1994 Twenty Years Later, Part 2: Here Comes Iron Mike
“The Pitbull” as he was called by Neil Smith in NY, came into town with a nasty attitude and track record for winning in the playoffs. Prior to joining the NY Rangers, Mike Keenan lost in the Finals 3 times and the Conference Finals twice in only 8 years. Neil Smith had already proven he would do whatever it takes to bring a Cup to NY with trades (read Part 1), now he was ready to deal with the devil.
Garden President, Bob Gutkowski wanted to be sure and asked to speak with Keenan. The conversation was simple, “Can you work with Neil?” The man who once told the owner of the Flyers, Ed Snider to “Get out of here” and asked the owner of the Blackhawks Bill Wirtz to fire GM Bob Pulford, said “I know I can work with Neil.” Smith and Gutkowski felt they were so close to the Cup that they gave Keenan the world. The deal was for 5 years, loaded with incentives and bonuses totaling over 5 million. Some of those incentives was a loan of $975,000 to purchase a $1.3 million home in Greenwich, CT and a $50,000 moving allowance from Chicago to NY. Yes, that’s how bad the Rangers wanted to win.
Iron Mike wasted little time reaffirming his reputation with the Ranger players. He immediately went after players he deemed to soft and wanted them out. Darren Turcotte and James Patrick were two guys he set his ire on early and often. During one practice he yelled at Patrick “you’ve been stealing money for years!” They weren’t alone as he would embarrass depth forwards Mike Hartman and Eddie Olczyk continuously.
Keenan didn’t just go after average players, he went after superstars too. During one game he got right in Brian Leetch’s face and said “You’re no f–king Chelios! You’re not as good as anyone tells you you are.” Mike Gartner was another player he thought couldn’t cut it, all those goals be damned. After a loss to Dallas in late February, Iron Mike stormed the locker room and yelled at Gartner “What have you ever done in your life?”. The mild mannered winger was stunned and asked “Excuse Me?” The coach just pressed “You embarrassed yourself out there.” Keenan wanted roster changes and he was going to get them any way possible.
At one time he asked Neil Smith if he would consider trading Sergei Zubov for Stu Grimson, a goon he had in Chicago. Neil said he wouldn’t, but Keenan pressed “would you if it could win the Cup?” Smith said he would do anything for the Cup. Keenan never brought that trade up again, but you knew he just tested his GM and the result would pay off for Keenan often. Starting with getting rid of Turcotte and Patrick to Hartford for Steve Larmer and Nick Kypreos. Other deals would have to wait, but they came at the deadline as Mike Gartner was finally ousted for Glenn Anderson and landing role players like Brian Noonan and Stephane Matteau for budding star Tony Amonte.
Of course by the deadline the Rangers were heading towards another President’s Trophy, but Keenan now felt he had the roster to compete in the playoffs. It didn’t matter to Keenan that he had forced Neil Smith into mortgaging the Rangers future, he was already plotting on an exit strategy (more on that in part 4). Was Keenan just a madman or a master motivator? The Rangers finished the regular season with 52-24-8 for 112 points and looked like a well oil machined. Nothing could be further from the truth, because with Keenan, turmoil was always around the corner.
If there was one player who wouldn’t take crap from the head coach, it was backup goalie Glenn Healy. One time Keenan called Healy in his office and asked “What’s the difference between me and Arbour? Tell me, Glenn.” The response was short and to the point “Four Cups.” Keenan looked at Healy and told him to get out of his office none to kindly. It came to a head on March 5th at the Nassau Coliseum when he pulled Richter after 3 goals, then pulled Healy after 1 goal. When Glenn got to the bench he yelled at Keenan “Are you f–king taking me out for that?” The coach looked away and the fiery little goalie ended the argument with a resounding, “You c–ksucker!”
The Rangers would win that game on a late Sergei Zubov goal, breaking the Coliseum curse. After the game Richter was asked what happened, to which he quipped “That’s why there’s a five day waiting period on guns.” Mike Richter was not immune to criticism, once being told he wasn’t as good as Eddie Belfour (Keenan’s goalie in Chicago). Richter admitted that it lit a fire under him to compete harder. Maybe Keenan was a master at getting the most out of his team, but how do you explain not coaching the third period, not once but twice in the season? Yes, as late as March 14th he was so disgusted all he did was ask who wanted to play? The players actually called their line changes and positions in an eventual 2-1 loss to Florida.
At the end of the regular season New York was the best team in the league, but now it was time to translate that into playoff success. In part 3 of this series, we will be going through the Rangers incredible run to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. What you will read will thrill and shock you, because Mike Keenan almost derailed a championship.
Source: Losing the Edge by Barry Meisel