For more than two decades, no one name has stirred a more emotional, blood pressure-raising, sometimes name-calling response in the hockey world than Mike Keenan.
In the best of times, Keenan has been called cold, rigid, sometimes tyrannical.
But Keenan’s also been highly successful, coaching the Philadelphia Flyers to 190 wins in four seasons, including two runs to the Stanley Cup Final in the 1980s. In his four seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, Keenan won 153 games, including seven playoff rounds, three conference finals appearances and got to the Cup Final once. And during his ultimate moment, Keenan led the New York Rangers to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years, winning in 1994.
|Mike Keenan will bring plenty of passion and fire to the Calgary Flames' bench this season.
In the worst of times, Keenan was called caustic and combustible, winning just one playoff series in the last 13 years as GM-coach in St. Louis, coach in Vancouver and Boston and sometimes GM, sometimes coach in Florida.
There is clearly no middle ground with Keenan.
"It's like having a five-star restaurant without the right chef," Rangers GM Neil Smith told me before the Cup Final against the Vancouver Canucks in 1994.
Following the roller-coaster ride amid rumors that leaked during the Final that Keenan had already accepted a new position in Detroit or St. Louis, Smith shook his head and added; "I said I could deal with the devil as long as he wins. But ..."
Later, Smith spelled out how the power-hungry Keenan went over his head to try to make trades all throughout that memorable season.
But the fact of the matter is this devil beat the Devils and the rest of the NHL and has made it to the Cup Final four times. Knowing all of that now, don’t be quick to dismiss Keenan’s hiring as coach of the Calgary Flames, or the suggestion that the game has passed him by because of his recent record of mediocrity behind the bench.
"I can't say that I've been associated with a coach or worked with a coach that has a more focused vision than him. He is the perfect solution to take our team to the next level," Flames GM and former Keenan protege Darryl Sutter said. "The bottom line is we have a very good hockey club and, when you have an opportunity of getting one of the top three or four coaches in modern history to come and coach your team, you do that.
"Mike Keenan's greatest ability as a coach -- and I've seen it first-hand -- is to get the maximum out of top players and our team has five or six of the top 30 or 40 players in the game. I think our top players all want it and need it. Our team has evolved from a lesser-skilled team and one of the hardest working to a more skilled one that was capable of being very successful."
In other words, Sutter thinks the Flames -- on paper -- might have been as good as the team that made it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. But they underachieved the last two seasons, when they were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. Last season they stumbled down the stretch and won the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference in the last days of the season.
The Flames were tough to beat at home, going 30-9-2, but they were just 13-20-8 on the road. That from a team that was built on grit, discipline and defense and should have won away from home.
I’ll never forget Craig Conroy, upon returning to Calgary from Los Angeles, talking about how the Flames should have been a better team than the one in 2004.
"When you look at the faces in this room, you know we have the same grit and passion that got us to the Final in 2004 -- and yet there’s more skill," he said, ticking of names like Alex Tanguay, Daymond Langkow, Tony Amonte, Jeff Friesen, David Moss and injured center Matthew Lombardi (who was injured for the Flames in 2004) up front and Roman Hamrlik, Dion Phaneuf and Brad Stuart on defense.
Making sure the Flames have that same grit and passion is where Keenan likely can put a scare into this roster more than Jim Playfair, who will be returning as assistant coach this season. Keenan is clearly an in-your-face, passionate person when it comes to hockey. Plus, he’s a coach whose 584 career wins is surpassed only by Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, Dick Irvin, Pat Quinn and Bryan Murray.
"He has that ‘Iron Mike’ persona," Conroy smiled, adding that his time playing with Keenan in St. Louis wasn’t as combustible as some like to think. "As long as we come in here and work hard, with the guys we have and the talent we have, it is going to be a good year. He’ll be demanding. But he is also going to guide the ship and keep it on track."
Among the lessons the Flames and their fans will learn about are Keenan’s buzzwords -- being proactive, being mentally tough and embracing change. Especially embracing change.
"The expectations are high," said Keenan, a St. Lawrence University graduate from Bowmanville, Ontario. "The players have to be ready to embrace those expectations and grab the responsibility that comes with the expectations. The fans expect a lot from them -- and I think that is a healthy scenario."
”Iron Mike, now 57-years-old, always liked to coach a hard forechecking style. An up-tempo offense.
And that’s not far off what Sutter used to preach when his Flames had a bite, an edge, a nastiness, to the way they played -- making them hard to beat.
|"I've only met him a couple of times and you can immediately see his passion about the game."
-- Flames captain Jarome Iginla on Mike Keenan
Back in New York, former Rangers goaltender Mike Richter once told me he started doing pushups the day he heard Keenan was going to coach the Rangers. Flames players have heard about Keenan’s intensity and sometimes psycho nature (I remember Peter Zezel once telling about the time he didn’t follow up his shot at practice one day in Philadelphia in a drill designed to look for rebounds and, when he turned around, he had to duck quickly because an angry Keenan’s stick was flying right at his head).
"I've only met him a couple of times and you can immediately see his passion about the game," said Flames captain Jarome Iginla. "You hear a lot of similarities with Darryl. I get the impression that the worst comes out when you’re not winning. So let’s just win."
Sutter spoke of having four or five of the top 30-40 NHL players in goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, Iginla and Tanguay up front and Robyn Regehr and rising star Dion Phaneuf on defense. Iginla, Tanguay and Conroy normally play together on the team’s top line and the Flames have added former San Jose Sharks captain Owen Nolan as a free agent to likely go along with Daymond Langkow and Kristian Huselius on the second line. Grant Stevenson is another newcomer up front who will vie for a spot with the likes of Lombardi, Wayne Primeau, up-and-coming power forward David Moss, Marcus Nilson and youngsters Dustin Boyd and Eric Godard. Gone are Tony Amonte, Jeff Friesen and Byron Ritchie.
The biggest change comes on defense, where Roman Hamrlik and Brad Stuart, who were a part of the team’s top four minute guys on defense, have moved on, along with Andrei Zyuzin and Mark Giordano. They’ve been replaced by veterans Adrian Aucoin, Cory Sarich and Anders Eriksson.
It’s Keenan’s job to coach -- and only coach -- this roster.
"I wasn't pursuing anything vigorously. I wasn't proactive," Keenan said after he was fired as GM of the Panthers last summer. "But this situation made the choice easy for me. Darryl and I have worked closely together before. We’ve been in the trenches together. We know each other very well."
But the Sutters and Keenan have been historically linked more than most people realize.
"Mike has coached with, traded for, I think, all my brothers,” Darryl said. “He coached Duane, Brent, Ronnie, Rich. He coached with Brian in the Canada Cup and he and I coached together. In some way, there’s been a connection with all of us."
"Even Mrs. Sutter," Keenan laughed. "I remember one year in Philadelphia I had to break up the twins -- and when I did, I got a phone call from Alberta and she gave me an earful about how Ron and Rich played better when they were together.
"It was right after that that she asked me; ‘Don’t you know anything about coaching?’ "
Obviously Darryl Sutter is putting a lot of faith that Mike Keenan still knows a lot about coaching.
|NHL.com's 2007-08 Flames Season Preview Package:
|Intro | Goalies | Defense | Forwards | Feature | Numbers | Sked | Roster