Born and raised in Winnipeg, MB, Keane chose to end his professional hockey career at home with the Manitoba Moose in 2010. But he never did have enough of the MTS Centre; three years later, he’s beginning a new career in player development at the same place he left off.
“It feels good. People ask me what I do and you know what? It isn’t much different than what I did the last five years with the Moose,” smiled Keane, who played with the Manitoba AHL franchise from 2005 until his retirement in 2010.
After an NHL career spanning 1,161 games with six different teams, Keane chose to come home and work alongside some familiar faces. “It’s the comfort level of knowing the people involved. I’ve known Zing (Craig Heisinger) for 25-30 years, I’ve known Mark (Chipman) a long time, I played against Chevy (Kevin Cheveldayoff) when we were in Juniors, and having played with the team, I know the training staff and a lot of the players,” explained Keane. ”So it really has that sense of comfort and I think that goes a long way. You really get a lot out of people when they’re comfortable; that’s why you want the whole project to succeed and you invest your time.”
It’s easy to see how Keane fits perfectly with the organization. According to General Manager, Kevin Cheveldayoff, this piece of the puzzle had been long awaited. “We’ve had many conversations since the team has moved to Winnipeg and we’ve found a really good opportunity to bring Mike in to impart his expertise and his experiences on our group in many different areas,” he explained.
“He works primarily on the player development stand point, but I really believe that his influence, his passion and his understanding of the game will continue to grow within our organization and in turn, help our organization grow,” said Cheveldayoff.
He too remembers facing Keane early in his career, a memory that solidified his opinion of the former right-winger. “I played against Mike for many, many years and anyone that’s ever suited up against him knows that he approached the game with tenacity and now he’s taking that tenacity to the management side of things as well.”
To help him along the way, Keane has been reunited with former teammate, Jimmy Roy - a strategic move by Jets Management. “They’re two very unique individuals,” said Cheveldayoff. “They’ve had to earn everything that they’ve gotten as players. And when we sat down and talked about the type of people we wanted working with our young players on a development stand-point, […] we felt it was important that the message that was being communicated to them was done so by people that could honestly look the players in the eyes and say ‘I had to earn everything I got, you’re going to have to earn everything you get as well’,” he explained, adding: “Both of them bring a real strong work ethic and strong values, certainly something that we covet within the organization.”
Roy couldn’t be happier with his new partner. “He’s a great addition to the organization and to the development side of things. I’ve known Mike for quite a while. His experience of three Stanley Cups with three different teams, the amount of games that he has, and just in talking to him of things that he went through at a young age and how he can help these kids, I think he’s a great addition for us,” he enthused.
Keane is enjoying his new role as sidekick, learning the process while spending time with an old friend. “Jimmy’s been great. We have a really good relationship and I’m lucky enough that he’s been showing me the ropes. He’s really tech-savvy, which you never would have thought,” laughed the 46 year-old. “He’s really helped me out with what to do. The first two weeks of training camp, he was here. We’re trying to get our handle on all the kids and timeframes and schedules, but I really enjoy it.”
“Jimmy is a ‘never-a-bad-day’ type of guy. He wakes up and he always has a joke and a smile on his face. That’s the way he played his whole career. He was a worker, he doesn’t believe in not putting in a full day effort,” explained Keane. “He really has a good rapport with the kids. He’s engaged and wants to make sure that he’s doing everything he can to make sure they succeed and live their dream. We’re trying to make sure that the kids get the guidance to let them succeed and play in the NHL.”
He himself had a similar figure earlier in his career that helped set him on the right track. Keane now wants to give young budding NHL’ers the same guidance he received many years ago. “Mine was Pat Burns, coach of the Montreal Canadiens for years who passed away a couple years ago. He was our first coach in Sherbrooke, Quebec in the minors,” said Keane. “He basically taught everyone their job description, what to do on the ice, and really made sure we took care of ourselves off the ice which, in today’s game, is very important. You can’t be going out too much, you can’t be burning the candle at both ends, as they say. If you want to perform well on the ice you have to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself, and Pat did that. He called us for curfew every night - anyone that had Pat Burns as a coach remembers what he did for that player.”
Keane hopes to inspire and guide but never impose on the young prospects. “You want to make sure you let them know that you were in their shoes at one time. You don’t want to say ‘well, when I played…’ because obviously the game has changed a lot in 25 years,” smiled Keane. “But you want to make sure that their school is good, their billets are good, that when off the ice, they’re filling their free time with good things and not playing X-box all day. It’s reinforcing the fact that if you want to play, the game is there. If not, the game will pass you by.”
Keane has seen the rising pressure on young players trying to make it to the NHL, he was there himself once after all, but now the reality hits even closer to home. “I have a 16 year-old and a 13 year-old, and in the hockey world they sometimes get fast-tracked,” he explained. “They hit a certain level and people assume that they know everything, but that’s not the case. So sometimes you have to talk to them. You might see some kids that are really advanced, but you see some kids that need work.”
It’s working with these players that gives Keane a sense of fulfillment. Sometimes all it takes is a quick visit or a phone call. “You talk to the kids, you make sure they’re doing ok on and off the ice and basically talk them off the ledge when things aren’t going as well,” said Keane, leaning back in his chair. “It’s really very simple when it comes down to it; you make sure that they’re comfortable and you pass down your hockey experience when you can.”
Simple, but sometimes frustrating as well. After playing the game for over 20 years like Keane has, letting go can be difficult. “The frustrating part is when you watch the game, you don’t have that ability to go out there and turn the tide. What people don’t realize it’s a really easy game from up top. Once you get down to ice level, it’s an incredibly fast game and people don’t realize how good the players are.”
But with the stress and pressure of his playing days behind him, Keane has only one goal in mind – to build a strong and successful future for the Winnipeg Jets, one prospect at a time.