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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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He read all the motivational and management books, picked the brains of all the men he met in corporate America. In a few years he would begin to dress as they dressed—in dark blue suits and crisp white $100 monogrammed shirts—and to talk in CEO-speak too. His old buddies from St. Lawrence knew it was all just an artist's conception; one of them, Tim Pelyk, approached Mike at a party and gave one of those $100 shirts a button-bursting neck-to-navel rip, just to be sure that Mike knew that, too. Perhaps that's why Mike wore the tattoos and that white shirt with the hole near the armpit under his suit now and then: hidden memos to himself that he wasn't a clone, that he was still the most devout Double A individualist in the land.

No, others speculated, the hole near the armpit was a bullet hole. Mike grabbed players by their jerseys, right at the throat, and screamed in their faces. He instituted curfews on team buses: lights out, total silence. Against Nova Scotia his entire team rose in horror at a blunder that let in the game-tying goal, and Mike knocked over the bench in a rage. "Sit down!" he screamed, and so traumatized were the players that 14 fannies hit the deck.

"Yvon Lambert told him to back off, or he wouldn't be alive today," recalls Rochester's leading scorer that year, Geordie Robertson. "It was clash after clash after clash. Each team Mike coaches needs a player who has won four or five Stanley Cups, like a Mark Messier or a Lambert, to tell him to slow down. He'd panic sometimes. He'd go into the coaching office between periods and pull into himself, go into a shell, and you'd be on pins and needles because you could feel he was ready to explode. But he was the greatest practice coach ever, ran the shortest and most productive practices you've ever seen."

The Death Skate occurred during a losing streak in 1983, Mike's third year at Rochester. Two hours of nonstop skating, no water, players crumpling on the ice, players vomiting. "I was panicking," recalls trainer Jim Pizzatelli. The team won 20 of its next 24 games and the Calder Cup. Mike and the Cup slept together that night in Portland, Maine.

But no reward came from Bowman, no promotion to the Sabres. Mike was 33, for god's sake, stuck under his mentor's thumb, and life was evaporating. A man who would order his team's traveling secretary to enter the cockpit when their plane was stuck in a holding pattern and instruct the pilot to land the plane now...did you expect him to wait?

"The whole point of life to me," says Mike, "is to risk." He stunned Bowman by taking a job as coach at the University of Toronto, knowing the only way it wouldn't be seen as a backward career step was if he won the Canadian national championship in '84. Which he promptly did.

He consented to a one-week vacation in Fort Lauderdale that spring with Rita and their five-year-old daughter, Gayla. Mike holed up in their motel room with a typewriter and wrote a position paper, informing the Philadelphia Flyers how he would win them a Stanley Cup. The essay was filled with sentences such as: "In this paper I hope to be able to integrate the general and the particular, the theoretical and the practical, the idealistic and the realistic, into a final presentation which projects an accurate image of me as both a person and a manager-coach."

Gayla learned to swim that week in Fort Lauderdale. Rita told Mike all about it.

He had intended, probably, to take what he could and go—but now he found that he had committed himself to the following of a grail.


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