For a lad whose chances of ever being selected as a poster boy for the American Dental Association had just been cruelly dashed, Jeremy Roenick was in fine fettle. The 19-year-old Chicago Blackhawk center had scored a goal and broken some teeth in a 4-2 win over the St. Louis Blues, which vaulted the over-achieving Hawks into the Stanley Cup semifinals against the Calgary Flames. Every so often, as he chatted in the locker room with reporters after the game, Roenick would run his tongue over his recently ruined two front teeth. "All they need is a couple of caps," he said. "No problem."
After having qualified for the playoffs by the skin of their collective teeth in the final game of the regular season, the Blackhawks were suddenly the biggest surprise of the postseason. First they upset the Detroit Red Wings in six games. Then the St. Louis Blues fell in five. Said St. Louis coach Brian Sutter after the series-ending loss on April 26, "They convinced us to quit."
Played in the tropical humidity of a glorified barn called the St. Louis Arena, the game turned on a second-period spat between Roenick and Blues defenseman Glen Featherstone. With St. Louis leading 1-0, the two exchanged unpleasantries and shoves. The quick-tempered Featherstone then jammed the shaft of his stick into Roenick's mouth, inducing a condition known in hockey as "bloody Chiclets."
"Your first instinct is to spit [teeth fragments] out," said Roenick, "but I kept them on my tongue so I could show them to [referee] Kerry Fraser." Roenick's instincts proved correct. Fraser was moved by the exhibit of enamel and assessed Featherstone a five-minute penalty for cross-checking. Roenick drew a two-minute minor.
With the teams skating four on four, the speedier Hawks scored twice in an eight-second span to go ahead 2-1. Roenick came out of the box and, 1½ minutes later, scored on the power play. Hey, who needs novocaine?
Earlier in the game, Roenick had taken a skate blade to the nose. The resulting gash would take eight stitches to close. When he was told later that his coach, Mike Keenan, had said he played "his best game of the playoffs." Roenick smiled and said, "I just want to show him I have the guts and the heart to do what it takes."
Spoken like a true Keenan convert. After Chicago finished 30-41-9 in '87-88 and lost in the first round of the playoffs, the Hawks fired coach Bob Murdoch and hired Keenan, who set out, he says, to "recondition the team, physically and mentally." Since then, it seems as if the Hawks have been lining up to sacrifice body parts for the team. Terms like "guts" and "sucking it up" have gained newfound currency in Chicago.
On April 13, the night his hat trick helped eliminate the Red Wings in Game 6, right wing Wayne Presley talked about the Keenan-induced metamorphosis he had undergone this season. "The coaches skated me harder than I've ever skated in my life," said Presley. "A few times they skated me until I was throwing up. I didn't know what they were thinking, but it made me a better person. I guess you have to go through hell to get to heaven."
"That's right," says Keenan, smiling. "You challenge them beyond the point where they can't go anymore."
The Blackhawks got an inkling of what they were in for when they received off-season conditioning instructions from Keenan in the mail last summer. Guys who reported out of shape were made to regret their sloth. "The team didn't understand what it takes to win," says Keenan. "I'd say to a player. 'You're not working hard enough.' and he'd say, 'I've never worked this hard in my life!' "
One gray Monday in November, Keenan gathered his troops for "a conditioning day," which turned out to be 60 minutes of distilled misery—i.e., nonstop skating. Toward the end of the session, veteran center Denis Savard decided that he didn't need any more conditioning and tried to leave the ice. He was detained by defensemen Doug Wilson and Keith Brown, who, in no uncertain terms, reminded Savard that he was part of the group. The incident fueled speculation that Savard and Keenan could not peaceably coexist. However, as the season wore on, their relationship grew stronger.
There were few rebellions, mainly because the Blackhawks, who had won exactly one playoff game in the previous three seasons, were fed up with losing. "[Keenan's harsh methods] would come up in team meetings," says left wing Steve Thomas. "We just decided that whatever he did, it was for our own good. The guy knows what he's doing. He's won before." Keenan, 39, had taken the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals in 1985 and '87.
