part I
- Reversing the curse – Part II
- Shanny listens to his Leaf gut – Part III
- Nylander, Kapanen and Shanny’s Fancy Foreign Friends – Part IV
- Shanahan and Soshnikov – The Kid Who’s Scared of Nothing – Part V
- Nikita Zaitsev: Part of the new Maple Leaf Russian 5? Part VI
- Brendan Shanahan: He’s Changed – Part VII