CHICAGO – Mike Keenan has coached both the Flyers and the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup Finals. In fact, Keenan was the man behind the bench in Chicago during the Hawks' last trip to the Finals in 1992.
They lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Mario Lemieux that year. Two years later, he led the New York Rangers to the Cup in his first and only season with the team in 1994.
He also took the Flyers to the Finals in 1985 and 1987. Few can question his resume – and few know both of the Flyers and Blackhawks like Keenan, who has served as an analyst for both the Rangers' MSG Network, NBC and Versus this season.
Keenan weighed in on the Flyers-Blackhawks series as a guest 97.3 ESPN FM in Atlantic City on Wednesday afternoon. Here's what he said:
"I'm really excited, because in the big picture," Keenan said, "One of the teams I coached are going to win this, it's pretty neat."
On his memory with the Flyers' Stanley Cup runs in 1985 and 1987:
"First of all, they were a great group to work with and the team was fairly consistent. I can name every line, what they did, they amount of ice time they produced. I'm very proud of the years I spent in Philadelphia, the team I had, and the players I coached."
On a Chicago-Philly matchup:
"I think it is good for hockey, as far as this matchup goes. I don't know what the issue with Philadelphia was all year, but when you get this far anything can happen. Chicago had a very strong year start to finish and now they have home-ice advantage. I know Mr. Snider has been waiting a long time to get back to this point and he is there again."
On his experience with Chris Pronger:
"I traded for Pronger when he was in Hartford when he was 21 or 22. He knows the game exceptionally well, smart all-around players, Hart Trophy winner and his presence has been felt here."
On Peter Laviolette's coaching job:
"Peter was an assistant coach of mine when I was in Boston. Peter brings winning experience, he won a cup in Carolina and you can never sell experience short. Under pressure they were down and they found a way to comeback and Peter had a great influence, along with Pronger."
On Michael Leighton's amazing run:
"It's not that surprising to me, sometimes it's just finding the right situation, the right team, you can find your niche and rhythm. Both goalies are new to this deal."
On coaching at the age of 60:
"I like to come back and coach at some point. I am healthy and feel young and vibrant."
On who he is rooting for in the Finals:
"I am rooting for both teams, it's a win-win for me. I think this series can definitely go the distance."
So, if you don't know much about Keenan – or don't remember some of the stories that made his personality so memorable, this excerpt from Bill Meltzer and Thomas Tynander's book "Pelle Lindbergh: Behind the White Mask" may help you understand why Keenan's nickname is "Iron Mike."
Many of the Flyers players think Mike Keenan is crazy. But the club's most respected leaders – Dave Poulin, Mark Howe, and Brad Marsh first and foremost – recognize Keenan's tactics as psychological ploys. Keenan is perfectly happy being the players' common enemy, so long as the team delivers for him on game day.
As Keenan intended, the team has become a close-knit bunch, sharing the bond of surviving life under the ultra-demanding coach. By comparison, even the Flyers' toughest NHL opponents seem manageable.
The key to playing succesfully for Keenan is to recognize that most of the things he says and does are designed for effect and shouldn't be taken personally. That's often easier said than done, however.
No one, it seems, is safe from the wrath of Iron Mike. On one ocassion, he stood in the locker room during intermission, breaking sticks and hollering as the players sat at their stalls.
Seemingly out of the blue, Keenan interrupted his own diatrabe and said, "And where the hell are the equipment guys, anyway?"
He stormed off into the equipment room and found equipment managers Kevin Cady and Kurt Mundt.
"Wake the hell up!" the players heard Keenan scream from the other room. "What are you two idiots doing in here? Do your (bleeping) jobs!"
Meanwhile, Keenan gave Cady and Mundt an exaggerated wink to let them know he wasn't really angry with them. It was all a show, which he punctuated by slamming the door and storming back into the locker room.
The ploy worked. The shocked players looked at each either with wide eyes. No one had ever seen a head coach berate the team equipment managers before, especially when they'd done nothing wrong.
But among the players, the most infamous surprise Keenan ever had in store for them took place during his first season as Flyers' coach: the "Christmas Death Skate" of 1984.
Early on the morning of December 24, the players arrived at the Coliseum for what they thought would be a light practice before an informal team Christmas party with plenty of pizza and beer to go around, and an exchange of gag gifts. The team had recently worked through a four-game losing streak and had won two of its last three games. Everyone was in a good mood.
The previous night, Lindbergh and team won a 7-4 game at home against the Washington Capitals. Apart from a meltdown early in the third period that saw the Caps score two quick goals to trim a 7-2 deficit, Philly controlled most of the game.
A hat trick from Tim Kerr, two goals by Murray Craven and a pair of assists apiece from Howe, Brian Propp, Rick Tocchet and Peter Zezel led the way offensively. At the other end of the ice, Pelle turned back 27 of 31 shots to earn the win. Many of the saves were of the difficult variety, as the play was wide open. Lindbergh had little chance to stop any of the goals Washington scored.
As the players filed onto the Coliseum ice on Christmas Eve morning, they were greeted by several blasts of Keenan's whistle. He ordered the players to start skating end-to-end sprints.
The Flyers skated as fast as they could, hoping to get the drill over with quickly. No such luck. Keenan kept them skating.
And skating some more.
The bag skate lasted for over two hours. By now, the players' legs burned and some dehydrated players wretched and were close to vomiting. But no one was excused.
Finally, as the players neared the point of collapse, Keenan blew the whistle to end practice. He gathered his team. Most of the players sat, staring straight down at the ice, both out of exhaustion and anger.
Keenan moved his piercing gaze slowly across the ice. One by one, the players looked up at the coach. At last he spoke.
"Always expect the unexpected," he said. "And Merry Christmas."
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