"This is an extremely respectful group of players here," says Keenan. "They showed that all the way back on Day One last year. They wanted change, wanted to improve. But they had to be educated as to what was necessary."
Early last season, Savard, Chicago's leading individualist, attempted to leave a strenuous practice before Keenan was ready to end it. Before Savard could get through the gate, he was chased down and chastised by Wilson and Brown. Savard apologized the next day, and Keenan, stressing that he had been more than pleased with Savard's efforts before the incident, dismissed it as merely an overreaction by the moody player to a bad game the night before.
"I totally lost my mind that day," Savard says. "I never had any real problem with Mike. We're both emotional and intense, and we both want to win, and he's made me learn how. The challenges we have back and forth are positive, not negative."
Those challenges go something like this during a game: "Get the puck in deep!" screams Keenan after Savard has come to the blue line on a 3-on-3, tried his patented spin moves and lost the puck. "Play for the team!"
"I am playing for the team," Savard yells back. "I'm trying to make a play and score a goal and help the team."
"In deep!" snaps Keenan.
So the next time Savard has the puck, he throws it into the offensive end, which is standard procedure for all the Blackhawks. Then the first Hawk into the offensive zone forechecks a defenseman, nose-first, into the glass. The second man in jumps to the puck, and, if all goes according to plan, soon the Chicago Stadium foghorn—a sound dreaded by all visiting teams—goes off, signaling a Blackhawk goal. The Hawks, who last season allowed an average of 31 shots on goal per game, have cut that to a very respectable average of 27 per game. The goaltending still worries Keenan. Twelve times he has changed goalies in the middle of a game. But the Blackhawks are scoring plenty of goals by playing the relentless, in-your-face hockey that characterized Keenan's teams in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, the same Keenan watchers who knew it was only a matter of time until the Blackhawks began jumping to their coach's commands are starting to wonder if what happened in Philadelphia will also occur in Chicago. Flyer general manager Bobby Clarke fired Keenan in May 1988 after a 38-33-9 season and a first-round playoff loss.
"There was nothing left between Mike and the players," said Clarke. Perhaps more to the point, there was little left between Keenan and Clarke, who felt Keenan was destroying the confidence of the young players with his harsh language and quick hooks. Keenan, who had taken a rookie-laden team to the Stanley Cup finals in 1985, didn't think that a number of his '88 batch of Flyer kids were worthy of his confidence. He also felt that Clarke undermined him by lending a sympathetic ear to players' complaints. The relationship between the two men, though outwardly polite, deteriorated.
While many Flyers tolerated Keenan, not one liked him. Keenan once told right wing Scott Mellanby that the only reason Mellanby was on the team was that Clarke wanted him there. When defenseman Jeff Chychrun, recalled from the minors during an injury crisis, made a mistake in his first game back and cost Philadelphia a loss, Keenan told Chychrun he would never play for him again. Ron Sutter said Keenan once threatened to bench his twin brother, Rich, if Ron didn't bear down harder. Keenan says he can't recall the Sutter incident, but he acknowledges that there were times he went too far, and that he could have worked harder at patching up his relationship with Clarke. "My assistant coaches [E.J. McGuire and Paul Holmgren, who succeeded Keenan as the Flyer coach] would tell me that I had to give in on some little ones [arguments] to win some bigger ones," he says. "But I could never find one to give in on."