To thrive as an executive in the climate of the National Hockey League, you need to find your inner animal. Those who have succeeded quite often take on the characteristics of a snake, very cunning and slippery. Others, well they make their moves quick and think on their feet faster than the rest, like a cheetah. And then there are the intimidators, the bulldozers who handle business aggressively. Men built for it, almost as if they were a rhino. And some, some men are lions.
In an earlier piece titled “Law of the Jungle” with the promise of a Part 2, I talked about the principle force behind one of the first moves by Brendan Shanahan, the dismissal of Dave Poulin. It was well known throughout the hockey world that the articulate Poulin controlled the boardroom of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment hockey department. A former captain in Philadelphia and coach with Notre Dame, he had the reputation of being a great speaker during his career, and he carried that over into his role with the Maple Leafs front office as Vice President of Hockey Operations. Even amongst a charismatic personality like Brian Burke, it was Poulin who commanded the attention of all when he spoke. The sole purpose in revisiting the firing was to highlight the fact only one lion, and one alone, could lead the pride. In Toronto, Brendan Shanahan was intent on being that lion. He would not tolerate any resistance to his plan, as his roar was to be heard above all others. Or so it would seem.
From the outside looking in it felt like Shanahan wanted to emphasize who sat at the head of the table. Poulin’s dismissal made it apparent from the start that Shanahan would work outside the box. The timing of the firing ruffled the feathers of a few longer serving executives around the league. In fairness, Shanahan’s hiring itself likely didn’t sit any better with those who have had to climb the ladder while his voyage was fast tracked. It probably added more salt in the wounds knowing that Shanahan wasn’t going to play by the general manager playbook either. He said right away he wasn’t going to do things a particular way just because that’s the way it’s always been done in the past. One of Dave Nonis’ first comments in reference to Shanahan’s management approach was that he went at things unconventionally, his own style. Relieving the assistant coaches and managers of their duties while keeping the coach and GM intact would certainly fall in line with that statement. If I go back myself to the newly named president’s early moves, to be quite honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what he was up to either. Not that I had any issues with his decisions in any real way. The problem I was having was concluding if our head honcho was poised and in control, or lost in a position he was ill equipped and too inexperienced to handle in the first place.
You would think I’d be happy. Here was a heart and soul type guy, a good ol’ Ontario boy with Irish heritage, taking over the team I have devote countless hours to. So, it should be easy enough for me to get behind him, right? Yet, somehow, I couldn’t help but feel skeptical. That’s the type of complex the Leafs had given me and I’m sure many of you out there reading as well. Instead of seeing all the potential and strong managerial qualities that may lie within the man they call “Shanny,” my forged negativity took me elsewhere.
Shanahan operated in stealth mode while we sat and suffered through the 2014/15 version of your Toronto Maple Leafs. The only move of relevance was another firing, that of Randy Carlyle, with the promise of an improved team who would push for a playoff berth. Whether that was lip service and in actuality a way of exposing the flaws of a rotten core, while at the same time moving on from a coach who would not be in the long term plans, we’ll never really know. All I know is it was an infuriating period as a fan, and I was not capable of seeing the big picture at the time due to blind rage caused by cockamamie efforts from many wearing the Maple Leaf night after night. I wasn’t sure if I was witnessing the emergence of a true leader, or simply the words and promises of another untrustworthy politician.
The term politician comes to mind particularly in reference to quotes from Chris Chelios, Shanahan’s former teammate in Detroit. He said Brendan was “always working his angle” and that he was overly concerned about his image in the public and media. As a Maple Leafs fan it didn’t take much to place a seed of doubt after what we’ve been through. I must admit, one had been semi-planted by his words. It got me to thinking about Shanahan’s rise to presidency and whether there was anything to these claims made by the outspoken Chelios.
I can remember watching an All Star Game at a young age and wondering to myself why it was Shanahan who was “mic’d up” and doing so many interviews. I was a fan of the player and thought highly of him, but it seemed as though he was maybe getting more camera time than he rightfully should, considering the superstar company he was in. That was just a small, almost insignificant memory, although there were others to support Chelios’ theory if one delved into it a little. You’d have to think there must have been lobbying on his part to take that shootout attempt in Nagano, no? Maybe I’m reaching here and that’s no knock on him, most guys on that bench probably wanted to take that shot. I know I would. Was this however another example of a man positioning himself correctly to get what he was after? Then there was the “Hockey Summit” during the lock-out that he spearheaded. How exactly did he end up the front man for the meetings that led to many of the rule changes we see today?
Now let’s take it a step further with his work at the NHL offices. It didn’t take Shanahan long to be a top dog with the NHL as their Head of Discipline. If that wasn’t enough of a rise to power, Shanahan was then appointed President of the Toronto Maple Leafs with little or no experience running a hockey club.
