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Brendan Shanahan skates into the sunset

If you judge the man's career by the individual awards he received, Brendan Shanahan was the equal of Ethan Moreau. One King Clancy Memorial Trophy apiece, nothing else.

Leadership and humanitarian contribution are all well and good, but individual awards do not begin to cover the breadth, and the depth, of the hockey player that was Brendan Shanahan. Power forwards are poorly served by those awards, and  Shanahan was one of the finest power forwards of his or any era. One could argue he was the player Cam Neely might have been had he stayed healthy.

18 minutes a night, game after game, season after season, Shanahan was as consistent as they come. He put up huge numbers across a very broad spectrum over the years: 1524 GP (11th all-time); 656 goals (also 11th); 1354 points (23rd); 2489 PiM (22nd); 5086 shots on goal (6th); 237 powerplay goals (5th); 109 game-winning goals (4th). But his individual successes were dwarfed by those of his teams: the 3-time Stanley Cup champion won gold medals representing Canada in the Canada Cup, the World Championships, and the Olympic Games, joining several exclusive clubs in the process. More on this later.

Shanahan first came to prominence at the '87 World Juniors, when he was one of the top performers on a Canadian team whose run to a certain medal and possible gold was derailed by the infamous Punch-Up in Piestany. It was to be the only international bauble to escape Shanny.

First though was the rise to prominence in the NHL. Drafted second overall (behind Pierre Turgeon) out of London Knights that summer of '87, Shanahan proceeded directly to the NHL, never playing another game of junior or any in the minors. I picked him in my "keeper league" fantasy pool that same fall so followed his career as closely as possible as he worked his way up the charts. As a rookie in New Jersey he scored just 7 goals and 26 points but took no prisoners, posting 131 PiM. He would reach triple digits in that category for 13 consecutive seasons and 17 of his first 18. By his second season he added scoring to the mix, reaching 20 goals for the first of 19 consecutive seasons, as well as the 50-point plateau which he would miss only in the lockout-shortened season (1995-95). By Year 3 those totals surged to 30 and 72 and Shanny was on his way as an elite power forward.

For a star the man moved around quite a bit in the first half of his career. His value can be seen in the quality of players for whom he was exchanged: Scott Stevens was awarded to New Jersey as compensation when Shanahan signed as a restricted free agent in St.Louis in 1991; the Blues later dealt him to Hartford in '95 with Chris Pronger coming the other way; a year later the Red Wings put together a package including Paul Coffey and Keith Primeau to bring Shanny to Detroit where he settled down for the next decade. By any measure Stevens, Pronger and Coffey rank among the top handful of NHL defencemen over the past 30 years.

Shanahan reached his individual peak in St. Louis where he put up back to back seasons of 51 and 52 goals. In 1993-94 he was All-World, posting 52-50-102 with 211 PiM, career highs all, while leading the NHL in shots on goal (397) and shorthanded goals (7) and making the season-ending First All-Star Team for the first time. I remember attending this game where I essentially isolated on "my" guy from my seat in the high end zone for the entire game. Shanny broke a 1-1 tie early in the third, but it's the empty netter that I remember in detail. Oilers down 2-1 but on the powerplay, goalie out for the 6-on-4, faceoff in Blues' end, 53 seconds left. St. Louis sends out Shanahan to not only kill the penalty but take the faceoff, just another one of those value-added things you don't expect from a winger. Can't recall who the centre was for the Oilers, but when the puck dropped Shanahan lifted the guy's stick clean as a whistle as he spun to his left, picked up the disc with his right skate, kicked the puck on to his stick as he completed his 360 and sifted a 180-foot shot right into the empty net. Total elapsed time: 3.6 seconds. One of the best empty-netters I've ever seen. In the end it turned out to be the game winner when Louie DeBrusk of all people notched a late consolation goal.

Another memorable Shanny performance closed that '93-94 season. The Blues met the Winnipeg Jets, featuring another top power forward of the day, Keith Tkachuk (a player whom I have always detested for various reasons). On this occasion Tkachuk caught Shanahan with a vicious high stick, really raked him and opened a wicked cut above his lip which resulted in a nasty scar. Shanahan bled profusely, went off for repairs, came back for the third period still leaking, and proceeded to score two goals to put the game on ice. Then he turned his attention back to Tkachuk, jumping the Jets star and whaling the tar out of him. The message was loud and clear: Do Not Mess With Brendan Shanahan.

That spring of '94 Shanahan was a key player as Team Canada won its first world championship in 33 long years. It was Brendan's second gold medal on the international scene, adding to a trophy case that already included Canada Cup gold from 1991.

Next on the agenda was the Stanley Cup. Mired in their own decades-long drought, Detroit had been coming close, making the SCF but being swept by the Devils in '95, then winning the President's Trophy with a record 62 wins in '96. The Wings brain trust felt they were a little too soft up front so targeted Shanahan as their man, landing him early in the '96-97 season. It was a perfect fit; with the veteran Shanahan in a support role the Wings won back-to-back Cups in '97 and '98.

Alas, around this time I parted ways with Shanny on my fantasy team, being suckered in a weak moment by a shiny bauble named Sergei Samsonov who had just won the Calder Trophy. Short-term pain for long-term gain I figured, but I figured wrong as Shanny outpointed Sammy in each subsequent season. Never mind the other 19 things he could do for a hockey club that Samsonov couldn't; even in a points-only hockey pool Shanny proved to be the better bet. 

In real life Shanahan settled down in Detroit for a decade, where he was a constant force, missing just 20 games over that entire span. His goal totals ranged from 25 to 41 and basically fluctuated with his shooting percentage, as his shots on goal were virtually constant year over year: 266, 288, 283, 278, 277, 260, 280, 289 ... the man was a shooter through and through.

His career reached another pinnacle in 2002 when he helped Team Canada break another decades-long jinx, winning the Olympic gold medal for the first time in a half-century. He then completed a remarkable double when the Red Wings reclaimed the Stanley Cup. Shanahan and team-mate Steve Yzerman became just the second and third men to accomplish this feat, previously accomplished by the great (and greatly underrated) defenceman Ken Morrow in 1980.

Shanahan joined a couple of other exclusive groups in the process, including the "Triple Gold Club" which consists of 22 players (and entirely too many Swedes) who have won Olympic and World Championship gold as well as the Stanley Cup. Only five players have won those three plus a Canada/World Cup: Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Joe Sakic, Scott Niedermayer and Brendan Shanahan. That's pretty elite company.

During the lockout that torpedoed the 2004-05 season Shanahan headed a two-day summit of players and coaches which made 10 recommendations to the NHL and the players association to improve the flow of play. Many of these changes were adopted when play finally resumed.

After a final 40-goal, 80-point, 100 PiM season in which the Wings won the President's Trophy but were upset by Edmonton in the playoffs, Shanahan made one last appearance for Team Canada at the Worlds. Although his appearances were limited by playoff commitments, he had represented his country in 1987, 1991, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2002 and 2006: a World-class player for two decades. 

Shanahan moved on for two solid seasons with the Rangers before signing with New Jersey midway through last season to end where he began. He broke in with the Devils at 18 and played his last games with them at 40. Announcing the end of his wonderful career earlier this week, Shanny retired from the NHL with at least one unofficial record, having compiled no fewer than 9 "Gordie Howe hat tricks". Brendan Shanahan brought a lot of game, and he brought it every night.