"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.