In the coolest sport on earth, autumn is a time of beginnings.
The chill in the air carries a subtle thrill, so while the rest
of the world is mourning the passing of summer, a hockey man
notes the changing leaves and the diminishing daylight with a
sense of excitement. The prospect of a new team and a fresh
start quickens his pulse and adds pace to his early practices.
The sins of the previous year are forgotten. Endless
possibilities lie ahead. Frost and gathering darkness be damned:
Fall is hockey's season of hope.
Which is why now is the toughest time for Mike Keenan. "It's the
first time in 40 years I haven't been at a hockey training camp
of some kind," he says. Keenan, 47, has been out of work since
being fired last Dec. 19 after 2 1/2 stormy seasons as the St.
Louis Blues general manager and coach. Controversial and
domineering, Keenan this summer watched in mounting frustration
as one NHL coaching position after another, 10 in all, was
filled by a less qualified man. After 11 1/2 seasons with four
teams, Keenan stands fifth in regular-season NHL wins (470) and
fourth in playoff victories (91). Three times he has
guided--some would say browbeaten--a team to the best record in
hockey. Six times he has won a division title. Four times he has
taken a team to the Stanley Cup finals. One time, in 1994, he
won the ultimate prize: the Cup, the first for the New York
Rangers in 54 years.
Ancient history. Keenan, whose acrimonious exits from the Blues
and the Rangers have scared away would-be employers, is on the
outside looking in, wondering if he'll be hired again. For him
the season of hope has become a season of waiting, of passing
the days by doing things that he has never had the time to do. A
10-day vacation in Italy. Accompanying his only child, Gayla, to
the University of Michigan to help her enroll as a freshman.
Renting out his Florida condominium. Apartment hunting in Boston
with his fiancee, Nola McLennan, so she can be closer to her
sons, Grant and Reed, who live in Presque Isle, Maine. Painting
the modest studio apartment he has rented for himself in
Boston's Back Bay. Working out. Jogging along the Charles River.
Browsing in the shops on nearby Newbury Street, all the while
seething at the injustice of his predicament, stoically waiting
for another coach to fail--the average tenure of NHL coaches is
less than two years--and a phone call inviting him back to the
If there's one thing Keenan is certain of in this time of
uncertainty, it's that he can still win. At every level he has
coached, he has won: a Junior B championship (Oshawa
Legionaires), a minor league championship (Rochester Americans),
a collegiate championship (University of Toronto), a Stanley Cup
and two Canada Cups (Team Canada). He knows the sacrifice that
winning requires. He understands the culture. "I have to have
belief in myself, and I hope I can restore my belief in the
system," Keenan says. "I still have a passion for the game--I've
given most of my life to it--but it gets more difficult every
time you're fired. Your self-confidence can be fractured. With
age, you feel more vulnerable. I've found it extremely difficult."
October 12, 1997
"He's very concerned he won't get the opportunity to coach
again," says Keenan's agent, Rob Campbell, choosing his words
carefully, fearful of further damaging his client's standing in
the hockey community. "Given all the coaching changes that were
made last summer, to have a man of Mike's talent and profile not
in the game is inexplicable. A lot of general managers are
fearful of him coming in and dominating them. It's been a
In fact, the reluctance to hire Keenan is easily explicable.
Everywhere he has been, he has alienated players and management
with his mind games and desire for absolute control. In
Philadelphia, where he took an undermanned Flyers team to the
Cup finals twice between 1984 and '88, Keenan was so
authoritarian that players used to give him Heil Hitler salutes
behind his back, and he finally wore the players out.
Same story in Chicago, where Keenan carried the dual role of
coach and general manager of the Blackhawks. "Eventually he
drove us physically and mentally insane," says former Chicago
forward Steve Thomas. Despite pulling off one of the savviest
trades in Blackhawks history--acquiring future Hall of Fame
defenseman Chris Chelios and a draft choice for an aging Denis
Savard--and leading the Hawks to 60 playoff games in four years,
Keenan was fired when hands-on owner Bill Wirtz perceived him as
thirsting for too much power.
