"Eventually," says Thomas, "he just drove us physically and mentally insane." Twenty dwarves, twenty dwarves, twenty dwarves....
And it worked. God, did it ever work. He was Coach of the Year in his first season, driving a Flyer team laden with rookies and second-year players to the league's best record and the '85 Stanley Cup finals, in which they fell to the Edmonton Oilers. Two more division titles followed, another march to the finals in '87, with the Flyers denied the Cup again by a superior Edmonton team. He took over the sorry Blackhawks in '88, whipped them to two division titles and an unexpected trip to the '92 Cup finals, at which they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins. In fact, if he stays in the game long enough, nearly every NHL career coaching record will likely come down to a dogfight between him and—of course—Scotty Bowman.
"Mike wouldn't tolerate one bad practice or one bad shift," says Thomas. "That's what made him different. Not one. Not even from a superstar." Poor play he took as a personal insult, one so overwhelming that sometimes, in the middle of a game, he simply stopped coaching. After a loss Mike wanted to trade half the roster. Players, trainers, secretaries, janitors—under Mike they either fell by the wayside or they had their most productive years.
His objective was to make losing so dark and confusing that his team's only choice, its one way out of the tunnel, was to win everything. Anything short of the Stanley Cup was failure. If the anxiety this produced was too much for a half-dozen players each year, well, then, the sooner he learned this, the better, for how could he possibly rely on such men in Game 7 of the finals? And so he was forever testing them, rolling little sticks of dynamite beneath their feet—Does your father work, Tony? Does he work hard? Why don't you work that hard, Tony?—forever demanding more, until their heads spun so fast, they could no longer be sure what the correct answer was. Did he want them to bend over backward to show him how committed they were? Or did he want them to stand up and challenge him, prove their integrity, their spine? There was no correct answer, the smart ones finally realized; anxiety was the goal. Riddle me this: If his own pain and confusion had created such a vast hunger to win, didn't he owe each of his players a personal heaping of pain and confusion?
In his words: "Teams get too cozy. I don't like cozy. You can't win with flat-liners, not even with self-motivated flat-liners. You go first-class in everything, you give them clarity, cleanliness and comfort...and then you introduce confusion if need be. If you feel a sigh of relief on your team, even for a moment—bang!—you've got to shake them up. There must be a dynamic. If I'm completely unpredictable, the players have to stay focused. They have to always be thinking, When is the sonofabitch gonna call on me? I learn instantly who can be rocked."
His teams had camaraderie; his vision was so white hot, it fused them. There were delights as well as horrors around each hairpin curve. On a day's notice, during a break in the schedule, his players were suddenly flying to a lovely mountain resort for a three-day retreat. He took them to fashion shows, musicals and movies. He could spend hours driving around, talking with a player who had lost his father; could spend thousands of dollars buying everyone, even the locker room broom man, beautiful Christmas gifts. So deeply did he install himself inside the psyches of his men that when they suddenly found that they were no longer part of the crusade, they were unsure whether to feel relief, sadness or rage.
Thomas: "I know what it takes to win because of Mike."
Zezel: "He taught me things that have added five goals a year."
Robertson: "Every player he has will be critical of him, but every player wants to play for him and win the Cup."
Even Bobby Clarke, the general manager who fired Mike in Philadelphia, says, "In hindsight I probably should've changed some of the players instead of Mike." Perhaps all the conflicting feelings he left behind were inevitable, radiating from the contradiction at Mike's core. The same man who could blame the world for his actions, who at times felt like such a victim, was the one whose whole life was based on the Double A premise that a man with guts and heart could become whatever he wished. The contradictions became so glaring that one night, when the man the Flyers called Adolf rented a hotel ballroom for a party and grabbed the microphone to sing with the band, his players flopped on the floor like fish at his urging and hoisted him so high that he banged his head on the shimmering disco ball.