When you are old and gray and full of sleep, And nodding by the fire, take down this book...
—WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
Brendan Shanahan was dining in a Chicago steak joint with some of his new Detroit Red Wings teammates a month ago, tearing into a porterhouse and into life with uncommon appetite. This was special: Having been traded to the Original Six team seven days earlier, he was relishing the fact that he was finally in a situation that appealed both to his sense of history and to his desire to win a Stanley Cup. For most people this was the type of meal they might have reason to look back on 10 years later and say, "Remember that night when...." But Shanahan was not only wolfing down steaks with new pals, he was already weighing the impact that being in the company of these players might have on his career.
Shanahan doesn't so much seize a moment as much as he freezes it. Even when life is imperfect, he can't help but step back and try to frame it. Take Oct. 5, opening night of the 1996-97 season, in Hartford. Shanahan was still a member of the Hartford Whalers although he had renounced the team's captaincy and had taken to driving to the rink with his suitcases because the trade he had demanded seemed imminent. He scored 44 goals in 1995-96, playing hard and well after ligament damage to his left wrist early in the season had healed. But that year in Hartford had seemed like a mistake. To play with his childlike fervor—his first nickname in the NHL was Big, in honor of the Tom Hanks movie—Shanahan needs a sense of community, and Hartford, a franchise so fragile that a February gust might topple it, offered none. When the St. Louis Blues traded him to the Whalers in the summer of 1995, he received 17 messages of consolation on his answering machine at home, including one from another player who reminded him that the good news was that he wouldn't have to make any more road trips to Hartford.
Now, on opening night last month, after scarcely cushioning the insult to a franchise he had been brought in to revive, Shanahan's eyes toured Hartford's Civic Center, reading the bedsheet handiwork of southern New England's poets.
SHANNY, KISS MY FANNY
ET TU, SHANAHAN?
"Anyone can rhyme Shanny with fanny" says Shanahan, who has played for four teams in his 10 NHL seasons. "But I really thought that ET TU, SHANAHAN? banner was terrific." Of course, he had to explain to teammate Nelson Emerson that "Brutus was a friend of Caesar's, and...." Arguably Keith Tkachuk of the Phoenix Coyotes and John LeClair of the Philadelphia Flyers surpass Shanahan as the game's premier power left wings, but he is the only one who provides footnotes.
Although card games and HBO movies are his favorite ways to fill idle hours during the season, he has familiarity with an expansive bibliography for someone who never finished high school. He adores J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and Leon Uris's Trinity, and is bowled over by Fitzgerald but not by Hemingway. ("He's supposed to be a man's writer. Short, choppy sentences. I don't know. Doesn't do it for me.") After his first NHL season, in 1987-88, Shanahan tackled Shakespeare in summer school and has applied his lessons since.
While Martin Lapointe was getting stitches in his hand and Doug Brown was doing sit-ups in the Red Wings locker room after a tough 2-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 17, Shanahan recalled Pyramus's first speech from the play-within-the-play in A Midsummer Night's Dream. "O grim-looked night!" Shanahan blurted. "O night with hue so black! O night, which ever art when day is not! O night, O night! Alack, alack, alack." This might have been the first time the word alack was used in the Detroit locker room other than in phrases such as a lack of toughness or a lack of playoff scoring.
After two maddening springs when the Stanley Cup could have been theirs, the Wings retooled four days into this season by shipping center Keith Primeau, defenseman Paul Coffey and their first-round draft pick in 1997 to Hartford for Shanahan and journeyman defenseman Brian Glynn. Detroit paid a hefty price but not an outrageous one considering that Whalers general manager Jim Rutherford had been negotiating with six NHL teams that figured they were one player away from the Cup—and that one player was Shanahan.
If he is richly textured off the ice—Shanahan is a gregarious 27-year-old with easy charm and workaday concerns who also happens to know Jay Gatsby from Hall of Famer Bill Gadsby—he also can be several things at once on the ice. In 1993-94, while with the Blues, Shanahan tallied a hat trick of versatility by scoring 50 goals, exceeding 100 points and being penalized more than 200 minutes. He has averaged a goal every two games in the '90s while playing like a ruffian.