Next stop, New York, where Keenan's Cup-winning year with the
Rangers was marred by a seasonlong feud with general manager
Neil Smith over the makeup of the team. The enmity built to such
proportions that by the time New York won the Cup, Keenan and
Smith could hardly stand the sight of each other. Still, it was
a shock to adoring Rangers fans when Keenan blew off the final
four years of his contract and bolted for St. Louis, where for
the first time he was given total control. Keenan claimed that
the Rangers had breached his contract by sending out his playoff
bonus one day late.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman fined Keenan $100,000 and
suspended him for 60 days for the "unseemly spectacle" he had
created and then issued a gag order forbidding either side from
discussing the settlement, but he allowed Keenan to remain with
the Blues. "I left the Rangers because, fundamentally, Neil
didn't want me there," Keenan says. "He intentionally breached
my contract, but that's in the past, and I want to leave it in
the past. There are two sides to every story, and the truth is
somewhere in the middle."
The situation in St. Louis followed a similar script. In the
strike-shortened 1994-95 season, Keenan's first with the Blues,
the team had the league's fourth-best record but was eliminated
in the first round of the playoffs, and in June the man who had
hired Keenan, chairman of the board Michael Shanahan, was fired
by the Kiel Center Partners, who ran the club.
The next year the Blues' fortunes, and Keenan's, took a
nosedive. He alienated the public by trading fan favorites
Brendan Shanahan and Curtis Joseph and sparred all season with
St. Louis's resident superstar, Brett Hull. In February 1996
Keenan traded for Wayne Gretzky, who would become an
unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and then
failed to sign him to a long-term contract. Even with Gretzky
and Hull, the Blues finished two games below .500 and lost to
the Detroit Red Wings in the second round of the playoffs.
It became apparent that Keenan's days were numbered when the
city turned solidly against him early in the 1996-97 season
after he stripped Hull of his captaincy. "Brett Hull is among
the four most talented players I've ever coached," says Keenan,
who was booed vociferously by the normally polite St. Louis
fans, "but I was unable to convince him that he had to be a
complete team player to win a Stanley Cup. Great players have
needs that have to be satisfied, but the needs of the team have
to be first."
With attendance slipping and the Blues' record a disappointing
15-17-1, club president Jack Quinn pulled the plug on Keenan.
"It hits you like a thunderbolt," Keenan says. St. Louis bought
out the final four years of his contract, but, as was the case
when Keenan left the Rangers, the terms of the settlement
precluded either party from discussing certain particulars of
his years with the Blues. Bettman, Keenan and senior members of
St. Louis management signed the agreement. No finger-pointing.
No name-calling. No assigning blame. "I don't think we can even
talk about the weather in St. Louis," says Campbell, noting that
his client's final payment from the Blues doesn't come due until
January. "Obviously there's a lot of money involved."
Small wonder the other NHL clubs are reluctant to touch Keenan.
Everywhere he goes, he's followed by vitriol and settlements.
The only NHL team that has made Keenan a concrete coaching offer
since he was fired by the Blues is the Boston Bruins, and that
offer was on the table for only a few days. Bruins general
manager Harry Sinden flew to Toronto in May to try to iron out
the terms of a three-year contract with Campbell, but when a
deal wasn't struck at that initial meeting, Sinden went
elsewhere, eventually hiring Pat Burns. "Mike was prepared to be
somewhat reasonable," says Sinden, "but the last thing I needed
was for the situation to be portrayed in the Boston media as the
Bruins' wanting a good coach but not wanting to pay to get him.
I wasn't concerned about Mike's history. I wasn't worried that
Mike Keenan would have a problem with Harry Sinden. We think
somewhat alike. I can't comment on anyone else, but given the
fact that a number of coaches who aren't as qualified as Mike
were hired for more money than he has been asking, I'd have to
speculate that some people have been concerned about those
"I have no idea what went wrong," Keenan says of the Bruins
negotiations. "It was a huge disappointment."
