The next year the Blues' fortunes, and Keenan's, took a nosedive. He alienated the public by trading fan favorites Brendan Shanahan and Curtis Joseph and sparred all season with St. Louis's resident superstar. Brett Hull. In February 1996 Keenan traded for Wayne Gretzky, who would become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and then failed to sign him to a long-term contract. Even with Gretzky and Hull, the Blues finished two games below .500 and lost to the Detroit Red Wings in the second round of the playoffs.
It became apparent that Keenan's days were numbered when the city turned solidly against him early in the 1996-97 season after he stripped Hull of his captaincy. "Brett Hull is among the four most talented players I've ever coached," says Keenan, who was booed vociferously by the normally polite St. Louis fans, "but I was unable to convince him that he had to be a complete team player to win a Stanley Cup. Great players have needs that have to be satisfied, but the needs of the team have to be first."
With attendance slipping and the Blues' record a disappointing 15-17-1, club president Jack Quinn pulled the plug on Keenan. "It hits you like a thunderbolt," Keenan says. St. Louis bought out the final four years of his contract, but, as was the case when Keenan left the Rangers, the terms of the settlement precluded either party from discussing certain particulars of his years with the Blues. Bettman, Keenan and senior members of St. Louis management signed the agreement. No finger-pointing. No name-calling. No assigning blame. "I don't think we can even talk about the weather in St. Louis," says Campbell, noting that his client's final payment from the Blues doesn't come due until January. "Obviously there's a lot of money involved."
Small wonder the other NHL clubs are reluctant to touch Keenan. Everywhere he goes, he's followed by vitriol and settlements. The only NHL team that has made Keenan a concrete coaching offer since he was fired by the Blues is the Boston Bruins, and that offer was on the table for only a few days. Bruins general manager Harry Sinden flew to Toronto in May to try to iron out the terms of a three-year contract with Campbell, but when a deal wasn't struck at that initial meeting, Sinden went elsewhere, eventually hiring Pat Burns. "Mike was prepared to be somewhat reasonable," says Sinden, "but the last thing I needed was for the situation to be portrayed in the Boston media as the Bruins' wanting a good coach but not wanting to pay to get him. I wasn't concerned about Mike's history. I wasn't worried that Mike Keenan would have a problem with Harry Sinden. We think somewhat alike. I can't comment on anyone else, but given the fact that a number of coaches who aren't as qualified as Mike were hired for more money than he has been asking, I'd have to speculate that some people have been concerned about those things."
"I have no idea what went wrong," Keenan says of the Bruins negotiations, "it was a huge disappointment."
It wasn't the last one he experienced during a long, hot summer in which Keenan's overtures to teams seeking a coach were greeted with tepid interest and stony silences. He interviewed with Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Ken Drydcn and with Phoenix Coyotes general manager Bobby Smith, while Campbell had four or five conversations with Flyers general manager Bob Clarke. "We had great discussions with the Washington Capitals," says Campbell, "and they just died. It was eerie."
Blackballed? Keenan rejects that suggestion, though the thought has crossed his mind that someone in a high place is working against him. "It's still free enterprise," he says. "For that reason I haven't had many thoughts about collusion."
He has had general manager and coaching offers from minor league teams, but Keenan wants to coach in the NHL, preferably this season, and he isn't insisting on the sort of control he had in St. Louis. "I don't have a job, so I'm pretty well open to any offer," he says. "I was prepared to return to the NHL as only a coach in Boston."
So he waits, making plans he wouldn't have dreamed of making a year ago. To visit Michigan for parents' weekend. To drive up to Maine with Nola to visit her kids. To marry Nola over Christmas. Within driving distance of Boston are half a dozen American Hockey League teams and at least 20 colleges that play Division I hockey, and Keenan has plans to take in as many games as he can. Once a week he'll fly to Toronto to do Junior A telecasts, on a voluntary basis, to stay up to speed on the young talent.
"Pat Riley told me something this summer," says Keenan, recalling a conversation he had with the coach of the Miami Heat, who also left New York amid controversy. "He said that over time it all would subside and people would put aside the extraneous elements of my career and focus on what made me successful. The thing that's confusing to me is, What are the criteria? What do people want? Success? There's a price you have to pay for success. Or do they want the status quo? I want to coach. I'm not prepared to step away from it yet, particularly after the last two situations. That candle will burn out someday, but it's very much present today."