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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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So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a 17-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.

In the autumn of 1973, at the training camp of the World Hockey Association's Vancouver Blazers, fate brought Mike Keenan and Jimmy Adair together. Mike approached him, shook his hand and thanked him for saving Mike's life. Jimmy, who had never met Mike before, just blinked.

Jimmy Adair was the chance event, the distant random molecular movement that led to the invention of the man we see today behind the Blues' bench—shoulders extraordinarily square, arms folded, eyes squinting, head tilted back as if he were sniffing the air for something akin to his own excellence but never expecting to find it. Jimmy was the kid who accepted and then backed out of St. Lawrence University's sixth hockey scholarship in 1968, propelling a man to walk up to Mike and ask the 5'7" teenager with the C-plus average if he would care to attend a small, prestigious, private American university for next to nothing.

Mike could have screamed Yes! He could have seized the man by the lapels and dragged him to the General Motors plant in Oshawa, Ont., where Mike's father would work for 31 years, his uncle Bob for 35, his uncle Bill for 38 and his grandfather, the poor bastard, for 51—that vast, squat corrugated-metal factory with its forest of smokestacks, one of them just waiting, waiting to suck Mike inside it, too. Mike could have dragged the man inside the brick box house in Whitby, one of Oshawa's little satellite towns, where for years Mike had flinched while his parents were at each other's throats. He could have jerked the man's head up to the stars that Mike had been staring at as long as he could remember, full of a hunger so ferocious that it frightened him because he had no clue what could fill it.

Instead he just swallowed and nodded.

His parents drove him across the Canadian border and dropped him off at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. Yes, Mike could have screamed. Around him were beautiful brick buildings, facilities the likes of which he had never seen before. There were 18-year-old girls unloading horses they had brought to school in trailers, young men carrying skis to use at St. Lawrence's lodge in the Adirondacks. Kids from all across America—what kind of land was this, where a teenager might travel several thousand miles to attend college? Kids noticing his hockey jacket and welcoming him—didn't he know that hockey was St. Lawrence's only big-time sport, that anyone who would lace on skates to lead the team against Michigan and Harvard and Cornell was automatically someone special? Yes, yes! Mike could have screamed, but instead he just closed the car door and waved to his parents as they headed back north. He wouldn't call them Mom and Dad anymore. He would call them Thelma and Theodore. Nothing personal, but they could have kept driving all the way to the Polar icecap, the way he felt that day. That life, that Mike, was done.

"The second our feet hit the ground," recalls Gary Webb, another Canadian hockey player at St. Lawrence, "we absolutely loved it! Mike and I would just look at each other and say, 'Double A!' It was our signal word. It meant all-American. Every time we got excited—it could be over a blonde walking across the quad, or a great party—we'd say, 'Double A!' It meant, This country's great! Let's go for it! A place where you cither made it on your own or you didn't, where you could go as far as your creativity and convictions could take you. No more socialist crap, no government to bail you out or unions to protect your ass, no laid-back approach to life like we'd both grown up with in Canada. For people like him and me, St. Lawrence and America were paradise. Double A!"

How many noticed what was digging inside of Mike, the burr from his past that would go with him each step of his journey: Am I worthy? "Here I was, this poor Canadian country kid," Mike says. "Did I belong there? I felt I owed it to that school to fit in, to survive. They had given me my chance."

He flunked out after his freshman year. He cried. "Ejection from paradise," his pal Webb called it. Mike looped a tie around his throat, prayed feverishly to the god he had once served as an altar boy and walked into the dean's office, begging for one more chance. The gate to paradise creaked open a crack. Mike would have to sit out one semester, somehow earn enough to pay St. Lawrence's considerable tuition the following semester and pass all his courses to regain his scholarship. There was only one place for him to turn—back to the brick box house, to the GM plant waiting to bend one more Keenan over an assembly line.

The jungle line, workers called the section Mike was assigned to that summer and fall. Every 10 seconds another car rolled before him to be spot-welded—another spray of sparks hitting his goggles, blackening his teeth and spit, scorching his eyebrows and hair, another man's features vanishing in the thickening blue smoke. He worked 12-hour shifts to earn most of the money, his father made up the difference by cashing in a life insurance policy, and Mike raced for the exit his last day on the job, shouting as he hit fresh air, "You'll never see me here again!"

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