The 2004-05 NHL lockout, in many ways, started Brendan Shanahan on the path to where he is today, the latest hockey boss in Toronto trying to turn the Maple Leafs into a winner.
He helped organize a summit on the game, started thinking about the business beyond his own playing career and skated with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League to keep his legs ready if the NHL resumed competition, which it never did that season.
It was during those skates he got to know the Hunter boys, Dale and Mark, better than he had before, and in turn, they retired his Knights jersey.
A decade later, interestingly, Shanahan, as president of the Leafs, started the chain of events that saw the club hire Mark Hunter Tuesday as director of player personnel.
“I put Mark and Dave (Nonis) together, and that’s sort of where I stepped back,” said Shanahan.
After a meeting a week ago, Nonis offered Hunter the position, and now the Leaf front office is whole again after the departures of Claude Loiselle and Dave Poulin earlier this year.
“This could be a very important piece for us,” said Nonis. “He’s got an aggressive attitude. He doesn’t like to fail. He doesn’t take no for an answer. He is relentless, and he does get offended if somebody beats him in any end of the business.”
You don’t have to go very far to get rave reviews on Hunter and his hockey I.Q.
“Best hire the Leafs have made. He’s a hockey genius,” said Knights goalie coach Bill Dark. “He understands hockey from every different angle.”
“He works hard and he’s all over the place,” said Windsor Spitfires GM Warren Rychel. “When we started in Windsor we had to find a way to get to the level he was at.”
The Hunter brothers turned the Knights from a laughingstock into a model Canadian Hockey League franchise that hosted the Memorial Cup twice in the past decade and won it once, along the way churning out a long list of NHL stars including Patrick Kane, Corey Perry and Rick Nash.
Hunter will continue to co-own the team, with former NHLer Basil McRae taking over as GM.
Two questions jump out with this hire.
First, Mark Hunter dabbled with the pro game as head coach of the St. John’s Maple Leafs back in the ’96-97 season, and Dale Hunter did the same with the Washington Capitals in 2011-12.
Both ultimately returned to London. So will Mark hang around a bit longer?
“My four kids are all in university now,” he said. “It’s a good time in my life to take something like this on.”
Second, the 51-year-old now joins a hockey office that is heavily influenced by Shanahan, who oversees Nonis, his assistant GM Kyle Dubas, assistant to the GM Brandon Pridham and a new-look analytics department.
How many voices do the Leafs need?
“He’s an information guy,” says Shanahan. “And information is valuable.”
It’s reminiscent, in some ways, of the days when Ken Dryden was president and ran a front office that included Mike Smith, Bill Watters and Anders Hedberg. Ultimately, the various hockey minds clashed – notably Smith and Hedberg – and it didn’t work.
Still, Shanahan was hired by CEO Tim Leiweke to change the organization, and gradually, he’s done that over a period of six months. Tapping into the junior ranks for administrators with little NHL experience is an intriguing approach, and as Hunter starts to work with chief amateur scout Dave Morrison, pro scouting director Steve Kasper and director of player development Jim Hughes, the impact isn’t likely to be felt for months or more likely, years.
“I’m an Ontario boy and I grew up watching the Leafs,” said Hunter, a 1981 Montreal Canadiens draft pick who played 628 NHL games for five teams. “This is a great opportunity for me to show my skills.”
That won’t appease frustrated Leaf fans who want wins now and a stronger roster by tomorrow. They don’t want more suits. They want more stars.
But at least Shanahan has his hockey office in place now. Well, for now. This season, if unsuccessful, could bring more change.