"Of course, it wasn't the one-day-late payment of the playoff bonus," says Webb. "Mike couldn't stand Neil Smith. To him Smith was the ultimate spineless corporate wimp, and Mike was floored when the Rangers wouldn't let him run the operation after he'd delivered them their first Cup in 54 years. What else did he have to do?"
Keenan and the Rangers, of course, have wildly contrasting versions of the events, but a league gag order on the case prevented either from publicly going into details. So it depends on whom you want to believe: the people, like one member of the Rangers, who say, "Winning with Mike Keenan made you feel like a whore," who point out that Mike, even during the playoffs, vowed that he was committed to staying, even though a member of the Detroit Red Wings' front office later claimed that Mike's agent had already made contact about the Red Wings' then vacant coaching job. Or do you believe Mike, who swears that he was going to be kicked out the door by Smith as soon as the Rangers slumped? Mike, who even after he had finally clasped the chalice and attained his dream, still seemed to smell the smokestacks of the GM plant waiting to suck him in? Mike, whose past somehow hadn't gone away after all?
But the deed was done. Mike was running the Blues, he had the fresh start.... So why was it that it didn't feel fresh? All the old anecdotes and vitriol followed him, the horror stories dredged up again until he was ready to explode. He thought he had an understanding with his new country, one more inviolable than his pact with the Rangers. You succeed, and the past is forgotten. You move, you leave people behind, but that's permitted too if you win. Wasn't that the promise he had smelled in the air when he crossed the border a quarter of a century ago?
"You can have all the stories and all the——, and all the reporters and players can call you a sonofabitch, but at the end of the day you've either won or lost, and that's all that matters," Mike snaps. The more he thought about it, the more bewildered he became, the more cheated he felt. "Ask all those players now: Did they mind going to the Stanley Cup finals? They say I burnt them out—screw that. It's——, all these complaints, and it pisses me off, and I'm sick of hearing them. Most of it's from a lot of——lazy writers. They regurgitate these stories over and over and never give my side. No one writes about all the good things I've done for players. I'm not going to go around telling people that. I'm not a——p.r. guy. And so 10 percent of my personality is always written about, never the 100 percent. I won't take responsibility for that. A monster's been created, and now everyone wants to come see the monster. Now I do need a huge p.r. machine to deal with it. I'll tell you one thing, my p.r. department better do their——job."
And besides, he insists, it's all irrelevant anyway, because he finally has the authority to trade players, finally has been given the power that will allow him to be more human. "I can coach in a far more palatable way now," he says. "I can surround myself with people who are willing to go the distance. I've realized I can't change people. I can only change the teams they play on. I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired. You reach a point where you have enough security, and you say, 'I'm just not going to do it anymore.' Ask the players I coached last year who knew me from before. I'm a lot more patient, so these questions don't apply to me now."
But, Mike, what about what you said about the manhood of the four Russians on the Rangers when you cornered them last season?
"Hey, my reputation precedes me now, so I don't have to be that way anymore," he says. "Fear is a factor already. So I can be softer and be a lot more effective."
But what about....
"Look, I've come to realize I'm a decent human being, and I'm a goddamned good coach, and I've had enough of people running over me."