TORONTO — As far as fashion statements go, Brendan Shanahan is sending mixed messages.
It is Thursday morning at the MasterCard Centre, and Shanahan has joined the likes of Curtis Joseph, Darcy Tucker, Paul Coffey and Tie Domi in a spirited game of shinny as they prepare for the Centennial Classic Alumni game at BMO Field Saturday.
He’s easy to pick out on the ice, too, wearing a blue Maple Leafs logo on his chest, a red Detroit helmet and crimson Red Wings socks.
Don’t be fooled, however.
Yes, his choice of wardrobe might indicate a division of allegiances between the Leafs and Red Wings. And, yes, even in his role as the president of the Maple Leafs, he’s going to suit up for Detroit when the puck is dropped Saturday afternoon.
But when all is said and done, his loyalties are completely with the blue and white. As such, he is stoked for the festivities this weekend, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the NHL and the Toronto franchise culminating with the Centennial Classic game between his Leafs and the Red Wings Sunday afternoon.
While embracing Leafs history will be a strong theme over the next few days, it is the optimism surrounding the team’s second century of hockey that has him excited. As much as fans will be able to salute Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour, Darryl Sittler and other Leaf greats of yesteryear, it is the promise offered by modern-day Toronto players like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander that brings a smile to his face.
Shanahan, general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Mike Babcock are staying the course with their cache of young talent, refusing to get sucked in by the lure of quick fixes that highlighted the Brian Burke era, one that featured the acquisitions of players like Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin.
But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been tempted. Far from it.
As much as fans will be able to salute Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour, Darryl Sittler and other Leaf greats of yesteryear, it is the promise offered by modern-day Toronto players like Auston Matthews (pictured), Mitch Marner and William Nylander that brings a smile to Shanahan's face.
“It’s nice to see the promise,” Shanahan told Postmedia Thursday. “But here’s the thing. Although we make patient decisions, we’re impatient people.
“Making long-term, patient decisions will never change. But we’re looking forward to less talking about promise and more talking about results.”
With his Leafs having won three consecutive road games entering Thursday night’s contest in Tampa against the Lightning, Shanahan has seen his progressing team creep back into playoff contention. In the process, there seems to be a sense of pride among the youngsters in wearing the Toronto jersey, something that wasn’t necessarily the case when Shanahan took over the job in April of 2014.
After suffering through a moribund 2014-15 season, Shanahan said the Leafs’ mandate was to improve both on the ice and off.
“In our mind next year, we’d like to see an improvement in our attitude and way we play,” he said at the time.
Twenty months later, the results are tangible.
“Fans can pick up on that,” Shanahan said. “You have to understand it doesn’t truly dawn on you until you are out of the game and buying a ticket to the game that it’s such a privilege and short window of playing in the NHL. Most of the people who are watching would like to know that feeling. And when they look on the ice and see effort and work ethic and enthusiasm and appreciation, they enjoy that.
“As I said then — and as I say always — we might not be for everybody. And everybody might not be for us. But, like I said, we see promise now.”
Indeed, as the clock ticks down to the Centennial Classic, this matchup seems to feature two teams heading in opposite directions.
While the road ahead seems bright for the Leafs, the Red Wings have been inconsistent all season and are in danger of seeing their remarkable streak of 25 consecutive playoff appearances come to an inglorious end.
Either way, Shanahan is thrilled the Leafs were picked to host an outdoor game, the curtain raiser on a year-long party.
Making long-term, patient decisions will never change. But we’re looking forward to less talking about promise and more talking about results
“Every time you’re doing things or making plans, we always tell ourselves, ‘We’re not going to ever turn 100 again,’” he said. “It’s a unique birthday, it’s unique for the league and for the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s an exciting time in Toronto as well where we’re excited about our future. We’re honouring our past but we’re really focusing in on our future.”
In Shanahan’s immediate future: suiting up for the Red Wings alumni.
Former Leaf Wendel Clark addressed that situation on a morning television show in Toronto Thursday by joking that he might take a run at Shanahan because it’s the only chance he might ever get to do it.
Asked about his decision to play for the visitors, Shanahan laughed.
“We have so many great alumni in Toronto that still live here who wanted to play in the game, I think there would have been torches and pitchforks if I had tried to insert myself on our team,” he chuckled.
“I talked to Kris Draper right after it was announced — the two teams. We kind of laughed about my current job versus my actual friends from the team I had played on. I have no problem differentiating the two. I work for the Leafs but when it comes to the alumni I’m very proud to be a Red Wings alumni and the guys I played with. I’m very much looking forward to getting out there and playing with those guys again.”
“Let me take that back. I’m looking forward to being in the dressing room with them again. I’m a little less looking forward to being on the ice just because, you know, age is taking its toll.”