His home was a three-bedroom unit on the 16th floor, filled with the furniture of forgetting. All whites and blacks and glass and metal; each morning, in such a place, was surely the dawn of a clean, fresh start.
The one old thing was his leather briefcase, worn and cracked as an old fisherman’s face. “It’s the only thing in my life,” he remarked, “that I haven’t thrown out.”
But, it turned out, that wasn’t quite true. Late one night, as he tried to explain himself over Amarettos, he fell silent and knelt in front of a small bookcase in his living room. Finally he stood.
“No one who has ever written about me,” Mike Keenan said, “has a f------ clue who I am.” Then he handed The Great Gatsby to me, as if that were proof.
May 7, 1995
The paperback book was a quarter-century old, yellowing and marked in a variety of inks: sentences he had underlined, words and exclamation points he had scribbled in the margins at different junctures since he was a teen. His eyes glittered as he watched me leaf through it. “It’s much more complicated,” he pointed out, “than anyone really thinks.”
He was not much of a reader, he admitted; too many winds whistled through him for him to sit and hear the quiet rustlings of a book. And so even he found it extraordinary that he had read The Great Gatsby five times and that every now and then he skimmed it again in order to . . . well, he couldn’t quite say why; it was all feeling, not thought. The first underscored passage I opened to: Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.
The main character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book is Jay Gatsby, a man who, out of nowhere—poof!—appears in an opulent estate on the shores of Long Island in the 1920s, throwing lavish parties for guests who whisper speculations about his past and the source of his fabulous wealth. No one realizes that the mansion, the boats, the cars and the weekend revelry are just props, details painstakingly wrought by a poor boy who has poured everything into a pure dream: the pursuit of a beautiful married woman with a low, thrilling voice.
But no, that’s not exactly true. The main character in Fitzgerald’s book is actually the United States, a land where such a man could invent himself. A land where an 18-year-old Canadian named Mike Keenan arrived one autumn day in 1968 and knew in the beat of a heart that he belonged.
Passport official: The purpose of your visit to Canada?
Passport official: What’s your business?
Traveler: I’m a writer.
Passport official: What are you writing about?
Traveler: Mike Keenan.
Passport official: Go ahead. He’s a bastard.
Odd—or was it fitting?—that a keeper of Canada’s gates would issue such a warning, as if some national interest were at stake. But perhaps people everywhere, always, will dispute who Mike Keenan really is. In Philadelphia, as he coached the Flyers to two Stanley Cup finals between 1984 and ‘88, players gave him Heil Hitler salutes when he turned his back. In Chicago, where he coached the Blackhawks from 1988 to ‘92, Mike willed another average team into the finals but soon lost his job and his marriage. rat and scoundrel screamed the New York headlines when he fled the Rangers a few weeks after leading them to the Stanley Cup last year. His mailbox was blown up.
The St. Louis Blues hired him immediately, of course, as coach and general manager, and their executive vice president called him the messiah. He drove the Bluesto a strong second-place finish in the NHL’s Central Division, but he and his new bosses had already gone to war. “The management there,” he seethed, sounding oddly distant from his own team, “has promoted superstar status without the team concept. They filled the building without developing a winning culture. They produced a very selfish culture.”
Each new place, Mike spoke of how he had learned from the traumas in the previous city, how he had grown and changed. “The ability to grow, change and adapt,” he wrote in his resume for his first NHL job, “are the foundation of the method.” So it was strange indeed for Mike to find himself crying recently over things that had happened long ago to the person he used to be.
His friends were sickened by the ever-spreading image of Keenan as rodent and cur. “His marketability today is zero,” Gary Webb, a close friend and business partner, says in disbelief. “He’s perceived as unethical and morally corrupt.” To them Mike’s truest self was the man they drank beer with and laughed with till tears came to their eyes. The one who would appear at a party dressed as a fat man or a baseball catcher for the sheer hell of it, who would bolt to the CD player and re-cue All I Wanna Do, by Sheryl Crow, 18 straight times. Or sit at his gleaming white piano, fingers flying over the keys, eyes shut, head jerking back and forth as if in the throes of creative rapture, crooning in a voice so antimelodic that it was almost beyond belief . . .
Sing us a song, you’re the Piano Man
Sing us a song tonight
Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody
And you’ve got us feelin’ all right
. . . waiting for his flabbergasted listener to realize that the performance was all just bravado and bunkum, a player piano activated by a programmed disc. This Mike, with the blue musical note tattooed on his back and the green shamrock high on his thigh, this free spirit ripping through the countryside on his Harley-Davidson Fat Boy—how had things gotten so twisted that almost no one knew he existed? All those terrible things he had been whispered to have done to players—didn’t people understand that they were simply tactics he used to excel in a world where the only measure of a man’s worth was performance, and that they had little to do with him? That the four trips to the Stanley Cup finals he had made, the Calder Cup he won in the American Hockey League, the two Canada Cups and the Canadian national collegiate championship justified every ugly bit of business along the way? “You have to understand,” says Gary Green, a friend of Mike’s and a former NHL coach, “this man is two totally different people.”
As for Mike himself, he seemed to sense that another self lay one layer closer to bedrock, one level beneath either of the contrasting faces he showed to his friends and to the hockey world. He was still standing over me, watching me thumb through The Great Gatsby, as I came to another underscored sentence: He had been full of the idea so long, dreamed it right through to the end, waited with his teeth set, so to speak, at an inconceivable pitch of intensity.
Yes, Mike said, his jaws ached in the morning, he ground his teeth so hard at night. He continually cricked his neck, trying to undo the tension. He didn’t need much sleep. “Humans overrate sleep,” he said. “I’ve trained myself to sleep from two to six.”
