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Gary Smith
May 08, 1995
The inner conflicts that drive St. Louis Blues coach Mike Keenan to succeed also make him the most reviled man in hockey.
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May 08, 1995

Torn Asunder

The inner conflicts that drive St. Louis Blues coach Mike Keenan to succeed also make him the most reviled man in hockey.

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Sing us a song, you 're the Piano Man
Sing us a song tonight
Well, we're all in the mood for a melody
And you've got us feelin' all right

...waiting for his flabbergasted listener to realize that the performance was all just bravado and bunkum, a player piano activated by a programmed disc. This Mike, with the blue musical note tattooed on his back and the green shamrock high on his thigh, this free spirit ripping through the countryside on his Harley-Davidson Fat Boy—how had things gotten so twisted that almost no one knew he existed? All those terrible things he had been whispered to have done to players—didn't people understand that they were simply tactics he used to excel in a world where the only measure of a man's worth was performance, and that they had little to do with him? That the four trips to the Stanley Cup finals he had made, the Calder Cup he won in the American Hockey League, the two Canada Cups and the Canadian national collegiate championship justified every ugly bit of business along the way? "You have to understand," says Gary Green, a friend of Mike's and a former NHL coach, "this man is two totally different people."

As for Mike himself, he seemed to sense that another self lay one layer closer to bedrock, one level beneath cither of the contrasting faces he showed to his friends and to the hockey world. He was still standing over me, watching me thumb through The Great Gatsby, as I came to another underscored sentence: He had been full of the idea so long, dreamed it right through to the end, waited with his teeth set, so to speak, at an inconceivable pitch of intensity.

Yes, Mike said, his jaws ached in the morning, he ground his teeth so hard at night. He continually cricked his neck, trying to undo the tension. He didn't need much sleep. "Humans overrate sleep," he said. "I've trained myself to sleep from two to six."

He was a dreamer, wide awake. That was the thing one might never suspect of a person so tautly controlled. He would stand for hours on the deck of his lake cottage or on his high-rise balcony, staring at water or sky, dreaming. "I was a visionary even as a kid," he said. "I just wasn't as preoccupied until I got older. One of the problems with being a visionary is I could see things in people that they just couldn't bring themselves to do. I'd picture the whole and then break it into all the little parts. People have this image of me as a knee-jerk decision-maker. But there's almost nothing I do that I haven't thought about for months, down to the smallest detail. You can't compromise on details, because details are what lead to the whole." He smiled. "You may think I'm——nuts. But that's O.K., because I am."

It was ritual now, with each team he took over, each fresh start. He would sweep through the locker room, a fleet of assistant coaches, trainers, therapists, physiologists, equipment managers, public relations personnel, video experts and carpenters trailing him as he pointed left and right, barking, "Change this. Move that. This shouldn't be here. We need more space here. More light there." Who understood better than he the power of atmosphere and image, the dynamic of the fresh start? What land yearned for it more than his new country, forever turning on televisions and opening magazines for yet another dose? When Mike was done, there would be a crisp new coat of paint in the team's colors. A new carpet with the design of a hockey rink would cover the floor. A state-of-the-art video system would fill one side room, a squadron of exercise bicycles would fill another, and a killer stereo system would pump adrenaline-jacking music into every nook and crevice.

The garbage can in his locker room would know its place, and those little balls of discarded tape had better, too. If the players were wearing red socks in practice, they had to wear red tape; white tape with white socks, black with black; off the ice with you if you didn't match. That stick rack, that Gatorade table—clearly they conveyed more order, more success, when arranged in the far corners than the near ones. Soon, as he traveled around the league, there would be grown men, gentlemen of integrity, entering every visiting locker room minutes before he did, stomachs in knots, asking themselves, Is the room right for Mike?

The centerpiece in the home locker room, of course, would be the framed color photograph of the Stanley Cup, ceiling track lights focused on it in the way that crucifixes are illuminated behind altars. After all, as he would promise fans in a new city: "We're going to do everything we can to bring the chalice here. The Holy Grail. You have to go through hell to get it."

Most dreamers were vague—floaters in the fuzzy glow of the scenes they imagined. A rare and dangerous thing was the dreamer who squinted, who insisted ruthlessly upon the particulars of his vision. A rare and dangerous thing was a man who would subordinate his popularity, his family, his past to his dream. "I gave up sanity to chase the dream," Mike says. "That's why I win, I guess. I'm willing to pay the ultimate price. Whether it's worth it or not, it's my choice. You preserve your integrity when you do that. You have to have that purity to be a champion." A glint enters his eyes. "It's a good life," he says, "if you don't weaken...."


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