In just one afternoon together, Brendan Shanahan knew he would hit it off immediately with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"They looked up at me with those sad blue eyes. I couldn't resist," said Shanahan, who left his position as the NHL's director of player safety to be the Leafs' new Big Brother. "I could see the Leafs were looking for someone to put their arm around them and ask, 'How are you doing? Is everything okay?'
"And if it wasn't for the NHL's Big Brother program, we never would have met."
Shanahan's story is just the latest success for the league's mentoring initiative, which matches teams in need of guidance with former NHLers willing to spend some of their spare time keeping them on the straight and narrow. In just a few years, the NHL has placed several experienced hockey veterans with teams looking for direction after a divorce or other family issue that may have left them feeling isolated.
"I just feel it's important to give back to teams that are having a hard time right now," said Trevor Linden, who was named the Vancouver Canucks' Big Brother on April 10th. "Fans and media can't always be there to lend a helping hand, which can lead to a loss of self-confidence for a team. But with a Big Brother, they can talk about those tough problems we both faced growing up."
Big Brothers undergo a rigorous interview process before being selected for the program. Qualifications include playing over 1,000 games in the NHL, spending at least one season as a captain or (or three as an alternate captain) and playing in at least one Stanley Cup final during their career. While that may describe a lot of former NHL players, the program isn't only about raw numbers or being in the right place at the right time.
"We want Big Brothers to provide leadership, heart and accountability to these disadvantaged teams," said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. "Not everyone can bring that. We look for players who were known for paying the price, working hard, being the last guy off the ice and the first guy on game-in, game-out. Those players make the best Big Brothers."
Daly says no European or Russian players are currently being accepted into the NHL's Big Brother program.
"I never imagined how rewarding being a Big Brother would feel, even in just the first few days," Shanahan said. "My friend Cam Neely said he had a great experience as a mentor for the Bruins and he encouraged me to take the plunge. I can't wait to get started taking the Maple Leafs fishing and hiking or just sitting and talking about their problems.
"I really think that, for some teams, having an old player just show up around the office everyday makes them feel a lot better about themselves."
This is fake. There is no NHL Big Brother program for ex-players or teams. They just seem to find each other.