A Mimico Plugger Still Plugging
|AP FILE PHOTO|
"I almost felt like a bridesmaid in Mats Sundin's wedding."
So says Brendan Shanahan, and with good reason. Indeed, it's been a little hard to understand why a 37-year-old forward with 555 career goals was so sought after for the past six months while a 39-year-old winger with 690 career goals and three Stanley Cup rings fell, it seemed, right off the radar screen.
For Sundin, there was no end of speculation as to where he might end up. For Shanahan, well, there was no speculation, really, for weeks upon weeks, and certainly no sense that this was a player who was viewed as a difference maker, a player for whom teams would clear salary cap room to obtain even if it meant dumping players to do it.
Sundin ended up signing with Vancouver Dec. 18 for a deal that will pay him more than $5 million this season, including a $4 million bonus payable today.
Shanahan, on the other hand, agreed to a deal with New Jersey this week for a pro-rated $800,000 salary, which means he'll gross about half that figure.
"They told me what they could afford, and I said I'll take it," chuckled Shanahan in an interview with The Star yesterday.
While there was a possibility Shanahan would play his first game with the Devils tonight against Columbus, he put himself down as "probably doubtful." When he practiced with the club on Thursday, he was the extra forward on a line with Bobby Holik, Jay Pandolfo and Mike Rupp, a humbling experience, one might think, for the future Hall of Famer.
"I just don't see it that way," he said. "I'm not an idiot, so I know I've had a good career. But I grew up feeling like a plugger from Mimico, and I still feel that way."
When he does play, he'll wear No. 18 for the Devils, not the No. 11 he wore as an 18-year-old for the Devils in 1987 nor the No. 14 he wore with the Red Wings and Rangers.
When given the option of a few numbers with New Jersey, a Devils trainer pointed out that Shanahan had worn No. 18 with Team Canada in the 1991 Canada Cup, and Canada had won that event.
So No. 18 it was.
Why it took so long for Shanahan to become an NHL employee again, particularly given the fact that he wanted to play all along while Sundin was ambivalent, is a complicated tale. Basically, he expected that Rangers GM Glen Sather would clear cap room for him in the fall, and when that didn't happen, he went out searching for work, hoping to find a job with a team that would allow him and his young family - three children under the age of 7 - to continue living in Manhattan.
"I didn't want to take that away from them," he said. "As a dad, I didn't want to do that."
There were other offers, including three, Shanahan says, that he could have accepted but would have meant have to move away from his family for the hockey season. The Devils had expressed some interest early on, and he and GM Lou Lamoriello, who had drafted him more than two decades earlier, kept in touch.
There were no bad feelings left over from the summer of 1991 when Shanahan left as what was then known as a Group One free agent for St. Louis. Lamoriello, of course, netted Scott Stevens as compensation. Their relationship continued through the years, and when Shanahan did play his 1,000th NHL game for Detroit in New Jersey, after the game he autographed his own jersey and gave it to Lamoriello as a gift.
"I did joke that Group One free agency had actually been good for him," said Shanahan. "He got Stevens for me, and the next year he got Dave Barr and Randy McKay for Troy Crowder."
In recent months, Shanahan had trekked up to the Rangers training facility on a daily basis to pull his gear out of a storage locker and skate on his own, hoping to get another NHL chance.
"Even when we weren't necessarily getting headlines and being the target of talk radio, I knew we had good teams pursuing me," said Shanahan. "Mats was the captain in Toronto for a long time, and he's a great player who has had a great career. But I didn't want the kind of scrutiny he had, didn't want to use it as a way to drum up interest and put pressure on general managers.
"(Sundin) was tring to decide whether he wanted to continue his career. I always knew I wanted to play, and I always thought it was going to be next week."
Sundin has had a bumpy start with the Canucks, registering one goal and one assist in five games, with a minus-4 rating. For Shanahan, as with all aging players, there's the uncertainty whether the hands will still be there for him.
"I know I'm known for scoring, but I also know I can kill penalties and I know how to win," he said. "But I've always felt I had something to prove. Can I do it again? Can I do more? Can I still do it?"
Happily for one of the game's better guys, we'll now get to find out.