I don’t have a poor opinion of all those in politics. Many get involved initially with the best intentions. Over time however, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain integrity and keep to the directives you laid out in your platform in the beginning. Once you are in, it’s also tough not to let the power affect you personally. The human reaction is to hold tight to that power and it’s even more human to not want to let it go or have it compromised. The only thing I had any assurance of early on when trying to assess Shanahan is that this would be his show. We all know the word around town circulating was that everything goes through “Shanny.” I still maintained my theory of one lion leading the Blue & White pride and he had somehow managed to find himself in the role of alpha male in Toronto. These metaphorical theories of mine were about to be put to the test if what I was hearing was true. That yet another lion, one as strong as they come, would be entering the fray in the form of Mike Babcock.
It all began with a phone conversation I had. The Maple Leafs were prepared to offer over six-million dollars on a long-term deal in an attempt to put the Detroit Red Wings coach Babcock behind their bench. In the piece I mentioned above “Law of the Jungle,” I wrote that I had stumbled on information that lead me to believe that the two-time Olympic gold medal winning coach would be taking on the mother of all challenges in bringing a Stanley Cup here to Toronto. We all know that Shanahan has earned an early reputation for running a ship without leaks, so you take it for what it’s worth initially. A couple weeks after that, Sportsnet’s Dean Blundell reported the same on his morning show, (he got hammered good for this preposterous number at the time, I might add) so you wonder if there was fire causing all this smoke. On top of that I’d previously been told the Red Wings had spoken with two unemployed coaches about their head coaching vacancy. I found that to be particularly interesting not only because the Wings had an apparent heir in Grand Rapids named Jeff Blashill, but it was odd that the Red Wings season was nowhere near finished when I heard they were bracing for life without Mike Babcock.
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Look, I’m not Elliotte Friedman. I write blogs and I have fun covering the team I love. But, someone familiar with my work reached out and trusted me with information which was unrelated to the Maple Leafs coaching vacancy, but after our talk and the direction it went, I was 100 percent convinced that Mike Babcock was coming to Toronto. I took what he told me, along with everything else I’d come across, to two of the best and most respected hockey writers in Toronto. I knew they would keep the details between us and I wanted their take on if they’d heard anything similar or if this made any sense to them before I took my prediction public. There were so many seemingly red flags (LeafsHub.com actually ran a story entitled “Red Wing, Red Flag” – despite my prediction). After weighing everything out and based on the information laying in front of me, I was willing to put it out there that Babcock was coming to town.
This was a bold claim met with a variety of reactions, as you could well imagine. From private messages telling me how foolish I looked making such a silly statement, to tweets pointing out my fool hearted optimism. And you know what, I can`t blame any of them for a second. Though I can assure you, optimism isn`t really how I`d describe my belief that Babcock was coming. Confusion would be a better word. How exactly was this going to work? Two alpha dogs co-existing, not to mention the slow rebuild that had been promised, so many questions that needed answering. Could Babcock deal with coaching a losing team? Would the Maple Leafs resist roster changes in the hopes Babcock could turn things around? What about the apparent rift between Babcock and Shanahan, for starters? Well that was pretty much squashed in a radio interview by Manny Legace on Sportsnet’s Fan590 who said Babcock would be coming to Toronto based on his relationship with Shanahan. Legace was in the room with the two men when they won a cup together. As Babcock has stated, he didn’t know himself where he would end up until the final days. Towards the end when it was announced Toronto was out of the sweepstakes I might have been a bit less cocky with my bold statement than in the weeks leading up to his decision. Truth be told, I had no clue which way Coach Babcock was leaning. What I did know was the Maple Leafs was circling their prey, quietly and confidently. When the opportunity came, they would be ready to go all in and pounce. And pounce they did.
It wasn’t until the day of the hiring that my muddied vision of Brendan Shanahan, the hockey executive finally started to clear. Call it an epiphany, call it whatever you’d like, but during that press conference I saw Brendan Shanahan for who he is. I talked throughout this piece about the internal conflict taking place inside my mind when it came to Shanahan and his role as president. When I watched him at the microphone sitting in front of us all, beside his former coach, I knew things were going to be okay for all of us. We’ll have to wait for it, but I believe in the “Shanaplan” now. Why was I sold now? Was it because Babcock would fix everything? Partially, he’s a world class coach. For me, it wasn’t anything tangible like that. All it took was the look on his face, his demeanour on that day. Shanahan’s vulnerability as he sat there with his old boss, who would now work under him in the Maple Leafs hierarchy pyramid. The clouds obstructing my view of Shanahan’s true spirit parted, and all made sense in my Maple Leafs world.
I don’t know if vulnerable is the right word to use, but I saw an innocence in Shanahan, a humility. He was jovial, light-hearted, relieved perhaps to have another lion by his side. For a slight period his guard was down, as his eyes and mannerisms reverted back to an earlier time when he was a player under the direction of his coach, even if only briefly. Am I romanticizing the moment? Possibly, but this is the leader I wanted to see for my team going forward. I didn’t need to hear Shanahan tell us he had all the answers. I didn’t need politician’s words, I wanted the truth. And yes, here it come, we can handle the truth. So can Mike Babcock.
