Trouble in paradise
Firing Keenan doesn't solve Panthers' problems
Posted: Sunday November 9, 2003 2:48PM; Updated: Sunday November 9, 2003 7:24PM
They say coaches are hired to get fired, but that adage especially holds true if you are Mike Keenan.
But even with Iron Mike's reputation for being a vagabond, quick-fix coach who is difficult to work for -- he has been fired four times in the past seven years -- most observers thought Keenan would win the power struggle with general manager Rick Dudley.
Instead it's Keenan who's gone, with Dudley taking over Keenan's role behind the bench in addition to his GM duties. Keenan's close relationship with team owner Alan Cohen was believed to be a strong factor in Keenan's long-term future with the club -- along with a multiyear contract that was extended Aug. 16, 2002, through the 2005-06 season at just over $1 million per season, with two one-year options that could have taken it through 2008.
"Everyone thought that Keenan would win the fight," a source with knowledge of the organization told SI.com. "Keenan really seemed to have Cohen in his pocket. They were always together, and Keenan would even take out Cohen's boat. Keenan had a lot of power. There must have been some sort of change, maybe when money started getting tight, to the point where even Keenan was concerned about money. But no one saw this coming. Everyone thought the end result would be that Rick would get fired and Mike would be the GM and coach. Never in a million years did we think that Mike would get fired and Rick would do both."
Keenan has served in the dual role of head coach and GM with Vancouver, Chicago, St. Louis in the NHL and for Team Canada for the 1991 Canada Cup. Dudley has done double duty only with the Detroit Vipers of the IHL for 1 1/2 seasons in the mid-'90s.
Something must have changed in the past few weeks to get Cohen to side with Dudley, because as recently as five weeks ago the owner was furious with Dudley after the Panthers lost backup goaltender Jani Hurme in the 2003 Waiver Draft due to an error by the GM. Cohen was clearly in Keenan's camp after that, so some major fallout must have taken place between Cohen and Keenan for the Panthers to be willing to pay out the remainder of his sizeable contract.
The hiring of Keenan two years ago can be called into question because of his philosophical differences with Dudley, which were known before the two were paired up. Keenan doesn't like coaching European players, whom he views as soft, but Dudley favors the skilled, skating Euros. Their conflict resembled the situation in Chicago that resulted in Mike Smith's firing as Blackhawks general manager two weeks ago, the big difference in the Windy City being that Brian Sutter remained as head coach while GM Smith got a pink slip.
The Panthers' owners seemed to believe that because they had a great coach they wouldn't have to spend money on superstar players and that Keenan would coach their young players into stars. But he didn't stick around long enough to see that through to fruition.
Though no one saw it coming, the players are likely to have a party in celebration of Keenan's ouster. The old-school bench boss was despised by almost all the Panthers, who may have enjoyed the initial intensity boost that Keenan always gives to a club upon arrival but then fell victim to the incessant harping and negative air he brings to a locker room.
Even on a young team like Florida's, Keenan never took any responsibility for the losses and would point the finger elsewhere. He preached accountability -- that favorite buzzword of all NHL locker rooms -- yet never practiced it.
Keenan coaches like an army sergeant running a boot camp, and his style wears thin on people after a short time. This pattern has followed him in each of his past five coaching stops. The 54-year-old Keenan coached the Panthers for 23 months (153 games), almost the same length of time he spent in Boston (74), Vancouver (108), St. Louis (163) and New York (84) in his previous four coaching stops after having 320-game stints with Chicago and Philadelphia early in his career. Iron Mike may be fourth in NHL history in games coached (1,222) and victories (584), but one must wonder if he's worn out his welcome around the league.
It's been nearly 12 years since Dudley last coached in the NHL with the Buffalo Sabres, though he coached the former IHL San Diego Gulls, Phoenix Roadrunners and Detroit Vipers since then. Dudley is known to have a bit of a temper, too, though he will seem like a choir boy compared with Keenan.
In general, the Panthers seem to have a lack of organizational direction, with each front-office person reporting directly to Cohen rather than to a team president. Bill Torrey was formerly the president, but he was quietly stripped of that title about a year ago and is now just an alternate governor. With no singular point person below the owner who has both hockey and business knowledge, the Panthers are set up for internal strife, with factions forming among those who report directly to Cohen.
The Panthers didn't give raises in 2002-03 to many employees, and rumors of financial woes suggest they may be one of the franchises that could be most negatively affected by an owners' lockout in 2004.
And there is a feeling of paranoia surrounding the organization. The Panthers fired a longtime executive assistant who handled paperwork for player contracts because her husband took a job as the PR director for the Miami Manatees of the WHA2, a league that is three rungs below the NHL and the equivalent to Class A baseball. The Manatees pose no threat to the Panthers either talent-wise and attendance-wise. Playing in the Panthers' former home of Miami Arena (some 35 miles away from the Office Depot Center in suburban Sunrise, Fla.), the Manatees drew just 2,255 to their inaugural game Saturday night.
The Panthers have brought a slew of younger people into the organization to attempt to market it in a different manner. But they are trying the same old ideas that haven't worked in this bandwagon, non-traditional hockey market since the team arrived in 1993. The Panthers have sold out the Office Depot Center just 26 times since moving there to start the 1998-99 season, and their 16,073 attendance is only 86.4 percent of the building's capacity.
"They still don't get that it takes a winning team," the source said. "You can give away hot dogs up the ying-yang, but people just want to see a team win."
Even with talented youngsters like Jay Bouwmeester, Nathan Horton, Kristian Huselius, Olli Jokinen, Roberto Luongo and Stephen Weiss on their roster, it doesn't look like winning hockey will come to South Florida anytime soon.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.