FULLTILT LEGENDS: MIKE KEENAN
Can a coach be a legend? The definition of a coach is – according to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary – “a person who teaches and trains the members of a sports team and makes decisions about how the team plays during games”.
While that may be true, Mike Keenan took that definition and upped it several degrees. Not only was he a head coach who taught and trained the players that made up his teams but he also instilled fear into them, he motivated them, he used that fear to get the most out of his players and when he was done with them he discarded them. He also loved his players but it was a tough love. It was the type of love / hate relationship with his players, teams and upper management that made Mike Keenan not only a Rangers legend but also an NHL coaching legend.
Mike Keenan began his NHL coaching career with the Philadelphia Flyers and immediately made his mark. His no nonsense approach fit in perfectly with the style of the Philadelphia Flyers. In his first year as Flyers head coach – with an unproven goalie in Pelle Lindbergh – he helped guide the Flyers to the brink of the Stanley Cup only to lose to the Edmonton Oilers.
The following year was especially rough on the Flyers and Keenan. In early November, 1985, tragedy struck the Flyers as Lindbergh was killed in an alcohol related car accident. Keenan did a remarkable job- as did the Flyers organization – and rallied around Lindbergh’s passing and finished first in the Patrick Division. However, it was not to be as they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
Keenan and the Flyers rebounded however in the 1986-87 season, again finishing 1st in the Patrick and reaching the Stanley Cup Finals behind the stellar goaltending of Ron Hextall. Again, they succumbed to the Edmonton Oilers while Hextall was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP.
The following season, the Flyers finished second in the Patrick Division but were ousted in the division semi-finals amid rumors that the team was no longer listening to Keenan and that he had become too much of a taskmaster. At the conclusion of the playoffs, Keenan was let go. With the Flyers he had compiled an impressive resume of 190 -102-28 (plus 32-25 in the post season) & two Stanley Cup appearances.
Keenan was not out of work for long as the Chicago Blackhawks came calling. Keenan’s first season in Chicago was disappointing as he experienced his first losing season as an NHL coach. However, the season did end on a high note as the Blackhawks made the Conference Finals.
Seasons two, three & four heralded much success for both Keenan & the Blackhawks. They won 2 divisional regular season titles and made the Stanley Cup Finals in Keenan’s fourth season (his third such appearance). The Pittsburgh Penguins juggernaut derailed the Blackhawks Cup hopes and amid controversy around a power struggle between Keenan and GM Bob Pulford, Keenan lost out and was again on the unemployment line.
In four seasons in Chicago Keenan registered a record of 153-126-41 (plus a 33-27 playoff record). Yet it wasn’t enough. With his departures in both Philadelphia & Chicago, Keenan had garnered a reputation (some say well earned) as being difficult to work with, egotistical and narcissistic. With that in mind when he became available, Rangers GM Neil Smith knew what he had to do. He hired Mike Keenan to coach his well paid but highly underperforming Rangers squad.
Keenan’s hiring came on the heels of a highly disappointing 1992-93 season for the Rangers as they had failed to make the playoffs. Injuries, poor play and general indifference had come to symbolize the Rangers that season. Roger Neilson had been relieved of his duties earlier in the season – losing a power struggle on how the team should play with Captain Mark Messier.
Interim head coach Ron Smith came in and it was evident from the team’s play that he wasn’t going to be the answer either. The Rangers needed a strong willed, it’s my way or the highway type coach and Keenan was the perfect antidote. Keenan had the track record that demanded the respect of the veterans such as Messier, Gartner & Graves and the tyrannical methods to instill fear into the hearts of young players such as Amonte, Kovalev, Leetch & Richter.
On the first day of training camp he put up a framed picture of the Stanley Cup in the Rangers locker room and had a video done showing how New York & it’s fans would react with a winner.
The video showed various ticker tape parades the city had hosted over the years for its sports champions. Players were given defined roles and were expected to excel in those areas. If they didn’t, it was next up. Keenan didn’t suffer fools.
He also had it set in mind the type of players he wanted and if you weren’t his type of player you were gone. Darren Turcotte, James Patrick – gone. Traded for Hartford for Steve Larmer & Nick Kypreos. Mike Gartner – gone. Traded to Toronto for Glenn Anderson. Tony Amonte – gone. Traded to Chicago for former Keenan foot soldiers Brian Noonan & Stephane Matteau. Eddie Olczyk, Mike Hartman & Mike Hudson for all intents & purposes banished to the Black Aces taxi squad.
Even Brian Leetch was subjected to Keenan’s ire. Keenan viewed Leetch as a pretty boy, a player that wasn’t willing to go the extra yard and play with a snarl that Keenan coveted. He wasn’t Chris Chelios. Rumors abounded that Leetch was a goner, that he would be traded to Chicago for Chelios any day now. Thankfully it was one trade request of Keenan’s that GM Neil Smith ignored.
Keenan pushed the Rangers full throttle and they won the President’s Trophy as the best team in the regular season for the second time in three years. They totally annihilated the Islanders in the first round of the playoffs and eliminated the Washington Capitals in short order in round two.
In the East Conference Finals they would face their strongest rival, the New Jersey Devils. The action was intense on and off the ice. Both teams went toe to toe with each other during the games and in the press afterwards. There were suspensions, accusations and spectacular play on both sides. In Game 4 with the Rangers leading the series 2-1 but trailing in the game 3-1, Keenan appeared to stop coaching. He had benched stars Messier & Leetch & had pulled goalie Mike Richter and replaced him with Glenn Healy.
Reports afterward suggested that players were calling out their own shifts and who was up next. It was at that point that rumors had started circulating that the Detroit Red Wings had an interest in Mike Keenan and the feeling was mutual. Could this really be happening?
After the game, questions were not only about the Rangers loss and the Devils tying up the series , but about the rumors as well. Another listless performance in Game 5 put the Rangers on the brink of elimination. Somewhere during all of this there was a sit down between Keenan & Captain Messier. All that was said about the meeting afterward was Messier saying “It won’t happen again.”
We all know now what would eventually happen. Messier’s epic “guarantee”, the Rangers winning Game 7 (MATTEAU! MATTEAU! MATTEAU!) & the ultimate slaying of the curse as the Rangers defeated the Vancouver Canucks, thereby ending a 54 year drought between titles. Keenan had come to NY & helped slay the dragon. The taskmaster had become the champion.
Shortly after the Rangers won the Cup, Keenan resigned as coach amid controversy and went on to the St. Louis Blues for 2 ½ seasons. He’s had several other stops (Vancouver, Boston, Florida, and Calgary) in his NHL career since that memorable 1994 season. He has also done some analyst work for TSN, The NHL Network & MSG Network. He also co-hosted a show with the Ranger coach John Tortorella & MSG studio host Bill Pidto called “Behind the Bench”.
A coach is a coach though and this past season he coached in the KHL in Russia. In fact, he won the Gagarin Cup (the KHL equivalent to the Stanley Cup) with Metallurg Magnitogorsk, By doing that, he became the first North American coach to win a championship in Russia and the only coach to win both a Stanley Cup & Gagarin Cup. Mike Keenan is truly a hockey legend.