As Shanahan spoke about his process in recruiting one of the top bench bosses in our sport, he was as honest with us as he claimed to be with Babcock. Shanahan’s description of their talks focused on being up front about the Maple Leafs current situation. There was no promises of false hope, there was no illusions of a grandeur or hope for a quick and easy turn around. I believe Shanahan presented his vision not as a man in full control. Instead, I tend to think that his forthrightness and truthfulness I alluded to allowed himself to ask for help. Now that, that is true leadership.
Don’t mistake words like humility and vulnerable I used as a reference to weakness. When necessary, Shanahan can be ferocious. We’ve seen that the Hall Of Fame winger has no problem moving on from people if he doesn’t feel they fit in. After Loiselle, Poulin, Gordon and Cronin, then it was Carlyle. Horachek fell on the sword last year and was not given a token reward for his act of valor, but a bus ticket for lack of results. Steve Spott was given no free pass in his first season as he was also shown the door. Shanahan didn’t stop there as he pulled the pin and tossed a grenade in the scouting room with only Morrison, Bergman, and a couple more surviving the blast. If the Maple Leafs President doesn’t think you can thrive in his “Jungle” you will be banished in due time. Ask Phil Kessel, a trade that was Brendan Shanahan’s deal all the way.
At the Babcock presser, it wasn’t long before he regained the persona we’ve grown accustomed to thus far, the patient, well-spoken man who leads without insecurities, but with confidence. Shanahan proved that day he does not fear the strength of others, even if their roar is louder. He wants to be surrounded by strength. Shanny wants to hear those roars.
You know, it’s funny. I gave myself a nice pat on the back earlier for the Babcock prediction. You should be made aware that’s not the only call I’ve made. Once Babcock was in place I looked the Leafs front office and coaching staff and thought they had all the swagger and larger than life personalities they’d need. For the vacant role of GM, I sniffed around as much as I could through my limited resources and of course scoured the internet to see who would fit and who was being considered. Toronto’s only real managerial weakness was experience. The names I kept hearing above all others were George McPhee and Mike Futa. Either man would slide in perfectly was my thinking. They would act as Tom Hagen from the Godfather, a consigliere to Shanahan and the group. A “Yes Man,” if you will. And just when I thought I had a beat on Mr. Shanahan, he goes out and hires Vito Corleone.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, has ruled over his domain quite the way Lou Lamoriello has. If Shanahan wanted someone to sit and nod their head, then he hired the wrong guy. Uncle Lou has not only dictated over every aspect of the New Jersey Devils during his 27 year tenure, but he has stood out as one of the most respected and knowledgeable GM’s on the planet. And who better to help raise the future King, the lion cub, Kyle Dubas? The accountability, attention to detail, and competence Lamoriello brings only solidifies the strength of the group even more, ensuring that Dubas will be taught the ins-and-outs of navigating through the difficult world of NHL managers. If it wasn’t already clear, this hiring is even more proof that Shanahan deserves the role he’s been given. It’s not the strength of his grip, it’s his willingness to let go and accept the guidance of others. Lamoriello said that he knew Brendan would be successful when he was given the job in Toronto because he is patient and methodical. But he warned to not let that fool you, there’s a tiger inside.
I won’t apologize for not giving Brendan Shanahan the benefit of doubt in his first year as president. Trust and respect are not simply given, they are earned. He’d earned my admiration as a player, but being in charge of the Leafs is a whole different ball of wax. Now sir, you have my respect and you have my trust. And I’m guessing he has all of yours now too.
I believe I’ve learned a lot this past season. One thing I’ve learned for sure is that Chris Chelios is probably full of shit. I’ve never liked the guy to begin with. What else I’ve learned is that it wasn’t political posturing that made Marc Crawford choose Shanahan to shoot in Nagano. Bettman didn’t place him in the pressure filled role of league disciplinarian because he talked his way there. It wasn’t silver tongued persuasion that convinced Mike Babcock to come to Toronto. All of his achievements have come because he’s a special breed of animal, with the heart of a lion.
Lions, tigers, bears or men, no matter what species we are talking about, they all go through evolution. I still stand behind the premise that only one lion can lead the pride. Shanahan is without reproach the man with the gavel in hand. But the Maple Leafs model from a managerial perspective has shifted and has never been more formidable. He will not stand alone to be slaughtered. Shanahan will have the strength of an entire lion’s den behind him. Names like Hunter, Lamiorello, Babcock, Dubas and now add to that another beast in Jacques Lemaire. These lions will change the landscape here in Toronto, for we have evolved. Welcome to the jungle, Leafs fans. I can’t wait for the fun and games.