As if the threat of another NHL lockout isn’t enough to grind your gears, the mere thought for some of you that Iron Mike Keenan gets another chance behind an NHL bench might encourage you to pray a lockout does happen. However, I beg to differ, as the soon to be 63 year old taskmaster still has the ability to help a number of teams if given the chance. In an article that appeared on NHL.com Thursday, Keenan expressed the desire to coach an NHL team once again. As far as I’m concerned he looks much better behind an NHL bench, as opposed to behind a desk on MSG, or wherever else he may appear. Not that I don’t think he’s made for TV, but his talents would be better served working “in” the game.
Readers of this site have often seen me make references of Keenan, and should know by now that I have a “special” place in my hockey heart for the man. While many Florida Panther fans can’t stand the sight of him, or can’t stand having an open discussion about him, I’m here to tell you that he’s not the crazy lunatic that he once was when he began his coaching career in the 80′s. I’m very familiar with his career, and while I have no inside information, from things that I’ve read and listened to, he has calmed down since those days of throwing sticks on the ice, grabbing players by their sweater (ask Jeremy Roenick about that one), and chasing time keepers. And if you’re still angry about the Luongo trade, get over it. It’s old news.
Since I’ve been around a bit longer than many of you, I’ve seen a number of coaches come and go for the two teams that I support, as well as throughout the NHL. Keenan isn’t perfect, and no coach is, but if he is given the proper tools, and just enough leeway, he can be successful and make your team successful. The question becomes though, will a teams’ ownership and general manager give him the latitude needed? While there are a slew of players who abhor him like Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, and Trevor Linden, there are just as many who really appreciate what he brings to the table. Players like Chris Chelios, Jeremy Roenick, Olli Jokinen, and I think even Chris Pronger would say that he enjoyed playing for Mike. It’s the same with any coach, but with Keenan, and what used to be his short fuse, his intensity has been grossly over dramatized. You all think that Scotty Bowman was a push over and that all his players loved him? No way. The thing of it is, the players that generally like playing for him, are old school. Those players still exist.
My infatuation, if that’s what you want to call it, began with Keenan’s arrival to Chicago in 1988. The Blackhawks were a underachieving and lazy hockey club, who the year prior didn’t make the playoffs. In Keenan’s first year the Hawks finished fourth in the division, squeaking into the playoffs and went to the conference finals. The next season they won the division and went to the conference finals again. But after those first two years, Keenan felt that something was missing, and made a trade which made the city of Chicago stand up and take notice that he wasn’t just there to earn a paycheck and eat Chicago style pizza. Longtime Hawk favourite Denis Savard was traded to Montreal for Chris Chelios. Keenan wanted the Hawks tougher, nastier, and more aggressive. They were, as the Chelios acquisition was just the start. And it was damn good hockey to watch thereafter.
Two years later with a revolving door of players who either bought into the system, or who were sent packing if they didn’t, the Hawks appeared in the Stanley Cup final. Even though they were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Hawks were a force in the NHL. Keenan lost a power struggle shortly thereafter and ended up leaving the Hawks and going to New York where he guided the Rangers with the help of Mark Messier, to their first Stanley Cup in 40 years in 1994. The power struggles with owners and GM’s continued as Mike went on to coach five more teams, including the Florida Panthers. Everywhere he went his intentions were good, but things never seemed to work out. When he arrived here in Florida in the beginning of December in 2001, I thought Christmas had come early for me. His hard nosed style, and attention to detail was just what the Panthers needed. A swift kick in the arse, and some conditioning like they hadn’t seen before would surely jump start the Cats. Unfortunately things didn’t work out, as players like Krissy Huselius and many others just melted like weeping flowers at Keenan’s harsh and stern tactics. He was trying to make boys men, and some of them were too preoccupied with all the distractions of South Florida. Had they responded positively, or with more maturity, the direction of the team would have changed as well. Keenan wasn’t able to turn things around and was fired in 2003.
But he returned when Jacques Martin took the head coaching job here in Florida under the condition that Mike would be the teams general manager. That lasted one year as Keenan left, or was fired, depending on who you talk to shortly after the Roberto Luongo trade. Mike landed in Calgary and coached the Flames for two seasons, getting them into the playoffs both years, but after two first round exits was fired with one year left on his contract. Not the first time that’s happened to Keenan, but the Flames have missed the playoffs three seasons consecutively under Brent Sutter, who was also relieved of his duties this past season. It’s always easier to fire one, than to try and move 20, but these are good examples of the players being let off the hook for their ineptitude.
So you have some of the “skinny” so to speak about his history, and though a significant amount has been left out, Mike Keenan can still be the right coach for the right team. He interviewed this summer for the vacant spot in Washington, but the Capitals chose former player Adam Oates instead. Personally Iron Mike is probably the kick in the tush that Alex Ovechkin needs. He’s more focused and intense than most coaches we know and have seen. Is it too much? He says he’s mellowed, and I think he has, but if you want to win, and you want to win now, and not in 5 years, than Mike can be your guy. No doubt, like Ken Hitchcock to name one other coach, Iron Mike’s shelf life is short. Let’s see how long the fans and players in St. Louis are in love with “Hitch Hockey”.
Keenan is fifth all time in the NHL with 672 regular season wins, and has 96 wins in the post season. Not many coaches will ever see these kinds of numbers, nor will they have half the success that Mike has had. Yes he’s likely burned a lot of bridges, and rubbed people the wrong way, however I think he proved in his last stint in Calgary that he’s adapted to the game, and style of today.
The thing with Mike is this, like any employer he expects 100% effort all the time. He wants you to be in top condition, and he wants your focus to be on the game, not on the surroundings nearby. His intention every season is for his team to be the best, and the goal is to challenge for the Stanley Cup. Slack off, get fat, drink to much, and avoid the physical style of hockey and he gets irritated. Why not? He’s the boss. If we don’t do our jobs at work and give 100% we get similar treatment, but since this is sports, and Mike is a known tirant, his actions get magnified. Big difference between our jobs and theirs, is that players are making millions. They should want to be the best every shift and every night. If you are a player and you work hard, and you adapt to your role, there won’t be any issues. The NHL needs more coaches to be this way, and while I think many are, too many appear not to be. When those “players” coaches try to turn up the heat, they actually make their situation worse since that wasn’t their style previously. Mike Keenan is one way and one way only. All about winning and making the sacrifices to do so.
He doesn’t want average players. Yet players who are not as skilled that buy into his system are made useful in other roles. He attached himself to a number of players throughout his career who somehow always seemed to land where he was. Stephane Matteau was one. Pavel Bure was another, as was Olli Jokinen. Jeremy Roenck in his retirement speach credited Mike with making him become the player he was.
His bench management, and his hockey intelligence, along with his attention to detail however is superior. He’s not afraid to plant your butt on the bench for taking a few shifts off, or to tell you that you’re lazy like in this video. He’s famous for riding the hot line, or double shifting a hot player, as well as riding a goalie as long as he can. Which also goes along with his quick hook, which once happened five times in a playoff game when he coached the Philadelphia Flyers. The game has changed since Mike first came in, but I think he has too. The NHL.com article explains that most of the NHL bench bosses today are much younger on average, but many of them don’t have nearly the resume that Mike has, nor will they ever. He has won at every level he’s been at. From college, to juniors, to the AHL, to a Canada Cup Championship in 1987, to the NHL where he has a Stanley Cup, Mike knows what it takes to win. The question is, are most of today’s players willing to sacrifice to get there?
Thanks for reading. We welcome your comments and opinions.
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