To allude only to Gatsby, however, would be to slight Bugsy. Bugsy was Benjamin Siegel, the real-life 1940s gangster depicted in Bugsy, the Warren Beatty movie that struck Mike with nearly the same visceral wallop as The Great Gatsby had. "The similarities between Mike and Bugsy are uncanny," notes a friend. Bugsy, like Gatsby, was an extravagant criminal who staked his life on a long-shot dream: the construction of a posh casino-hotel in the Nevada desert that would eventually blossom into Las Vegas. To steel himself, to suffocate any remorse after killing someone, Bugsy repeated over and over a phrase: Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.
Mike memorized the phrase and recited it to friends. Now that he was an NHL coach, hired by the Flyers in 1984, the stakes were even higher, and surely he recognized the utility of such a mantra. Twenty just happened to be the number of men who suit up for an NHL game.
"He'd get Peter Zezel in the stick room between periods and motivate the hell out of him," hints Flyer fitness specialist Pat Croce. Twenty dwarves took turns..."It wasn't just me," says Zezel. "He'd throw sticks at other players"...doing handstands on the carpet....
"My temper is only a tool," says Mike. "I lose my temper for the right reason, to make players better."
He skated straight at players who made mistakes in practice, as if he were going to knock them heels over head, then came to a halt inches away. In his office he stood over a seated player, brandishing a hockey stick and seething as the player cowered, thinking he was about to be hit.
"Most people think I enjoy conflict," Mike says. "I hate it. Rita and I never argued or shouted, even at the end. I saw so much conflict when I was young, I'm sick of it. I'd walk away from doing those things to players, and I'd feel awful inside."
Twenty dwarves took turns.... "Who haven't I benched this year yet?" he would ask an assistant coach. He would get a name and then bench that player, just to make him wonder if he could play a little harder. "He pitted you against your teammates," says ex-Blackhawk Steve Thomas. "He always made you feel you were letting them down." In Philadelphia he gave Ron Sutter an ultimatum: Play better, or else your brother Rich won't dress for games.
"The owners gave me——, so I gave it to the players," Mike says. "I felt I owed it to the owners to be that way. I came into the NHL as a complete unknown. They'd given me an opportunity."
Twenty dwarves took turns.... He shut off the locker room lights between periods and left his team in darkness. He called for practices at 11:59 a.m. just so that players would scratch their heads and wonder why.
"I carried this fear every game," Mike says. "The fear that this would be the last game I'd ever coach. The media read me all wrong. They thought I was arrogant. I was really just scared. It's a great way to hide fear."