Keenan makes change in plans, decides future is with Chicago


October 18, 1992|By Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Just a month ago, Mike Keenan was thinking about leaving the Chicago Blackhawks after this season and seeking a coaching job next year with another National Hockey League team.

"That was certainly an option I had in mind," confessed the general manager, who has helped steer the organization on a winning course in his first four years and masterminded last season's overdue run into the Stanley Cup finals.

The plan he contemplated privately was to complete the one season remaining on his original five-year contract. He would then put himself on the open market and accept the highest bid from another team next summer, returning to the NHL as a coach and, he hoped, a general manager as well.

Instead, Keenan said Friday he has agreed to terms with Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz on a new five-year contract as general manager. He will earn between $375,000 and $425,000 a year.

But Wirtz and Keenan also agreed that he will coach again if rookie coach Darryl Sutter fails. Sutter took over this season from Keenan, who had been both coach and general manager the last two seasons.

It will be a management judgment that decides if Sutter isn't meeting their expectations. But if the Blackhawks are mired in third or fourth in the Norris Division come February, Sutter's job could hang in the balance.

"No one is hoping it doesn't work out for Darryl, but I made a commitment to Mr. Wirtz on a backup plan," Keenan said. "At the age of 42 I don't consider my coaching career is absolutely over.

"I love to coach, and I have the ability to do a good job. It's been a difficult transition for me to leave coaching this season, but I'm prepared to do what I have to do. I made the decision to hire Darryl, and, hopefully, it will work out."

Alan Eagleson, Keenan's agent, was asked what the chances are in his opinion that Keenan will coach again. "I wouldn't bet my house against it," he said with a laugh.

Eagelson added, "Bob Pulford [senior vice president] and Bill Wirtz made it clear to Mike in the negotiations that the coaching ranks include him if the team gets into a situation where they have to make a change. The same was true when Pulford was general manager. He came back to coach.

"The problem Mike had was that in signing a five-year deal to be general manager, it looked as if he might never coach again. He wasn't prepared to admit that. He thought about riding out the one year left on his contract and going to the highest bidder."

Keenan offered a simple explanation for his long-term commitment to the Blackhawks with no assurances he will coach them again.

"My family," he said. "My daughter, Gayla, told me she was willing to move again if I had made the other choice. But that she would like the opportunity to attend one high school if she could."

Gayla, 14, finishes grammar school next spring. She plans to attend New Trier High School next fall.

Keenan said Gayla and his wife, Rita, who is close to getting a third master's degree -- this one in social work from Loyola -- didn't want to leave Chicago.

"They love it here, and their welfare was the basic reason I XTC decided not to pursue other opportunities at the end of this season," he said.

When he stepped down as coach this summer, Keenan also cited his family and the wish to be more available to his daughter.

Keenan kept nervously rubbing his hands at his desk in the Stadium when pressed Friday about his future in coaching. He knew this subject was especially touchy since Sutter's coaching career is four games old and off to an unsettled 1-2-1 start going into Saturday night's game in Toronto.

"I'm not going to be old five years from now," he said, implying that if he had to wait that long to reassess his coaching career that he would have plenty of energy left at the age of 47.

Keenan obviously can be fired at any time. But could he also walk out on his five-year deal if he decides to coach another club?

"I'm sure Mr. Wirtz would review any situation if I brought it up," he said.

Wirtz told Keenan during the summer he could keep the coaching job this season if he wanted it. Does Keenan now regret rejecting the position after eight straight years coaching in the NHL, four of them with the Philadelphia Flyers before coming to Chicago?

"Regret's not the right word," he said. "I took this step for the growth of the organization. We weren't good enough as a team last spring [losing to Pittsburgh in the championship round]. I have to try and secure the players that will perpetuate our growth as an organization.

"But I may coach again some day . . . and I may not."


He sounded more convinced himself by the first prospect.

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