There is one difference this time. No one acts surprised. Mike Keenan is bulldozing his fourth NHL franchise in nine seasons, and by now everyone in the hockey universe understands that this is what the man does for a living. He tears professional hockey teams apart and puts them back together, and he does it with all the warmth and tenderness of one of those guys who club baby seals. You hire Keenan, you know there will be casualties.
The St. Louis Blues knew. They knew what they were getting when they signed Keenan to a five-year, $10 million contract in the summer of 1994. One year later, while many softhearted St. Louis fans were hoping he would get bored and go away, the Blues' owners did a strange thing. They added a sixth year to Keenan's contract. Apparently, they weren't too disappointed that the coach still hadn't discovered his sensitive side.
Keenan, hockey's most notorious mercenary, says he would like to stay with the Blues for the life of his contract, which means that, unlike a lot of things in St. Louis, the Blues definitely aren't going to be dull. It also means the team will have a good shot at playing in the Stanley Cup finals at some point. Keenan's teams tend to do that. The Philadelphia Flyers (1985 and '87), the Chicago Blackhawks ('92) and the New York Rangers ('94) all went to the finals under Keenan, with the Rangers winning the Cup in his only season on Broadway. "I'd like to be in one place and help build an organization," says Keenan. "The goal is not to win a Stanley Cup. The goal is to win many Stanley Cups."
Keenan insists he has matured and mellowed in his 11th season as an NHL coach, but he still prefers to keep everyone, from players and reporters to Zamboni drivers and skate sharpeners, on their toes. "He still has an aura about him," says right wing Brian Noonan, who has played for Keenan in Chicago, New York and now St. Louis. "He thinks if you keep people on edge, they'll play better."
Of course, if they don't play better, Keenan sometimes chooses to shove them over the edge. At week's end the Blues were 8-9-2 and six points out of first place in the Central Division. They were one of the big disappointments of the first month of the NHL season, and Keenan, as always, exhibited all the patience and understanding of a meter maid with bad feet.
Already this season he has suspended veteran goaltender Grant Fuhr for showing up at training camp out of shape, scratched center Dale Hawerchuk in front of friends and family in a game at Buffalo, traded forward Esa Tikkanen to the New Jersey Devils for a third-round draft pick, and removed the captain's C from the jersey of Brett Hull. And that doesn't even include the rash of off-season moves that made Iron Mike the least popular man on the banks of the Mississippi.
Among the favorite sons he shipped out of town during the summer were 50-goal forward Brendan Shanahan, who was dealt to the Hartford Whalers for 21-year-old defenseman Chris Pronger; and goaltender Curtis Joseph, who went to the Edmonton Oilers, essentially for two No. 1 draft picks. For the most part St. Louis fans have reacted to Keenan's moves as if he had traded the Stan Musial statue to Colorado for a case of Coors. "I'm a risk taker," Keenan says. "Some people might view me as extraordinary in that area. But you have to take risks to improve a franchise."
None of Keenan's actions caused more of a stir than his treatment of the Golden Brett. Keenan said the decision to strip Hull of his captaincy was made in October by "three experienced coaches," dragging assistants Bob Berry and Roger Neilson into the fray. Together, he says, they concluded that newly acquired forward Shayne Corson was better suited to serve as captain this season. Keenan said the move was nothing personal, but Hull took offense. "The heck it's not personal," Hull said at the time. "It's a complete slap in the face. I've changed my whole game for him, and that's not good enough."
Michael and Lisa Marie have nothing on Hull and Keenan. It is a fascinating relationship between two headstrong hockey legends who will have to get along if the Blues are going to win anything. Hull is outspoken, upbeat and outrageously popular in the land of the Blues. Even Keenan would have a hard time pulling the trigger on any trade involving Hull. "You hear rumors, but it could never happen," says one player. "The city just wouldn't allow it."
In a loss at Buffalo on Oct. 22, Keenan kept Hull on the bench for much of the third period. After the game he said Hull "took the night off." The next day, off came the C. While Hull initially was steamed, he soon accepted the move and even expressed some relief. "At first I was kind of upset and thinking, God, what are people going to think of me now? I must look like a loser," says the 31-year-old right wing. "Then I phoned Allison [his girlfriend] at home, and I told her, and she said, 'Who cares? It was a pain in the butt anyway.' "