There is nothing in the posture of coach Mike Keenan, as he stands behind the Chicago Blackhawk bench, that suggests compromise. His right foot is planted on the bench, in kicking range of the row of backsides seated in front of him. Keenan reaches into a bucket and pops some ice, which befits his demeanor, into his mouth. Then he barks out the names of the next five Blackhawks who had better not fail him.
As a rule of thumb—Keenan's thumb against his players' throats as he checks for their pulses—his charges have found ways to get the job done. The Philadelphia Flyers were 190-102-28 and were two-time Stanley Cup finalists when he coached them from 1984-85 to '87-88. And now Chicago, which is in its second season under Iron Mike, is succeeding too. Known in recent years for their acceptance of mediocrity, the Blackhawks have bent to Keenan's will and have climbed to the top of the Norris Division.
In late November, when they got caught admiring the view and went seven games without a win, the Hawks felt an especially stinging lash from Keenan's tongue and the strain of his regimen. After a miserable 6-3 loss to the Kings in Los Angeles on Nov. 22, Keenan took Chicago to cold Minnesota a day ahead of schedule. There, in the words of defenseman Bob Murray, "we had a little skate," which left Blackhawk tongues hanging low enough to do the work of the Zamboni. It is only through pain, the Blackhawks have come to learn under Keenan, that they can really know the pleasure of winning.
Center Troy Murray, a nine-year NHL veteran, says, "What Mike expects from us, we never expected from ourselves. I never realized how much more of an effort I had to put in. He's always challenging us to go to a higher level. When you reach that one, you get pushed to another one."
February 12, 1990
Says center Adam Creighton, in his second year with Chicago: "Mike is what I really needed—somebody to drive that work ethic into my brain. Everybody always said I had the tools and the size, so why couldn't I put it together out there? He's tough, but he's the best thing for me, whether I know it or not."
Mindful of Keenan's excellent record, the Hawks last season accepted his program mostly on faith. Beset with porous goaltending in the first half of the season and a string of injuries in the second half, they had little real reason to believe in him or themselves—until their final regular-season game, when they rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3 in overtime and earn the Norris's last playoff spot. Strengthened by the revelation that Keenan's tactics had prepared them to succeed under stress, the Blackhawks then smothered the division-champion Detroit Red Wings in six games and the St. Louis Blues in five before losing to the Calgary Flames, the eventual Stanley Cup champions.
Rivalries in every division of the NHL have become so intense that most teams determine the success of a season by whether or not they get through the two rounds of divisional playoffs. But that's not good enough for Keenan, a man who would never be satisfied with winning two series when he could win four and the Stanley Cup. Parity in the NHL has reached the point that the hottest team, not necessarily the best one, usually wins the Cup. Among several clubs good enough to go all the way this season—if they happen to get hot—are the Blackhawks.
The centerpieces of Chicago's future are: the speedy and shifty Jeremy Roenick, a center who is leaving jet trails on the ice after a slow start; Dave Manson, a tough and hard-shooting defenseman; and Jimmy Waite, a highly touted goaltending prospect who is serving his apprenticeship at Indianapolis of the International Hockey League. Roenick's enthusiasm is contagious (the night before the Blackhawks made him their first pick in 1988, he followed Keenan into the rest room of a Montreal restaurant, begging to be drafted). With the Blackhawks' leading scorer, center Denis Savard, out for four to six weeks with a broken left index finger suffered on Jan. 26, Roenick has assumed a more important role, getting more ice time and contributing more offensively.
Bob Pulford, who has been not so much patient as inert during his 12 years as general manager of the Blackhawks, has made a number of wise deals since the arrival of Keenan. The bargain-basement acquisition of goaltender Alain Chevrier from the Winnipeg Jets last season closed what seemed to be a funnel into the Chicago net. Creighton responded grandly after being acquired from the Buffalo Sabres in December 1988 for veteran right wing Rick Vaive. For cash and a combination of late-round draft picks, Pulford also has made the Hawks tougher by adding wings Al Secord, Wayne Van Dorp and Jocelyn Lemieux, who came from the Flyers, the Sabres, and the Montreal Canadiens, respectively. And Pulford acquired another goalie, Jacques Cloutier, formerly of the Sabres, who has come in handy since Chevrier has not been playing as well this season as he did last.
Six of the Blackhawks' top eight scorers, however, are from the pre-Keenan era, which suggests that the coach, not Pulford's acquisitions, is the main reason for Chicago's turnaround. Troy Murray, whose career had gone backward after a 99-point performance in 1985-86, is playing with renewed vigor. Defenseman Keith Brown, who had not lived up to his potential as the seventh selection in the '79 draft, has at long last arrived. Defenseman Doug Wilson, a Norris Trophy winner in '82 but an oft-injured and declining player in recent years, is a candidate to be the league's best defenseman again. Right wing Steve Larmer, who has not missed a game in eight seasons, has broken his pack-a-day cigarette habit and discovered that he has one more forward gear.
"This is an extremely respectful group of players here," says Keenan. "They showed that all the way back on Day One last year. They wanted change, wanted to improve. But they had to be educated as to what was necessary."
Early last season, Savard, Chicago's leading individualist, attempted to leave a strenuous practice before Keenan was ready to end it. Before Savard could get through the gate, he was chased down and chastised by Wilson and Brown. Savard apologized the next day, and Keenan, stressing that he had been more than pleased with Savard's efforts before the incident, dismissed it as merely an overreaction by the moody player to a bad game the night before.
"I totally lost my mind that day," Savard says. "I never had any real problem with Mike. We're both emotional and intense, and we both want to win, and he's made me learn how. The challenges we have back and forth are positive, not negative."
