Editor's note: As part of a new alliance with the Chicago Blackhawks, the Daily Herald can now off our readers occasional features by Blackhawks Team Historian Bob Verdi, who writes for the team's official website.
At Johnny's IceHouse West, the Blackhawks' practice facility a few blocks from the United Center, every player has his own locker room stall. Every player except one. Andrew Shaw has his own creaky folding chair, right in the middle of everything, all the better for peers to keep an eye on the fiery fellow and score direct hits when addressing him as "The Mutt."
Why that nickname? Shaw, unlacing his skates beside a pile of sweaty socks, mulls the situation.
"Why 'The Mutt'? Maybe because I'm small?" he says. "Small and cute and friendly?"
If Shaw is being hazed, he is alone. Jimmy Hayes, for instance, looks quite content in the corner. Nearby, Dylan Olsen also has a spot other than the floor to keep his stuff. No, more than likely, Shaw is experiencing a hockey team's way of greeting a popular 20-year-old to the big show. Tough love for a tough kid.
Clint Reif, the Blackhawks' assistant equipment manager who has something to do with locker room designations, notes that youngsters often arrive to the National Hockey League looking like goldfish. Wide eyes, mouth agape, floating in silence, reaching for oxygen. But this freshman class, with Shaw at the vanguard, is cheery, talkative and a commodious fit for a roster of veterans, some of whom have won a Stanley Cup. Shaw has his take regarding the welcome committee.
"I completely respect the guys who have been here …all of us do," he says. "But the reason us rookies feel so comfortable is the way we've been treated. If this was a cold room, we wouldn't feel the way we do. But the older guys have been great. They care about us, they ask how we're doing, they take us right in."
Of infinite more significance than his ebullient personality is Shaw's comportment on the ice, a demeanor Patrick Kane characterizes as "fearless." Shaw swears that he weighs 175 pounds, but he plays as though he's 225, bumping and banging into corners and other areas of traffic where angels fear to tread. He finishes checks even against star players, fully aware that his style might elicit a payback response from opposing protector types, and maybe even a whistle toward a Blackhawks man advantage.
"You have to train your body not to be scared," says Shaw. "I've been scared only once, when I was 17 in juniors. I got into it with (6-foot-4, 235-pound) Richard Greenop, who was the heavyweight of the league."
Just recently, in a chippy game against the Minnesota Wild at the United Center, Shaw willingly partook of a conflagration with Cody Almond. He is bigger than Shaw -- isn't everybody? -- but the Blackhawks' pocket pest was up for the occasion. Kane, with a front row seat at the end of the home bench, delighted in the action and verbiage.
"Shaw was not only throwing punches," marvels Kane. "He was chirping too."
Shaw concluded this tiff by skating to the penalty box with a wave to spectators who have embraced his spirited and agitating ways.
"Look, I know I'm annoying," Shaw admits. "I'm a friendly person in real life, but I'm not friendly during games. I annoy other teams. I know how to get under their skin, either by doing something or saying something. Like the other night, I was telling Almond to keep hitting me because my sister hits harder. I have to play that way. I'm a trench guy. Blue collar. I punch in at work, I punch out."
Shaw's skills, however, go well beyond being a professional nuisance. In consecutive games he authored deft assists -- to Brent Seabrook in Nashville, to Kane versus the Wild -- on important goals. These passes were the residue of persistent effort and a sixth sense for the puck that supersedes any sense of self-preservation. (Shaw picked up his 12th goal of the season Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings, giving the Hawks a 2-0 lead as they picked up a 3-2 shootout victory in the final game of the regular season).
Shaw is perpetual movement with that speed limit jersey of No. 65, but when he does stake out his territory, it's often in front of the net, midst wide bodies.
"Some of my goals are ugly, yeah," he says. "But if I can get one by hanging out there in front, or help one of my teammates get one, who cares whether it's ugly or not? It counts."
Shaw joined the Blackhawks in early January around the time Daniel Carcillo was injured, became an instant crowd favorite, got sent down -- "a wake up call," he says -- then returned full of hiss and vinegar to Chicago, where he has picked up where he left off, endearing himself to fans and teammates. He wears a bracelet bearing the inscription from Ironworkers Local 721, a reminder of his roots in Belleville, Ontario, about two hours east of Toronto, where he grew up idolizing Wendel Clark of the Maple Leafs.
"Can't forget home and all the people who support me," says Shaw. "Dad's got his construction business there. I'd probably be doing that if I wasn't playing hockey. Made it through grade 12, but wasn't much for school. Couldn't sit at a desk for a living. Mom still works, too. That's where my girlfriend is. This is a privilege, being in the NHL with an organization like this. If I could play here for a bunch of years...."
Shaw lives in a Loop hotel, where, despite the presence of housekeepers, he remains a neat freak. But he refrains from making his bed for the quaintest of reasons. If you're going to mess it up every night, why straighten it out every morning? He eats often, but his metabolism is also hyperactive, particularly with playoffs pending.
"The guys all tell me it's another step up from the regular season," he says. "I can't wait. This is what I've worked for my whole life."
Shaw endured the disappointment of being undrafted through seven sessions in 2009 and seven sessions more in 2010 before the Blackhawks snared him in the fifth round in 2011. Naturally, Kane does the math and reminds Shaw that he is actually a 19th round choice. The hits just keep on coming.
"Well, yeah," says Reif, smiling. "I suppose we could make room for Andrew at the practice rink. But he's got his own space at the United Center. Of course, you'll notice he's over with all the defensemen. Not the forwards."
No problem for The Mutt, whose pedigree is dedication.
"I'd rather have a folding chair in Chicago," he says, "than a stall in Rockford."