IRON MIKE With his reputation as a taskmaster well established, Mike Keenan lightened up a bit and finally won a Cup

June 21, 1994

by an actor who was to play him in a movie. ''How did you display
your anger?'' asked the thespian. ''Did you raise your voice?''
''No,'' Bradley replied, ''I never had to.''
New York Ranger coach Mike Keenan seldom raised his voice this
season. He seldom had to because his reputation as a taskmaster
preceded him. And while the team awaiting him in New York -- coming
off a season in which it had failed spectacularly -- would have
actually welcomed a martinet, what it got was a man who, for the most
part, had mellowed considerably. This year the Stanley Cup was won
with a coaching style best described as Keenan Lite.
The buzzword that occurs throughout the self-help books lining the
shelves of Keenan's office is needy. It describes both Keenan and the
pre-Keenan Rangers. Keenan was fired by the Chicago Blackhawks in
November 1992 and separated from his wife, Rita, the following
spring. Despondent, Keenan needed a mission into which to throw his
For their part the Rangers needed somebody to come in with a whip
and a chair. Says Ranger TV analyst and former goalie John Davidson,
''The guys needed a coach with an identity, who commanded their
respect right off the top.'' New York failed in 1992-93 because it
was riven by factions. Some of the players liked coach Roger Neilson,
some didn't. Says one Ranger official, ''What this team needed was
someone to come in and make the players say, 'Uh-oh, we're all in the
---- now.' ''
Keenan arrived, but the storm never did. Players expecting the
verbal abuse and public humiliations that had marked his earlier
tenures with the Philadelphia Flyers and the Blackhawks were
pleasantly surprised.
The Rangers found Keenan's methods not so much oppressive as
innovative and sometimes enigmatic. Early in the season, in lieu of a
pregame morning skate in Washington, he took the players to the
Vietnam Memorial. ''It was a dose of instant perspective,'' recalls
defenseman Kevin Lowe. ''It was like, this is reality.'' Keenan, who
slept in his office in Rye, N.Y., many nights, gave the Rangers more
days off than any recent coach had, and he advised them to spend time
with their families. After games he frequently phoned his 14-year-old
daughter, Gayla, who lives in Chicago with her mother. ''I talk to
Gayla every day, if possible,'' he says.
The 5 1/2-month stretch of unemployment that followed his firing
by the Blackhawks was a period of introspection for Keenan. ''I had
time to reflect upon some of the things I should have processed
before,'' he told the New York Post. ''I have had a lot of
hardships, a lot of losses.''
''He's not the same guy he was when he broke into the league,''
says Ranger captain Mark Messier, who first played for Keenan in the
1987 Canada Cup. ''He's taken all his past experiences and pulled out
what worked.''
Sure, he was a hard-ass in Philly, where he took the Flyers to the
Stanley Cup finals twice, in 1985 and '87. Maybe he did goad Rich
Sutter because he knew it would make his twin brother and teammate,
Ron, play better. Yes, he did ride Peter Zezel mercilessly, but
Zezel, now with the Toronto Maple Leafs, admits that it made him a
better player.
In 1989 Keenan took the Blackhawks to the Campbell Conference
finals. The cost in human suffering was high, and eventually it led,
as it had in Philadelphia, to a player rebellion. Says former
Blackhawk forward Steve Thomas, ''When he walked into our locker room
the first day, players just clammed up. It was respect and, maybe in
some cases, fear. But as time went on, he wore a little thin. You
might have a bad shift, and he'd be all over you, maybe give you a
kick in the ass. He would just grate on you, and finally you'd snap.
You would turn around and tell him, ' ---- off. Just ---- ing shut
up.' But he'd be smiling inside, and he'd send you right back out
there for your next shift.
''There's no question that he doesn't want the players to rebel
against him. He needs guys to respect him. Maybe the lesson he took
to New York from Chicago was that you have to back off a bit.
Eventually he just drove us physically and mentally insane.''
In New York, Keenan eased up for several reasons: 1) The Rangers
didn't need a glowering coach to intimidate them, because they had a
glowering captain, Messier; 2) they didn't need someone holding a
blowtorch to their feet to get them to overachieve -- this talented
group only needed to play up to its potential to win the Cup; and 3)
they were self-starters.
Make no mistake, Keenan has not suddenly begun sporting cardigans
and metamorphosed into Mister Rogers. He broke a stick over a
crossbar in practice early in the season and disgustedly threw the
team off the ice; he publicly reamed defenseman Sergei Zubov for
reporting to training camp in bad condition; and he refused to play
defenseman James Patrick and forward Darren Turcotte, forcing general
manager Neil Smith to trade them. Early in the season Keenan publicly
complained about the team's makeup, saying, in essense, he couldn't
win with the players he had. His outburst pushed Smith to make even
more changes. At some point in the season he benched everyone on the
By far Keenan's best results came with defenseman Brian Leetch, a
dazzling offensive talent who was, in Keenan's opinion, too willing
to put the Rangers at risk defensively to get offensive chances for
himself. As late as Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against
the New Jersey Devils, Leetch found himself benched.
So challenged, Leetch elevated his game in the Cup finals to a
Bobby Orr- like level. Asked to assess Keenan's impact on New York
this season, Leetch says, ''We had a lot of guys with a lot of pride,
and we would have come back this season ((without Keenan)) and been
better than last year. I don't think we'd have been a last-place
team, but I don't think we'd have been a first- place, either.''

Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals was history, the Rangers'
comeback in that one complete. Leetch had dug New York out of a 2-0
hole by scoring once and setting up the other three goals in the 4-2
Ranger victory.
In a cramped cubicle beneath Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum, Keenan
collapsed into a folding chair and cracked open a cold beer. He had
come directly from the press conference, where he had answered
questions with his usual diffidence. Now he let his guard down.
''This season has been a very important part of my life,'' he said.
''I have a tremendous amount of respect and loyalty to these players.
I was going through a very painful personal experience, a life
crisis, and these people were my support system.''
He lapsed into silence. His best year of coaching was also his