"When Shanahan was in St. Louis, one of the Blues did something and our bench was chirping, 'Who's going to fight your battles for you?' says Chicago assistant Lorne Henning, who then coached the New York Islanders. "Shanahan skates by and says, 'I will.' Our whole bench shrunk." Detroit sought Shanahan for his scoring and toughness, although next June, if it needs a creative explanation for another Cup failure, his strong sense of narrative should help.
My, can he tell a story. Last summer he perched himself on a bar stool in front of the pool at a cottage north of Toronto while a dozen or so friends on deck chairs eavesdropped on his soliloquy. He mused about life after hockey, about his possibly becoming a teacher or owning a ranch in Montana. Of course, summer is his most interesting time of year. In summers past he has resided at an Irish manor, run with the bulls in Pamplona, auditioned for the role of Dino in The Flintstones movie, was backup goalkeeper for Ireland in soccer's World Cup, served as a ball boy in an Andre Agassi match at the U.S. Open, was an extra in the football scene in Forrest Gump and played saxophone at a jazz festival. These entries in the media guides are no less true than the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The 6'3", 218-pound Shanahan, who would look a little like Liam Neeson if Liam Neeson were really handsome, has simply indulged in some mythmaking. In an inspired moment of irony Shanahan instructed the Whalers to include in their 1996-97 media guide that he had spent the summer fishing, hunting and playing golf, a supreme fib considering that he thinks worms are icky, he won't kill his own meat and he is bored by golf. "At least," Shanahan says, "I would like to stay in a cottage in Ireland or run with the bulls."
"He's always loved stories," says his brother Brian, a computer analyst in Toronto, who is eight years older than Brendan. "If I read a book, he'd want me to tell him the whole thing. He was seven or eight, and I'd just finished [Ken Follett's] Eye of the Needle, and he made me tell him every detail. He'd ask, 'Did you skip a part?' Once I had to drive across Toronto to pick something up and asked Brendan if he wanted to come. He jumped in. For an hour and a half, he sat and listened to stories."
There were four Brothers Shanahan, the sons of Donal and Rosaleen. Donal was from County Cork, and Rosaleen hailed from Belfast. They immigrated to Canada in the 1950s, met at an Irish dance in Toronto and married five years later. Brendan, their youngest child, was a daddy's boy, their bond forged at 6 a.m. in frosty rinks where steam from the coffee would mingle with the condensation of breath. Donal would bring his pipe and a rolled-up copy of the Toronto Star, encouraging the young players by tapping them with his newspaper. This was his benediction, and the boys called him Father Don even though his cloth was the flame-retardant raiment of a firefighter.
Brendan was in ninth grade when he noticed his father started forgetting things, becoming confused, driving erratically. If he had heard of Alzheimer's disease before the doctor diagnosed it, Brendan doesn't remember. The Shanahans went to Ireland the summer Brendan was 16, and while his boy's name would sometimes elude Donal, seeing a long-distant cousin would release a flood of his memories. "That trip was the first time I kissed the Blarney Stone," Shanahan says, "and the last time my father did."
Karen Stock, a high school English and theology teacher who has been one of Shanahan's closest friends since she sat behind him in ninth-grade French class, recalls the day in 1987 when Shanahan was drafted by the New Jersey Devils—he went second overall—and she rode with his parents to Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, where the draft was held. "On the way home, maybe two hours into the drive, Mr. Shanahan said, 'Who was that boy back there?' " Stock says. "After a little while he said, 'I was very proud of that boy back there.' I think he understood."
Donal died when Brendan was in his third season with New Jersey. It is Brendan's belief that even if Donal didn't realize before he died that his son was an NHL star, his father knows it now. During the national anthem, Shanahan crosses himself, recites an Our Father and follows with, "Dad, watch over me. Let me play my best. Take care of me."
Brendan's faith was tested just once. In his final season in New Jersey, 1990-91, he was struck by a teammate's slap shot and suffered a broken cheekbone and jaw. The doctor who examined Shanahan in the dressing room said he would be out four to six weeks. "I was playing out my option, didn't have a contract, and there I am sitting in an ambulance, ready to leave for the hospital and wondering how this could happen, thinking that maybe these prayers didn't mean anything," Shanahan says. "The door to the ambulance is just about to close when the doctor grabs my arm and says, 'If that puck was a half inch higher, you would have lost your eye. Someone's really looking out for you.' Then, I knew."
Now, whenever he reads his favorite poem, Yeats's When You Are Old, he knows the man who is nodding by the fire, who is taking down a book, whose face is hidden amid a crowd of stars is Donal Shanahan.