Despite the rumors that preceded his firing, Keenan was shocked when it happened. "It hit deep and sent a big message," says his wife, Rita. "He realized he had to make some changes."
"I never coached as well in Philadelphia as I did my first year," Keenan says. "I see that now. I recognized I had to change if I was going to continue to be successful. I'm a very intense individual, and I had to bring more composure to my approach. I've worked on that. I get the same message delivered in a more acceptable way."
Actually, says McGuire, now Keenan's assistant in Chicago, that message can still be delivered in brutal fashion. "I can't remember a time when losing wasn't a personal affront to him," says McGuire. "In the heat of battle, he'll still do anything or say anything that he thinks will help garner a victory. The difference is, he's quicker to mend it. Like right after the game. And then again the next day to make sure it's healed properly.
"Negative energy is fuel, but it isn't the best fuel. You need gas to get across the desert, and if all they have is leaded, you use it. But when you get across, you'd better get that carburetor clean or the car is going to break down. Over an 80-game season, the motivation has to be predominantly positive.
"Of course, there were times in Philadelphia that he didn't kick the door down, but the players remember only when he did. He got a reputation, and the Chicago players may have braced themselves for the worst. The guys see him and say he may not be as big a jerk as everyone said he was."
Then, too, Keenan's circumstances in Chicago are different. The reassurances by Pulford and owner Bill Wirtz that Keenan had been hired for an overhaul, not a quick fix, helped him maintain his perspective through last season's dreary first three months. So did the unique Norris Division luxury of being able to lose steadily and still remain in playoff contention. Keenan's contract calls for him to become general manager of the Blackhawks next season, when Pulford moves upstairs. This has given him a perspective beyond the next game.
"He was amazingly good last year," says Rita. "I was really impressed. I mean Mike is still a terrible loser, but he's not totally in another world after a loss like he used to be."
First impressions to the contrary, Keenan, 40, can be a warm guy. Certainly, he suffers neither foolish questions nor bad goaltenders gladly. After a game he is stiff at best and snappish at worst. A friendlier, more reflective man emerges on practice days, but only away from the rink does the personality of someone who has sung on occasion since his college days for a band called Nik and the Nice Guys fully emerge. Given a few hours' distance from a loss, Keenan does grasp that there are more important things in life than winning and losing. Like life itself. He and Rita have been through six miscarriages. His 10-year-old daughter, Gayla, gets a lot of attention from her father.
The Flyers caught fleeting glimpses of that side of Keenan. Overwhelmed that his team won three straight games after star goalie Pelle Lindbergh was killed in a November 1985 car accident, he helped the stewardesses serve the players food on a charter flight home. He was capable of graceful gestures more often than some Flyers wanted to admit. Many of his former players now have concluded that they were immature. Most say they would play for him again.
There are days when the Blackhawks have similar sentiments. "I think he's a much misunderstood coach," says Troy Murray. Bob Murray adds, "I think the next day Mike feels bad about some of the things he says."