He was a dreamer, wide awake. That was the thing one might never suspect of a person so tautly controlled. He would stand for hours on the deck of his lake cottage or on his high-rise balcony, staring at water or sky, dreaming. “I was a visionary even as a kid,” he said. “I just wasn’t as preoccupied until I got older. One of the problems with being a visionary is I could see things in people that they just couldn’t bring themselves to do. I’d picture the whole and then break it into all the little parts. People have this image of me as a knee-jerk decision-maker. But there’s almost nothing I do that I haven’t thought about for months, down to the smallest detail. You can’t compromise on details, because details are what lead to the whole.” He smiled. “You may think I’m f------ nuts. But that’s O.K., because I am.”
It was ritual now, with each team he took over, each fresh start. He would sweep through the locker room, a fleet of assistant coaches, trainers, therapists, physiologists, equipment managers, public relations personnel, video experts and carpenters trailing him as he pointed left and right, barking, “Change this. Move that. This shouldn’t be here. We need more space here. More light there.” Who understood better than he the power of atmosphere and image, the dynamic of the fresh start? What land yearned for it more than his new country, forever turning on televisions and opening magazines for yet another dose? When Mike was done, there would be a crisp new coat of paint in the team’s colors. A new carpet with the design of a hockey rink would cover the floor. A state-of-the-art video system would fill one side room, a squadron of exercise bicycles would fill another, and a killer stereo system would pump adrenaline-jacking music into every nook and crevice.
The garbage can in his locker room would know its place, and those little balls of discarded tape had better, too. If the players were wearing red socks in practice, they had to wear red tape; white tape with white socks, black with black; off the ice with you if you didn’t match. That stick rack, that Gatorade table—clearly they conveyed more order, more success, when arranged in the far corners than the near ones. Soon, as he traveled around the league, there would be grown men, gentlemen of integrity, entering every visiting locker room minutes before he did, stomachs in knots, asking themselves, Is the room right for Mike?
The centerpiece in the home locker room, of course, would be the framed color photograph of the Stanley Cup, ceiling track lights focused on it in the way that crucifixes are illuminated behind altars. After all, as he would promise fans in a new city: “We’re going to do everything we can to bring the chalice here. The Holy Grail. You have to go through hell to get it.”
Most dreamers were vague—floaters in the fuzzy glow of the scenes they imagined. A rare and dangerous thing was the dreamer who squinted, who insisted ruthlessly upon the particulars of his vision. A rare and dangerous thing was a man who would subordinate his popularity, his family, his past to his dream. “I gave up sanity to chase the dream,” Mike says. “That’s why I win, I guess. I’m willing to pay the ultimate price. Whether it’s worth it or not, it’s my choice. You preserve your integrity when you do that. You have to have that purity to be a champion.” A glint enters his eyes. “It’s a good life,” he says, “if you don’t weaken. . . .”
So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a 17-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.
In the autumn of 1973, at the training camp of the World Hockey Association’s Vancouver Blazers, fate brought Mike Keenan and Jimmy Adair together. Mikeapproached him, shook his hand and thanked him for saving Mike’s life. Jimmy, who had never met Mike before, just blinked.
Jimmy Adair was the chance event, the distant random molecular movement that led to the invention of the man we see today behind the Blues’ bench—shoulders extraordinarily square, arms folded, eyes squinting, head tilted back as if he were sniffing the air for something akin to his own excellence but never expecting to find it. Jimmy was the kid who accepted and then backed out of St. Lawrence University’s sixth hockey scholarship in 1968, propelling a man to walk up to Mike and ask the 5 7” teenager with the C-plus average if he would care to attend a small, prestigious, private American university for next to nothing.
Mike could have screamed Yes! He could have seized the man by the lapels and dragged him to the General Motors plant in Oshawa, Ont., where Mike’s father would work for 31 years, his uncle Bob for 35, his uncle Bill for 38 and his grandfather, the poor bastard, for 51—that vast, squat corrugated- metal factory with its forest of smokestacks, one of them just waiting, waiting to suck Mike inside it, too. Mike could have dragged the man inside the brick box house in Whitby, one of Oshawa’s little satellite towns, where for years Mike had flinched while his parents were at each other’s throats. He could have jerked the man’s head up to the stars that Mike had been staring at as long as he could remember, full of a hunger so ferocious that it frightened him because he had no clue what could fill it.
Instead he just swallowed and nodded.
His parents drove him across the Canadian border and dropped him off at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. Yes, Mike could have screamed. Around him were beautiful brick buildings, facilities the likes of which he had never seen before. There were 18-year-old girls unloading horses they had brought to school in trailers, young men carrying skis to use at St. Lawrence’s lodge in the Adirondacks. Kids from all across America—what kind of land was this, where a teenager might travel several thousand miles to attend college? Kids noticing his hockey jacket and welcoming him—didn’t he know that hockey was St. Lawrence’s only big-time sport, that anyone who would lace on skates to lead the team against Michigan and Harvard and Cornell was automatically someone special? Yes, yes! Mike could have screamed, but instead he just closed the car door and waved to his parents as they headed back north. He wouldn’t call them Mom and Dad anymore. He would call them Thelma and Theodore. Nothing personal, but they could have kept driving all the way to the Polar icecap, the way he felt that day. That life, that Mike, was done.