Those challenges go something like this during a game: "Get the puck in deep!" screams Keenan after Savard has come to the blue line on a 3-on-3, tried his patented spin moves and lost the puck. "Play for the team!"
"I am playing for the team," Savard yells back. "I'm trying to make a play and score a goal and help the team."
"In deep!" snaps Keenan.
So the next time Savard has the puck, he throws it into the offensive end, which is standard procedure for all the Blackhawks. Then the first Hawk into the offensive zone forechecks a defenseman, nose-first, into the glass. The second man in jumps to the puck, and, if all goes according to plan, soon the Chicago Stadium foghorn—a sound dreaded by all visiting teams—goes off, signaling a Blackhawk goal. The Hawks, who last season allowed an average of 31 shots on goal per game, have cut that to a very respectable average of 27 per game. The goaltending still worries Keenan. Twelve times he has changed goalies in the middle of a game. But the Blackhawks are scoring plenty of goals by playing the relentless, in-your-face hockey that characterized Keenan's teams in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, the same Keenan watchers who knew it was only a matter of time until the Blackhawks began jumping to their coach's commands are starting to wonder if what happened in Philadelphia will also occur in Chicago. Flyer general manager Bobby Clarke fired Keenan in May 1988 after a 38-33-9 season and a first-round playoff loss.
"There was nothing left between Mike and the players," said Clarke. Perhaps more to the point, there was little left between Keenan and Clarke, who felt Keenan was destroying the confidence of the young players with his harsh language and quick hooks. Keenan, who had taken a rookie-laden team to the Stanley Cup finals in 1985, didn't think that a number of his '88 batch of Flyer kids were worthy of his confidence. He also felt that Clarke undermined him by lending a sympathetic ear to players' complaints. The relationship between the two men, though outwardly polite, deteriorated.
While many Flyers tolerated Keenan, not one liked him. Keenan once told right wing Scott Mellanby that the only reason Mellanby was on the team was that Clarke wanted him there. When defenseman Jeff Chychrun, recalled from the minors during an injury crisis, made a mistake in his first game back and cost Philadelphia a loss, Keenan told Chychrun he would never play for him again. Ron Sutter said Keenan once threatened to bench his twin brother, Rich, if Ron didn't bear down harder. Keenan says he can't recall the Sutter incident, but he acknowledges that there were times he went too far, and that he could have worked harder at patching up his relationship with Clarke. "My assistant coaches [E.J. McGuire and Paul Holmgren, who succeeded Keenan as the Flyer coach] would tell me that I had to give in on some little ones [arguments] to win some bigger ones," he says. "But I could never find one to give in on."
Despite the rumors that preceded his firing, Keenan was shocked when it happened. "It hit deep and sent a big message," says his wife, Rita. "He realized he had to make some changes."
"I never coached as well in Philadelphia as I did my first year," Keenan says. "I see that now. I recognized I had to change if I was going to continue to be successful. I'm a very intense individual, and I had to bring more composure to my approach. I've worked on that. I get the same message delivered in a more acceptable way."
Actually, says McGuire, now Keenan's assistant in Chicago, that message can still be delivered in brutal fashion. "I can't remember a time when losing wasn't a personal affront to him," says McGuire. "In the heat of battle, he'll still do anything or say anything that he thinks will help garner a victory. The difference is, he's quicker to mend it. Like right after the game. And then again the next day to make sure it's healed properly.
"Negative energy is fuel, but it isn't the best fuel. You need gas to get across the desert, and if all they have is leaded, you use it. But when you get across, you'd better get that carburetor clean or the car is going to break down. Over an 80-game season, the motivation has to be predominantly positive.
"Of course, there were times in Philadelphia that he didn't kick the door down, but the players remember only when he did. He got a reputation, and the Chicago players may have braced themselves for the worst. The guys see him and say he may not be as big a jerk as everyone said he was."
Then, too, Keenan's circumstances in Chicago are different. The reassurances by Pulford and owner Bill Wirtz that Keenan had been hired for an overhaul, not a quick fix, helped him maintain his perspective through last season's dreary first three months. So did the unique Norris Division luxury of being able to lose steadily and still remain in playoff contention. Keenan's contract calls for him to become general manager of the Blackhawks next season, when Pulford moves upstairs. This has given him a perspective beyond the next game.
"He was amazingly good last year," says Rita. "I was really impressed. I mean Mike is still a terrible loser, but he's not totally in another world after a loss like he used to be."
First impressions to the contrary, Keenan, 40, can be a warm guy. Certainly, he suffers neither foolish questions nor bad goaltenders gladly. After a game he is stiff at best and snappish at worst. A friendlier, more reflective man emerges on practice days, but only away from the rink does the personality of someone who has sung on occasion since his college days for a band called Nik and the Nice Guys fully emerge. Given a few hours' distance from a loss, Keenan does grasp that there are more important things in life than winning and losing. Like life itself. He and Rita have been through six miscarriages. His 10-year-old daughter, Gayla, gets a lot of attention from her father.
The Flyers caught fleeting glimpses of that side of Keenan. Overwhelmed that his team won three straight games after star goalie Pelle Lindbergh was killed in a November 1985 car accident, he helped the stewardesses serve the players food on a charter flight home. He was capable of graceful gestures more often than some Flyers wanted to admit. Many of his former players now have concluded that they were immature. Most say they would play for him again.
There are days when the Blackhawks have similar sentiments. "I think he's a much misunderstood coach," says Troy Murray. Bob Murray adds, "I think the next day Mike feels bad about some of the things he says."
"I realized that each player has a line, and that you can't cross it without losing him," says Keenan. Fundamentally, though, he hasn't changed. There is still nothing he hates more than losing.