The Hawks improved under Keenan, but the improvement wasn't reflected in their 27-41-12 record because of a number of injuries to key players. Savard missed 28 games because of a strained ligament in his left ankle. Goaltenders dropped like flies; at one point Chicago had three injured net-minders. "We were competing," says Keenan. "We just weren't getting that positive feedback. Our point total was a misrepresentation of our accomplishments."
So despite all the perspiration, the Hawks went into their 80th regular-season game needing at least a tie with the Toronto Maple Leafs to make the playoffs. Toronto, which had to have a victory to get into the playoffs, jumped out to a 3-1 lead, but Chicago clawed back to tie the score 3-3 and force the game into overtime. Forty-eight seconds into OT, Chicago center Troy Murray stole the puck inside the Leaf blue line and beat goalie Allan Bester with a wrist shot up high.
The dramatic win did wonders for the Hawks' confidence. "It triggered the response we'd been looking for all year," says Keenan. Already convinced they could outwork anyone and bolstered by an infusion of healthy players—Savard was back, Thomas had returned after a shoulder injury, center Adam Creighton had joined the team in December after a trade with the Buffalo Sabres, and Roenick had come up from junior hockey at the start of the playoffs—the Hawks began to think they could out-play anyone as well.
In the playoffs, Detroit thought it could exploit Chicago's goaltending. Hawk goalie Alain Chevrier had enjoyed a solid season, but he had no postseason experience. Chevrier, 28, had been in net for the New Jersey Devils last season when they opened with a 10-5-2 record for their best start ever. But Sean Burke took over in March, carrying New Jersey to the Stanley Cup semis. By season's end, Chevrier was a backup to backup Bob Sauve, and in the off-season the Devils shipped him off to the Winnipeg Jets.
Chevrier wasn't overjoyed to be in Winnipeg, where he once again was relegated to the bench. Moreover, his wife, Susan, a New York native for whom the invigorating Manitoba winter quickly lost its charm, also was unhappy. In January, Jet general manager Mike Smith accommodated the unhappy couple with a trade, even though it meant making a one-sided deal: Chevrier to Chicago for a fourth-round draft pick.
Against Detroit, Chevrier was a huge disappointment—for the Red Wings. He frustrated them repeatedly, stealing two games outright. He continued to shine against St. Louis. In that series he had the help of several penurious defenders, who allowed 20 or fewer shots on goal in three of the five games. Says Keenan of his charges, "This is the most respectful group of athletes I've ever worked with"—a not-so-veiled reference to the Flyers, who were 190-102-28 in four seasons under Keenan but wearied of his draconian ways. Philly fired him at the end of last season.
What's to keep his act from wearing just as thin in Chicago? "I've matured as a coach," says Keenan. "My public persona is still the hard ass, the son of a bitch, but that's not accurate."
In fact, now that he has instilled good work habits in the Hawks, Keenan says he'll lighten up a little and hold more practices like last Friday's. In a boisterous hour-long scrimmage, defensemen filled the forward positions, while the forwards played defense. The results were predictably chaotic. Keenan, smiling frequently, was referee. He called nary a penalty, but what can you expect from a former Broad Street Bully?
The thinking among the Blackhawks as they prepared for Calgary went like this: The Vancouver Canucks took the Flames to seven games in the first round, so why shouldn't we? Chevrier has been hot, and Savard could explode. When it was suggested that the Flames stood to knock the smaller Hawks around, Keenan pointed out that the Blues were a bigger team too. "This time of year the size of the heart is as important as the size of the player," he said.
As for the whopping point differential between the two clubs—Calgary finished with 117, Chicago with 66—the Blackhawks are unconcerned. "We are not the same team we were a month ago," said Chevrier. Indeed, they are as different as heaven and hell.