“The second our feet hit the ground,” recalls Gary Webb, another Canadian hockey player at St. Lawrence, “we absolutely loved it! Mike and I would just look at each other and say, ‘Double A!’ It was our signal word. It meant all-American. Every time we got excited—it could be over a blonde walking across the quad, or a great party—we’d say, ‘Double A!’ It meant, This country’s great! Let’s go for it! A place where you either made it on your own or you didn’t, where you could go as far as your creativity and convictions could take you. No more socialist crap, no government to bail you out or unions to protect your ass, no laid-back approach to life like we’d both grown up with in Canada. For people like him and me, St. Lawrence and America were paradise. Double A!”
How many noticed what was digging inside of Mike, the burr from his past that would go with him each step of his journey: Am I worthy? “Here I was, this poor Canadian country kid,” Mike says. “Did I belong there? I felt I owed it to that school to fit in, to survive. They had given me my chance.”
He flunked out after his freshman year. He cried. “Ejection from paradise,” his pal Webb called it. Mike looped a tie around his throat, prayed feverishly to the god he had once served as an altar boy and walked into the dean’s office, begging for one more chance. The gate to paradise creaked open a crack. Mike would have to sit out one semester, somehow earn enough to pay St. Lawrence’s considerable tuition the following semester and pass all his courses to regain his scholarship. There was only one place for him to turn—back to the brick box house, to the GM plant waiting to bend one more Keenan over an assembly line.
The jungle line, workers called the section Mike was assigned to that summer and fall. Every 10 seconds another car rolled before him to be spot- welded—another spray of sparks hitting his goggles, blackening his teeth and spit, scorching his eyebrows and hair, another man’s features vanishing in the thickening blue smoke. He worked 12-hour shifts to earn most of the money, his father made up the difference by cashing in a life insurance policy, and Mike raced for the exit his last day on the job, shouting as he hit fresh air, “You’ll never see me here again!”
And they didn’t. Back at St. Lawrence he awoke before dawn to study. He made the honor roll. He ran five miles a day. He captained the hockey team. He even took a job laying railroad tracks back in Canada during the summer, sleeping in a boxcar with his money under his ear while grizzled French Canadian coworkers sometimes rolled with the local squaws a sleeping bag away—anything rather than return to GM and the brick box, the anonymous life to which he was born.
He remembers the terrific energy and vigilance he needed each day, the observation of every American nuance, the caution required not to make a mistake. “It was a lifestyle I wanted,” he says. “I knew simplicity would be lost. But I didn’t care what adaptations it would take. I was going to do it.”
He coughed up the puck—and an easy goal—in his own zone during a game in his junior year. His coach, George Menard, summoned Mike to his office. “I’m not going to tolerate it,” Menard fumed. “You did that on purpose. You threw the game. You won’t suit up for any more games.”
Mike walked out, thunderstruck. This new country, this fickle Double A blonde—was she about to pull the rug out from under him again? “He was in a total fog,” recalls Webb. “Looking in the mirror, thinking, I couldn’t have thrown a game, but . . . but maybe I have to be stronger so I don’t ever even give off the appearance of weakness again. The mind games Mike plays on his players today . . . some of that had to come from Menard.”
The result? Mike sat for two games but played harder than ever in practice, crushing everything that moved. His teammates unified behind him, one even threatening to quit, and then Menard relented. Hmmmmm. . . .
Mike and a half-dozen teammates moved into an old warehouse—black lights, purple posters, garbage-dump furniture, motorcycles in the living room. At Mike’s suggestion they formed their own band, Nik and the Nice Guys. “Mike didn’t play any instrument,” recalls Webb, a member of the band, “and he sang in this incredibly flat voice, but he wanted so badly to be center stage. He would sing that Sly and the Family Stone song I Want to Take You Higher. He’d get everybody in the room down on their knees, then wiggling their rear ends, then flopping like fish on the floor of some beer- soaked frat-house basement. It was hilarious! He’d compensate for his lack of ability by bullying the crowd into doing what he wanted.”
All the prevailing breezes in his life now were southerly, American, except one. For love he turned and tacked north, hitchhiking home on weekends to see the girl he had met just months before entering St. Lawrence. Rita Haas was a farmer’s daughter—cautious, understanding, smart, rooted, the granddaughter of a Hungarian Jew killed at Auschwitz. In her home Mike felt warmth and closeness, the absolute absence of tension. It was pure, another antithesis to the life he had known. Not seeing the trap, he wanted that too.
But his heart was in a constant, turbulent riot. The most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night.
If Rita assumed that they would both be teachers and raise a large, close- knit family somewhere in the Canadian countryside, couldn’t she be forgiven? Her bridegroom couldn’t put his dream into words exactly, any more than he could explain why such sentences in The Great Gatsby hit him like the back of a shovel to the gut. It had to do with excellence and passion, with refusing the safer, wider road when life, with her unreadable smile, beckoned a man toward a narrow, mysterious path. After a year of minor league hockey in Roanoke, Va., Mike knew that his boyhood dream would have to be replaced by an adult one, but he couldn’t quite see it yet. In 1975 he took a job as a coach and phys-ed teacher at Forest Hill Collegiate Institute in Toronto—a wolf about to learn that his appetite was larger than his forest.
He would awaken at 5:30 a.m., drive nearly an hour from Oshawa to the school and coach the girls’ swim team at 7. Teach all morning, jog a few miles at lunch, teach and coach the boys’ hockey team all afternoon. Then drive 45 minutes and, at 6 p.m., begin coaching the Junior B Oshawa Legionaires, whom he would lead to back-to-back championships. He would be home by 9 p.m. if it was only a practice, by midnight if it was a game, and start all over again in darkness the next morning.
It was during a teachers’ strike in 1975 that he realized this life could never fulfill his dream. It happened as he walked the picket line beside unionist typing and trigonometry teachers already earning more than he was, demanding raises based on seniority rather than on how much of their hearts and souls they poured into their work. At age 28, when the Major Junior A Peterborough (Ont.) Petes offered him a full-time job as coach and general manager, he seized it. No more wide, safe roads. He was in the jungle now, and it felt just right.
