For Keenan, the Ice Age is history Blackhawks' coach likes warming trend

May 27, 1992|By Gary Miles | Gary Miles,Knight-Ridder News Service

PITTSBURGH -- Remember that grouchy guy who coached the Philadelphia Flyers for four seasons and into two championship finals, before getting fired for being too tough? He's finally lightened up, and he likes it.

By his own admission, Mike Keenan is as happy and contented as he's ever been. If you didn't know that the Stanley Cup finals had gotten under way last night, you might have thought Keenan had already won the NHL's biggest prize.

"I'm relaxed," said Keenan, whose Chicago Blackhawks played the Pittsburgh Penguins last night in Game 1 of the best-of-seven Stanley Cup final series at the Civic Arena. "I'm enjoying this a great deal, more so than ever before."

That's right, Philadelphia. Mike Keenan, 51, is no longer the ranting maniac he was -- he admitted he used to get out of hand at times -- when he coached the Flyers from 1984 to 1988.

Keenan has matured in the four seasons he has worked for the Blackhawks, and has taken this team of equally mature players to the brink of achieving hockey's greatest goal.

The difference between then and now for Keenan boils down to security. Keenan also is the general manager of the Blackhawks, and therefore his existence in the NHL no longer is determined by the outcome of a game or two. He has peace of mind.

"You have a vision of what you'd like to accomplish, and you have the ability to exercise that opportunity," Keenan said of the advantages of being a general manager. "That makes a great deal of difference. . . . I always felt in the early part of my career that -- to be honest -- if we didn't win the next game, I'd be out of a job. I've come to the point now where I may be out of a job, but that's the way it goes.

"I think it's time to enjoy it."

In the old days in Philadelphia, Keenan worked more in a survival mode.

"Most guys last, if you're lucky, maybe 160 games in the NHL," Keenan said. "If you have a very successful first run at it and you're very tough on people and very demanding, you're in a survival situation. You have to beat the odds. Then the expectation levels go up."

The problem with the Flyers back then was that the results never quite met the expectations. And, it seemed to Keenan, no one ever took into account the circumstances he had to face.

Goaltender Pelle Lindbergh, the Vezina Trophy winner in 1985, was killed in a car crash two months into Keenan's second season. Brad McCrimmon, one of the Flyers' best defensemen, was traded away a few months before his final season. And Tim Kerr and Dave Poulin always seemed to come up lame in the playoffs.

"I've learned some things along the way," Keenan said. "I've made a lot of mistakes. You're always on a time line when you're coaching. In the financial industry, you're working on four quarterly reports. In hockey, you've got 80. So you're only as good as your last report."

If that's true, Keenan is a pretty good coach right now. The Blackhawks entered the finals with an 11-game playoff winning streak, an NHL record. They won three straight games to come back and eliminate St. Louis and then swept Detroit and Edmonton in the Campbell Conference playoffs.

The Blackhawks had a nice little regular season, too. True, they finished second in the Norris Division, 11 points behind Detroit. But they finished second to Montreal in team defense and to the New York Rangers in penalty killing. And only the Rangers played better in the second half of the season.

Keenan, the first coach in NHL history to win 40 or more games in each of his first three seasons and the third to win 300 games in seven or fewer seasons, said his no-nonsense style of coaching works well with veteran players such as Chicago's Chris Chelios, Steve Larmer, Brent Sutter and Steve Smith.

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