One gray Monday in November, Keenan gathered his troops for "a conditioning day," which turned out to be 60 minutes of distilled misery—i.e., nonstop skating. Toward the end of the session, veteran center Denis Savard decided that he didn't need any more conditioning and tried to leave the ice. He was detained by defensemen Doug Wilson and Keith Brown, who, in no uncertain terms, reminded Savard that he was part of the group. The incident fueled speculation that Savard and Keenan could not peaceably coexist. However, as the season wore on, their relationship grew stronger.
There were few rebellions, mainly because the Blackhawks, who had won exactly one playoff game in the previous three seasons, were fed up with losing. "[ Keenan's harsh methods] would come up in team meetings," says left wing Steve Thomas. "We just decided that whatever he did, it was for our own good. The guy knows what he's doing. He's won before." Keenan, 39, had taken the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals in 1985 and '87.
The Hawks improved under Keenan, but the improvement wasn't reflected in their 27-41-12 record because of a number of injuries to key players. Savard missed 28 games because of a strained ligament in his left ankle. Goaltenders dropped like flies; at one point Chicago had three injured net-minders. "We were competing," says Keenan. "We just weren't getting that positive feedback. Our point total was a misrepresentation of our accomplishments."
So despite all the perspiration, the Hawks went into their 80th regular-season game needing at least a tie with the Toronto Maple Leafs to make the playoffs. Toronto, which had to have a victory to get into the playoffs, jumped out to a 3-1 lead, but Chicago clawed back to tie the score 3-3 and force the game into overtime. Forty-eight seconds into OT, Chicago center Troy Murray stole the puck inside the Leaf blue line and beat goalie Allan Bester with a wrist shot up high.
The dramatic win did wonders for the Hawks' confidence. "It triggered the response we'd been looking for all year," says Keenan. Already convinced they could outwork anyone and bolstered by an infusion of healthy players—Savard was back, Thomas had returned after a shoulder injury, center Adam Creighton had joined the team in December after a trade with the Buffalo Sabres, and Roenick had come up from junior hockey at the start of the playoffs—the Hawks began to think they could out-play anyone as well.
In the playoffs, Detroit thought it could exploit Chicago's goaltending. Hawk goalie Alain Chevrier had enjoyed a solid season, but he had no postseason experience. Chevrier, 28, had been in net for the New Jersey Devils last season when they opened with a 10-5-2 record for their best start ever. But Sean Burke took over in March, carrying New Jersey to the Stanley Cup semis. By season's end, Chevrier was a backup to backup Bob Sauve, and in the off-season the Devils shipped him off to the Winnipeg Jets.
Chevrier wasn't overjoyed to be in Winnipeg, where he once again was relegated to the bench. Moreover, his wife, Susan, a New York native for whom the invigorating Manitoba winter quickly lost its charm, also was unhappy. In January, Jet general manager Mike Smith accommodated the unhappy couple with a trade, even though it meant making a one-sided deal: Chevrier to Chicago for a fourth-round draft pick.
Against Detroit, Chevrier was a huge disappointment—for the Red Wings. He frustrated them repeatedly, stealing two games outright. He continued to shine against St. Louis. In that series he had the help of several penurious defenders, who allowed 20 or fewer shots on goal in three of the five games. Says Keenan of his charges, "This is the most respectful group of athletes I've ever worked with"—a not-so-veiled reference to the Flyers, who were 190-102-28 in four seasons under Keenan but wearied of his draconian ways. Philly fired him at the end of last season.
What's to keep his act from wearing just as thin in Chicago? "I've matured as a coach," says Keenan. "My public persona is still the hard ass, the son of a bitch, but that's not accurate."
In fact, now that he has instilled good work habits in the Hawks, Keenan says he'll lighten up a little and hold more practices like last Friday's. In a boisterous hour-long scrimmage, defensemen filled the forward positions, while the forwards played defense. The results were predictably chaotic. Keenan, smiling frequently, was referee. He called nary a penalty, but what can you expect from a former Broad Street Bully?