Well . . . almost. “I’m too sensitive,” he would fret to Rita. “I have to get harder to survive in this world.” He had developed a few tricks. The one he learned back in Oshawa—he would secretly hack a hockey stick until it was nearly in two, then disguise the break so that he could dramatically shatter the stick during a between-periods rant in front of his team—worked splendidly. But he would need more, much more.
A model, that’s what he needed. If he couldn’t find sufficient hardness in himself, he would find it in someone else and imitate it. Another minor adaptation, one might call it. Every day, in the halls of the Memorial Center in Peterborough, Mike walked by a framed photograph. Perfect. Scotty Bowman had coached Peterborough to the league title in his first season, just as Mike was doing. Scotty Bowman had just won four consecutive Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens. Scotty Bowman had done it the hard way, as an outsider who had never played in the NHL—just as Mike planned to do it, too. It seemed as if the gods themselves were hitching Mike’s star to Scotty’s when Bowman, having jumped from Montreal to Buffalo in 1979, hired Mike in 1980 to coach the Sabres’ minor league team in Rochester, N.Y. “When Scotty introduced him at that first press conference in Rochester,” says Webb, “Mike was like a puppy dog following his master. He siphoned every ounce of Scotty he could.”
There were no more off-nights. If Mike’s team wasn’t playing, he would drive five hours and scout an opponent, returning at sunup . . . or drive to Buffalo and study Bowman’s every twitch behind the Sabre bench. For hours Mike would pepper Yvon Lambert—one of Bowman’s former Canadiens who had been sent down by the Sabres to play for him—with questions about Scotty. Just like Scotty, Mike would hold his shoulders and head more and more erect, as if a winch were being tightened in the small of his back. He would chew on slivers of ice the whole game, the way Scotty did. In his late 30’s, Mike would even appear one morning with his hair slicked back. Just like Scotty. It was perfect.
Well . . . almost. “Sure, there were a lot of similarities,” says Lambert. “They both didn’t give a f--- about anyone. They’d both do anything to win. Mike wanted to be as tough as Scotty, but there was one problem. Away from the game, Mike was friendlier. He cared what you thought about him.”
Those who would come to know Mike away from the game couldn’t fail to notice the paradox. So swiftly did he walk that everyone accompanying him was forcibly swept into step. But once he reached his destination—a restaurant, a bar, a scenic overlook—he would become the child seeking confirmation again and again, asking, “Isn’t this a great place? Isn’t this beer excellent? Isn’t this an incredible view?” He would sneer at schmoozers and fame hounds but shoot looks at all strangers who passed his restaurant table, searching their eyes for that spark of recognition. He was the first to say, “How are you, sir? Nice to see you, ma’am.” He was the one in a photograph who put his arm around the fan, not vice versa. This was no merging of the uncertain boy and the authoritative adult. It was screeching lane changes.
Bowman played those uncertainties like piano keys, grilling Mike to explain every decision he made. An uncanny similarity in their coaching styles soon became clear, an emphasis on instinct over system. Mike wanted control over every detail in a player’s preparation—his diet, his fluid intake, his conditioning, his state of mind—but on the ice he wanted no blueprint, no patterns. Months might pass without his teams practicing the power play or penalty-killing. He didn’t want to restrict his players’ creativity, and besides, if he told them what to do, that gave them an excuse if it failed. Whetting will and hunger became Mike’s specialty: Let them eat the damn meal with any utensil they wanted. But let them nowhere near the table if they weren’t starving.
Systematic hockey filled his nose with the old scent, the GM blue haze; it suffocated his soul. Spur of the moment, seat of the pants, play the hot hand, plank the superstar, yo-yo the goalie, juggle the lines, defy the percentages, anticipate the sea changes—when it was cooking, it was difficult to explain, and it felt like jazz. Bowman played jazz too, so why in hell was he asking for explanations?
Mike’s sport still crawled with stegosauruses, old-school coaches, ex-NHL players who had never been to college, Canadians uneasy with change. Never having made it to the top level, Mike felt like the outsider, the unknown, the one who had to one-up the system. He turned his uneasiness to his advantage: He would be cutting edge.Mike would herd his Rochester team into a downtown fitness center for aerobics classes. Mike would put calipers to the players’ bellies and masks to their mouths, measuring body-fat percentages and aerobic thresholds four times a year. Mike would pioneer in the AHL the use of video, interval training, circuit weight training. LaterMike would award short-term segment bonuses and quarterly incentives, just like a sales manager. Mike would use computer programs to analyze the comparative efficiency of every line combination in the league. Mike would be Double A.
He read all the motivational and management books, picked the brains of all the men he met in corporate America. In a few years he would begin to dress as they dressed—in dark blue suits and crisp white $100 monogrammed shirts—and to talk in CEO-speak too. His old buddies from St. Lawrence knew it was all just an artist’s conception; one of them, Tim Pelyk, approached Mike at a party and gave one of those $100 shirts a button-bursting neck-to-navel rip, just to be sure that Mikeknew that, too. Perhaps that’s why Mike wore the tattoos and that white shirt with the hole near the armpit under his suit now and then: hidden memos to himself that he wasn’t a clone, that he was still the most devout Double A individualist in the land.
No, others speculated, the hole near the armpit was a bullet hole. Mike grabbed players by their jerseys, right at the throat, and screamed in their faces. He instituted curfews on team buses: lights out, total silence. Against Nova Scotia his entire team rose in horror at a blunder that let in the game-tying goal, and Mike knocked over the bench in a rage. “Sit down!” he screamed, and so traumatized were the players that 14 fannies hit the deck.