It wasn't the last one he experienced during a long, hot summer
in which Keenan's overtures to teams seeking a coach were
greeted with tepid interest and stony silences. He interviewed
with Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Ken
Dryden and with Phoenix Coyotes general manager Bobby Smith,
while Campbell had four or five conversations with Flyers
general manager Bob Clarke. "We had great discussions with the
Washington Capitals," says Campbell, "and they just died. It was
Blackballed? Keenan rejects that suggestion, though the thought
has crossed his mind that someone in a high place is working
against him. "It's still free enterprise," he says. "For that
reason I haven't had many thoughts about collusion."
He has had general manager and coaching offers from minor league
teams, but Keenan wants to coach in the NHL, preferably this
season, and he isn't insisting on the sort of control he had in
St. Louis. "I don't have a job, so I'm pretty well open to any
offer," he says. "I was prepared to return to the NHL as only a
coach in Boston."
So he waits, making plans he wouldn't have dreamed of making a
year ago. To visit Michigan for parents' weekend. To drive up to
Maine with Nola to visit her kids. To marry Nola over Christmas.
Within driving distance of Boston are half a dozen American
Hockey League teams and at least 20 colleges that play Division
I hockey, and Keenan has plans to take in as many games as he
can. Once a week he'll fly to Toronto to do Junior A telecasts,
on a voluntary basis, to stay up to speed on the young talent.
"Pat Riley told me something this summer," says Keenan,
recalling a conversation he had with the coach of the Miami
Heat, who also left New York amid controversy. "He said that
over time it all would subside and people would put aside the
extraneous elements of my career and focus on what made me
successful. The thing that's confusing to me is, What are the
criteria? What do people want? Success? There's a price you have
to pay for success. Or do they want the status quo? I want to
coach. I'm not prepared to step away from it yet, particularly
after the last two situations. That candle will burn out
someday, but it's very much present today."
It's an apt analogy, for the candle that lights a fire under a
group of men, forging them into a winning team, also burns the
hand that holds on for too long. Every time. Any takers?
Whether he was wearing out the Flyers, overreaching in Chicago
or feuding in New York and St. Louis, where he demoted Hull
(above), Keenan left a trail of hard feelings in his wake.
Here's some of what was said as he left each job.
TEAM YEARS RECORD BEST FINISH
Philadelphia Flyers 1984-88 190-102-28 Stanley Cup finals
in 1985 and '87
Chicago Blackhawks 1988-92 153-126-41 Stanley Cup finals
New York Rangers 1993-94 52-24-8 Won the Stanley
Cup in '94
St. Louis Blues 1994-96 75-66-22 conference
semifinals in '96
"You can only whip some guys so much before you can't revive
them. It got to the point where guys couldn't respond." --FLYERS
WINGER RICK TOCCHET
"Mike got rid of the players he didn't get along with. That was
the way he dealt with [problems]." --BLACKHAWKS CENTER JEREMY
[New York Rangers]
"St. Louis understood there was no breach of contract. The coach
walked out, which he has a tendency to do." --BOB GUTKOWSKI,
PRESIDENT OF MADISON SQUARE GARDEN
[St. Louis Blues]
"If you have a team of superstars, you can let them go. We don't
have that. People need to be given a game plan instead of having
to guess." --BLUES WINGER BRETT HULL
"I have to believe every Flyer is a better player because he
played for Mike Keenan."
"I'm not a power seeker or an egomaniac. I didn't ask for
anything more than what's normal for general managers in the
National Hockey League."
[New York Rangers]
"There was a blatant and deliberate breach. There are some
things about this organization which I'm not at liberty to
discuss, but they are not pleasant."
[St. Louis Blues]
"I felt we had a good situation. The players knew what I
expected, but I wasn't given enough time to turn things around."