On first day as Leafs president, Shanahan embarks on learning period, won’t make knee-jerk changes

Adam Proteau
Brendan Shanahan

Brendan Shanahan was formally introduced to the media as new president and alternate governor of the Toronto Maple Leafs before a packed concourse inside Air Canada Centre Monday, but there were no fireworks, fanfare or grandiose pronouncements from the Hockey Hall of Famer on his first day on the job. This was the start of a new era for the NHL’s most visible franchise, but the only thing that was assured was Shanahan’s famous work ethic and pedigree of success would be added to the management mix.

“This is the time for me to start learning about the organization,” the 45-year-old Shanahan told the massive media contingent. “It is a time for me to listen, to learn and get to work. That’s all that’s really worked for me in my career. That’s what worked for me when I was done playing hockey, and that’s what I intend to do here.”

As the Leafs players packed their bags for the summer in the building’s basement, Shanahan sat at a podium with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president and C.E.O. Tim Leiweke and GM Dave Nonis, and the trio talked realistically about the task ahead. And the message was clear: they’re a work-in-progress that hasn’t worked and needs to see way more progress. Leiweke used particularly strong language to indicate his displeasure with the Leafs’ brutal conclusion to the 2013-14 regular season (12 losses in their final 14 games).

“I definitely sense we lack an identity,” Leiweke said. “Right now we’re a team that lacks a direction and we want to change that.”

To help effect change, Leiweke has brought in Shanahan, a Toronto native who enjoyed an impeccable playing career and a smooth transition into one of hockey’s toughest jobs – the NHL’s head of supplementary discipline – before deciding the Leafs were the right situation for him. The 45-year-old, who will have ultimate authority over every element of the hockey team (including the business end), made it clear he’s not about to step in and clear house in any regard. Right now, he’s happy to have the competitive juices flowing again after retiring as an active on-ice competitor and harnessing them while working for the league. Those passions amped up again almost immediately after Leiweke approached him about the position last week and the two broke bread in person.

“When Tim and I sat down and sort of went through everything, we talked about the job and we talked about everything, and I walked away from that particular conversation thinking, ‘I’m going to do this,’ “ Shanahan said. “I immediately had those same feelings of excitement and anticipation, but my mind just started churning about the things that needed to be done and the things I need to bring myself up to speed on.”

Shanahan will do just that now, in consultation with Nonis, whose future with the organization has been the focus of media speculation since Shanahan’s arrival was confirmed. Nonis joked their first consultation as co-workers began with him noting Shanahan had suspended more Leafs players than any other team, but made it clear he foresaw no issues of answering to him rather than Leiweke.

“I’ve known Brendan for a long time,” Nonis said. “We haven’t worked together, but obviously, our paths have crossed. We had a good conversation immediately, we both realized there’s lot more to do, a lot more conversations to have. I’m very excited about it. I think it’s going to be a positive situation for both of us.”

Neither Shanahan nor Nonis would comment on the status of Leafs bench boss Randy Carlyle other than to say they thought he was a good coach. They also weren’t prepared to discuss the type of team they want to build, or even point to a currently successful opponent they’d like to emulate.

That sounds exactly like the Shanahan many have come to know. He’s not going to shoot off at the mouth just for the sake of a spicy sound byte. He’s built a strong personal brand out of surveying the landscape first before deciding which parts are destined for the bulldozer and which ones deserve water and nurturing. And he certainly understands nothing he could say or do at his introductory press conference with the Leafs would satiate a restless fan base. The talk must be walked, if you will.

“We’re not going to win a game sitting up (at the podium) here today,” Shanahan said. “Nothing we say here matters. It’s about the work we put in. And it’s about results.”