“Yvon Lambert told him to back off, or he wouldn’t be alive today,” recalls Rochester’s leading scorer that year, Geordie Robertson. “It was clash after clash after clash. Each team Mike coaches needs a player who has won four or five Stanley Cups, like a Mark Messier or a Lambert, to tell him to slow down. He’d panic sometimes. He’d go into the coaching office between periods and pull into himself, go into a shell, and you’d be on pins and needles because you could feel he was ready to explode. But he was the greatest practice coach ever, ran the shortest and most productive practices you’ve ever seen.”
The Death Skate occurred during a losing streak in 1983, Mike’s third year at Rochester. Two hours of nonstop skating, no water, players crumpling on the ice, players vomiting. “I was panicking,” recalls trainer Jim Pizzatelli. The team won 20 of its next 24 games and the Calder Cup. Mike and the Cup slept together that night in Portland, Maine.
But no reward came from Bowman, no promotion to the Sabres. Mike was 33, for god’s sake, stuck under his mentor’s thumb, and life was evaporating. A man who would order his team’s traveling secretary to enter the cockpit when their plane was stuck in a holding pattern and instruct the pilot to land the plane now . . . did you expect him to wait?
“The whole point of life to me,” says Mike, “is to risk.” He stunned Bowman by taking a job as coach at the University of Toronto, knowing the only way it wouldn’t be seen as a backward career step was if he won the Canadian national championship in ‘84. Which he promptly did.
He consented to a one-week vacation in Fort Lauderdale that spring with Rita and their five-year-old daughter, Gayla. Mike holed up in their motel room with a typewriter and wrote a position paper, informing the Philadelphia Flyers how he would win them a Stanley Cup. The essay was filled with sentences such as: “In this paper I hope to be able to integrate the general and the particular, the theoretical and the practical, the idealistic and the realistic, into a final presentation which projects an accurate image of me as both a person and a manager-coach.”
Gayla learned to swim that week in Fort Lauderdale. Rita told Mike all about it.
He had intended, probably, to take what he could and go—but now he found that he had committed himself to the following of a grail.
To allude only to Gatsby, however, would be to slight Bugsy. Bugsy was Benjamin Siegel, the real-life 1940s gangster depicted in Bugsy, the Warren Beatty movie that struck Mike with nearly the same visceral wallop as The Great Gatsby had. “The similarities between Mike and Bugsy are uncanny,” notes a friend. Bugsy, like Gatsby, was an extravagant criminal who staked his life on a long-shot dream: the construction of a posh casino-hotel in the Nevada desert that would eventually blossom into Las Vegas. To steel himself, to suffocate any remorse after killing someone, Bugsy repeated over and over a phrase: Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.
Mike memorized the phrase and recited it to friends. Now that he was an NHL coach, hired by the Flyers in 1984, the stakes were even higher, and surely he recognized the utility of such a mantra. Twenty just happened to be the number of men who suit up for an NHL game.
“He’d get Peter Zezel in the stick room between periods and motivate the hell out of him,” hints Flyer fitness specialist Pat Croce. Twenty dwarves took turns . . . “It wasn’t just me,” says Zezel. “He’d throw sticks at other players” . . . doing handstands on the carpet. . . .
“My temper is only a tool,” says Mike. “I lose my temper for the right reason, to make players better.”
He skated straight at players who made mistakes in practice, as if he were going to knock them heels over head, then came to a halt inches away. In his office he stood over a seated player, brandishing a hockey stick and seething as the player cowered, thinking he was about to be hit.
“Most people think I enjoy conflict,” Mike says. “I hate it. Rita and I never argued or shouted, even at the end. I saw so much conflict when I was young, I’m sick of it. I’d walk away from doing those things to players, and I’d feel awful inside.”
Twenty dwarves took turns. . . . “Who haven’t I benched this year yet?” he would ask an assistant coach. He would get a name and then bench that player, just to make him wonder if he could play a little harder. “He pitted you against your teammates,” says ex-Blackhawk Steve Thomas. “He always made you feel you were letting them down.” In Philadelphia he gave Ron Sutter an ultimatum: Play better, or else your brother Rich won’t dress for games.
“The owners gave me s---, so I gave it to the players,” Mike says. “I felt I owed it to the owners to be that way. I came into the NHL as a complete unknown. They’d given me an opportunity.”
Twenty dwarves took turns. . . . He shut off the locker room lights between periods and left his team in darkness. He called for practices at 11:59 a.m. just so that players would scratch their heads and wonder why.
“I carried this fear every game,” Mike says. “The fear that this would be the last game I’d ever coach. The media read me all wrong. They thought I was arrogant. I was really just scared. It’s a great way to hide fear.”
“Eventually,” says Thomas, “he just drove us physically and mentally insane.” Twenty dwarves, twenty dwarves, twenty dwarves. . . .
And it worked. God, did it ever work. He was Coach of the Year in his first season, driving a Flyer team laden with rookies and second-year players to the league’s best record and the ‘85 Stanley Cup finals, in which they fell to the Edmonton Oilers. Two more division titles followed, another march to the finals in ‘87, with the Flyers denied the Cup again by a superior Edmonton team. He took over the sorry Blackhawks in ‘88, whipped them to two division titles and an unexpected trip to the ‘92 Cup finals, at which they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins. In fact, if he stays in the game long enough, nearly every NHL career coaching record will likely come down to a dogfight between him and—of course—Scotty Bowman.
“Mike wouldn’t tolerate one bad practice or one bad shift,” says Thomas. “That’s what made him different. Not one. Not even from a superstar.” Poor play he took as a personal insult, one so overwhelming that sometimes, in the middle of a game, he simply stopped coaching. After a loss Mike wanted to trade half the roster. Players, trainers, secretaries, janitors—under Mike they either fell by the wayside or they had their most productive years.
His objective was to make losing so dark and confusing that his team’s only choice, its one way out of the tunnel, was to win everything. Anything short of the Stanley Cup was failure. If the anxiety this produced was too much for a half-dozen players each year, well, then, the sooner he learned this, the better, for how could he possibly rely on such men in Game 7 of the finals? And so he was forever testing them, rolling little sticks of dynamite beneath their feet—Does your father work, Tony? Does he work hard? Why don’t you work that hard, Tony?—forever demanding more, until their heads spun so fast, they could no longer be sure what the correct answer was. Did he want them to bend over backward to show him how committed they were? Or did he want them to stand up and challenge him, prove their integrity, their spine? There was no correct answer, the smart ones finally realized; anxiety was the goal. Riddle me this: If his own pain and confusion had created such a vast hunger to win, didn’t he owe each of his players a personal heaping of pain and confusion?
In his words: “Teams get too cozy. I don’t like cozy. You can’t win with flat-liners, not even with self-motivated flat-liners. You go first-class in everything, you give them clarity, cleanliness and comfort . . . and then you introduce confusion if need be. If you feel a sigh of relief on your team, even for a moment—bang!—you’ve got to shake them up. There must be a dynamic. If I’m completely unpredictable, the players have to stay focused. They have to always be thinking, When is the sonofabitch gonna call on me? I learn instantly who can be rocked.”
His teams had camaraderie; his vision was so white hot, it fused them. There were delights as well as horrors around each hairpin curve. On a day’s notice, during a break in the schedule, his players were suddenly flying to a lovely mountain resort for a three-day retreat. He took them to fashion shows, musicals and movies. He could spend hours driving around, talking with a player who had lost his father; could spend thousands of dollars buying everyone, even the locker room broom man, beautiful Christmas gifts. So deeply did he install himself inside the psyches of his men that when they suddenly found that they were no longer part of the crusade, they were unsure whether to feel relief, sadness or rage.
Thomas: “I know what it takes to win because of Mike.”
Zezel: “He taught me things that have added five goals a year.”
Robertson: “Every player he has will be critical of him, but every player wants to play for him and win the Cup.”
Even Bobby Clarke, the general manager who fired Mike in Philadelphia, says, “In hindsight I probably should’ve changed some of the players instead of Mike.” Perhaps all the conflicting feelings he left behind were inevitable, radiating from the contradiction at Mike’s core. The same man who could blame the world for his actions, who at times felt like such a victim, was the one whose whole life was based on the Double A premise that a man with guts and heart could become whatever he wished. The contradictions became so glaring that one night, when the man the Flyers called Adolf rented a hotel ballroom for a party and grabbed the microphone to sing with the band, his players flopped on the floor like fish at his urging and hoisted him so high that he banged his head on the shimmering disco ball.
But you’re still wondering what happened to Rita, and with just cause. After all, what was left for Mike to give when he came home? He would return from a road trip or another long day, wrap the stereo headphones around his ears and check out of the universe. On a Saturday off-night, he would stand in front of the TV for two hours—after all, he was scheduled to play in Vancouver in just two weeks, and he couldn’t scout the Canucks sitting down. Summers, you ask? He spent two of them coachingin the Canada Cup, two more felling trees from dawn to dusk and then building a cottage on the shores of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay, the body of water he would stare at for hours to heal his disillusion, to dream anew. It was just a few miles from where he had summered as a child, from where his mother had grown up. “There was nothing constant in my life,” says Mike. “I needed that cottage. It was my roots, my solace and sanity.”
When he slowed down for a few hours, the softness that he had walled off poured out upon his daughter. He would gaze at Gayla with adoring eyes, stroke her hair, lavish her with praise. Rita maneuvered around the wide space he needed, moved with him from city to city, losing friends almost as soon as she made them, unable, as a foreigner in the U.S., to work. “She came with me to the NHL out of loyalty, but she never came psychologically,” Mike says. “It was never the life she bargained for. God, I was selfish. You look back and wonder what you were doing.”
Rita was his liaison with his past, the one who called family members and old friends whom he almost never saw. “Mike,” his father would plead, “give Marie and Cathy a call once in a while. They’re your sisters.” Relatives who drove for hours to see him would turn around and drive for hours back home if his team lost, never exchanging a word with Mike rather than risk his wrath. Tim Pelyk, his close friend from St. Lawrence, wrote him a letter after one futile trip to visit him in Chicago. “You’d think two old friends could have more than five minutes together in four days,” he wrote.
Mike grabbed a telephone. “You don’t understand, Tim,” he protested. “I have a blowtorch on my neck.”
“Mike,” said Tim, “we all have blowtorches on our necks.”
It fell apart in Philadelphia, after four years, when the players mutinied. What earlier had stimulated them, in the end only wore them down. It disintegrated in Chicago after another four years, when the owner decided that Mike lusted for too much power. “You give 120 percent of your soul, you give up your family life, and then they kick you in the balls,” Mike says. “In all three places I’ve been in the league, someone was either jealous of me or felt their position was threatened and began undermining. There are snakes everywhere in this jungle.”
One day not long after he lost his job in Chicago, he jogged a few miles across the sand in Myrtle Beach, S.C., then slowed and looked at his old college pal, Webb. There it was again: “That same look of utter rejection that he had when he flunked out of St. Lawrence,” says Webb. “He asked me, ‘Do you think I’ll ever get a job again?’ I said, ‘Mike, with your record?’ But it’s like a theme running through his life, this feeling that maybe he doesn’t belong here. Like he’s still the foreigner, the teenager from the small-town, blue-collar Canadian family, and he’s conned his way into this great party, and nobody’s found him out yet. So he has this drive to justify that he does belong.”
There would always be another NHL job, of course. Another general manager who, like Neil Smith of the Rangers, would say, “I can deal with the devil as long as he wins.” Another owner in another city eager to buy Mike’s hunger, or at least rent it for a few years, willing to pay the price. But Rita? She looked at her teenage daughter. In a few years Gayla would graduate from high school and be gone, and Rita would be alone again in a new city. Rita looked at Mike. She couldn’t say the words. So he did. “You’re not going to move with me, are you?” he said.
She asked if he would give up pro hockey.
“You don’t even know me,” he said.
She played the piano the day he packed—just some cardboard boxes of books and clothes. He saw her waving from the doorstep as he drove away from their 25 years together and headed to his new job in New York.
A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host. . . .
His footsteps echoed inside the 10-room house he had bought for $1.3 million in Greenwich, Conn. He walked outside. Yes . . . exactly. “Exactly like The Great Gatsby,” he says. “All those big houses, and you’d never see the people who lived in them.” The teenager who had raced away from the GM plant in Canada had finally made it. Double A.
Months passed. Most of the rooms remained empty, the refrigerator virtually bare. Some nights, rather than go home, he slept on the sofa at the Rangers’ practice facility in Rye, N.Y. Some nights he never slept at all. He pretended that Gayla had gone away to boarding school. “Pain,” he says, “beyond what you can imagine.”
It was not just the pain of a failed marriage. It was pain from all across the map of his life; the past that had seemed to evaporate behind him was now dripping down his cheeks. The six miscarriages Rita had suffered as he was hurtling up the ladder, one of them occurring as late as seven months into her pregnancy . . . God, he had never stopped to mourn them until now. The knock on the door when he was four, the policeman standing there telling his parents that Mike’s baby brother had just died of pneumonia in the hospital . . . somehow it had never really hit him until now. Suddenly, driving down a street, he would find himself sobbing for the little altar boy with the big black glasses. “Just a likable, easygoing kid,” recalls his sister Marie. “Never controversial. Everyone wanted to be his friend.” The little boy who couldn’t understand why his parents were the only ones who screamed at each other, why his father was the only one in the world who came home smelling of alcohol, why his mother was so compulsive that when her three children stumbled out of bed early on a Saturday morning just to go to the bathroom, they might find their beds stripped by the time they stumbled back.
Moments before Ranger practices began, it could happen to Mike; it was scary. Tears for the adult who still couldn’t bring himself to go back to 225 Lee Avenue and look at the home of his childhood. Tears for the impatient young man who fled at 18, in too much of a hurry to appreciate the gifts that came from that home: the self-discipline from his mother, the love of song and laughter from his dad, the scrimping that a man and woman without high school educations had done to make sure thatMike always had skates and sticks and lessons.
But it had all been just too extreme, too contrary—control and chaos at the same dinner table. Ted coming home after a 12-hour shift and a few “brown pops” at the Legion hall, wanting to keep the good times rolling; Thelma returning from six hours selling men’s clothes feeling as if she had to be the one who asked why every B wasn’t an A and every jacket wasn’t in a closet. Ted hissing at Thelma to leave the kids alone, and Thelma. . . .
“You know, sometimes I wish I could’ve done what Ted did, just drink a couple of beers, let go, relax, party time,” she says. “But I had to be the ogre. I’d say to Mike, ‘You could’ve done better,’ no matter what he did. Our family doctor said he’d never seen a son turn out to be more like his mother.
“I know what he’s feeling because I’m the same way. I just wish I could let my emotions out and hug somebody, and I know he feels that way too.”
Yes, it was true: Inside, he felt just like his father, who could cry at the crooning of Danny Boy. “That was my shortcoming from the beginning,” says Mike. “I was oversensitive. I’d keep it all in—I was the stiff-upper- lip oldest son—but inside I kept thinking, ‘I’m way too soft.’ I knew I’d get chewed up if I didn’t change.”
So he set out on the longest journey that any boy can make—to become his father’s antithesis—and he got there. Why, then, in his mid-40’s did he find himself, just like Dad, crying at the crooning of a song? Every room he entered, every car and bus, he switched the station on the FM stereo to country and western, to the brotherhood of American longing and pain. His Rangers would groan. The man whose life was all about winning suddenly had to hear people singing about losing.
But his anguish was also his hope; it meant that he had failed to pave himself over completely. He shocked his father, on Ted’s 65th birthday, by sending him an airline ticket and spending six weeks with him in the middle of the season. Mike began calling his mother nearly every week—once to ask her how to bake potatoes. “I began wondering,” he says, “if the pain I was feeling was the price for the pain I’d inflicted on others. You bury that old Irish-Catholic guilt, but sooner or later it bites you in the ass. I wondered, Did I need people more than I thought? And if I did and I needed to change. . . . Could I change just a little? God, that’s scary. Everything had been so all-or-nothing. If I changed it just a little, would my career fall apart?”
He tried to read the meaning of his pain. Was it a signal that he had chosen the wrong path, given too much of himself to the quest? Or did it mean that now, having sacrificed even his family, he had made the quest even more sacred and himself more worthy of its highest reward? Life seemed to answer his question: Even as he feuded with Neil Smith, the Rangers won more games than any other team in the league, and Mike won his first Stanley Cup. Obliterating the past—maybe that’s what it took to dispel the Rangers’ curse of 54 straight years without a championship. Maybe that’s how it works in America.
“It was my most fun year of coaching,” Mike says. “There were only a half-dozen times I had to be a sonofabitch versus 40 the year before.”
He took the Stanley Cup to his empty home and stared at it. “The goddamn thing is unbelievable, I tell you,” he says. “It has its own personality. Like it’s talking to you—talking of all the broken hearts, the broken legs, the broken families that went into it. For a small period of time, all the heartache goes away. I just looked at it and cried.”
So how did it all fall apart again? He had planned to take the Cup to his cottage on Lake Huron, invite all the family and old friends over so they could stare at it and listen to it, too. He wouldn’t have to explain anything to them after that. The Cup would justify it all. But he never got the chance.
A few weeks after the season, he infuriated the city that had just toasted him: He quit. He claimed that his contract, which had four years remaining, had been breached when the Rangers sent out his playoff bonus check a day late, and two days later he signed a fatter five-year deal that gave him almost complete control of the Blues. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called it an “unseemly spectacle,” punishing Keenan with a 60-day suspension and a $100,000 fine.
“Of course, it wasn’t the one-day-late payment of the playoff bonus,” says Webb. “Mike couldn’t stand Neil Smith. To him Smith was the ultimate spineless corporate wimp, and Mike was floored when the Rangers wouldn’t let him run the operation after he’d delivered them their first Cup in 54 years. What else did he have to do?”
Keenan and the Rangers, of course, have wildly contrasting versions of the events, but a league gag order on the case prevented either from publicly going into details. So it depends on whom you want to believe: the people, like one member of the Rangers, who say, “Winning with Mike Keenan made you feel like a whore,” who point out that Mike, even during the playoffs, vowed that he was committed to staying, even though a member of the Detroit Red Wings’ front office later claimed that Mike’s agent had already made contact about the Red Wings’ then vacant coaching job. Or do you believe Mike, who swears that he was going to be kicked out the door by Smith as soon as the Rangers slumped? Mike, who even after he had finally clasped the chalice and attained his dream, still seemed to smell the smokestacks of the GM plant waiting to suck him in? Mike, whose past somehow hadn’t gone away after all?
But the deed was done. Mike was running the Blues, he had the fresh start. . . . So why was it that it didn’t feel fresh? All the old anecdotes and vitriol followed him, the horror stories dredged up again until he was ready to explode. He thought he had an understanding with his new country, one more inviolable than his pact with the Rangers. You succeed, and the past is forgotten. You move, you leave people behind, but that’s permitted too if you win. Wasn’t that the promise he had smelled in the air when he crossed the border a quarter of a century ago?
“You can have all the stories and all the s---, and all the reporters and players can call you a sonofabitch, but at the end of the day you’ve either won or lost, and that’s all that matters,” Mike snaps. The more he thought about it, the more bewildered he became, the more cheated he felt. “Ask all those players now: Did they mind going to the Stanley Cup finals? They say I burnt them out—screw that. It’s s--- , all these complaints, and it pisses me off, and I’m sick of hearing them. Most of it’s from a lot of f------ lazy writers. They regurgitate these stories over and over and never give my side. No one writes about all the good things I’ve done for players. I’m not going to go around telling people that. I’m not a f------ p.r. guy. And so 10 percent of my personality is always written about, never the 100 percent. I won’t take responsibility for that. A monster’s been created, and now everyone wants to come see the monster. Now I do need a huge p.r. machine to deal with it. I’ll tell you one thing, my p.r. department better do their f----- job.”
And besides, he insists, it’s all irrelevant anyway, because he finally has the authority to trade players, finally has been given the power that will allow him to be more human. “I can coach in a far more palatable way now,” he says. “I can surround myself with people who are willing to go the distance. I’ve realized I can’t change people. I can only change the teams they play on. I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. You reach a point where you have enough security, and you say, ‘I’m just not going to do it anymore.’ Ask the players I coached last year who knew me from before. I’m a lot more patient, so these questions don’t apply to me now.”
But, Mike, what about what you said about the manhood of the four Russians on the Rangers when you cornered them last season?
“Hey, my reputation precedes me now, so I don’t have to be that way anymore,” he says. “Fear is a factor already. So I can be softer and be a lot more effective.”
But what about. . . .
“Look, I’ve come to realize I’m a decent human being, and I’m a goddamned good coach, and I’ve had enough of people running over me.”
But. . . .
“People are so far behind in terms of where I’m at now, they’re antiquated. I’ve changed that radically. There are choices. I can make them. All that matters is that you learn from your mistakes. All that matters is that you’re growing.”
It was late, and I handed The Great Gatsby back to him. I rose from the furniture with no past, wondering what becomes of a man like Mike. Gatsby and Bugsy ended up plugged with bullets, but there’s reason to hope for much better than that.
As I went to the door, I was thinking of what Nick, the narrator in the book, said to Gatsby the last time he saw him: “They’re a rotten crowd,” said Nick. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
“They” were the petty frauds who whispered about Gatsby, the backslappers who had compromised their dreams long ago, the schmoozers who hadn’t the courage for the magnificent quest. They, Nick decided, were far more corrupt.
And what had I decided? Mike said he had changed, grown, and in ways he had, but in my notepad there were quotes like “I don’t want to spend my life alone. Hopefully I can find someone who’ll understand it when I say, ‘Hey, I’m in the playoffs, I can’t talk to you for 30 days.’” He said his experiences had softened him, but in my memory was the glint in his eye when he said, “I’ll tell you one thing, my p.r. department better do their f------ job.”
And so I left, I guess, just like everyone else who has written about him. The more I knew, the less I had a f------ clue.