Publish date:


Blackhawk coach Mike Keenan isn't popular, but his team keeps winning

There is one thing more certain in life than death and taxes: Mike Keenan's being correct on a hunch. Keenan, the coach of the Chicago Blackhawks, will pull his goalie on little more than a whim, and he has been known to bury a hockey career as soon as he gets the notion that a player isn't worthy of one. He benches star players when the spirit moves him and implies after almost every loss that his team has failed him. As a result, he spends a lot of his valuable time and limited patience trying to deal with this hard truth: The majority of Keenan's players would like to run him down with a Zamboni.

Keenan is a tough man to please, an even harder one to understand and, in a hockey rink at playoff time, an almost impossible one to like. He is also a tough man to prove wrong. Or to beat. Almost everyone who has played for Keenan has argued with him, but not about his record.

After a 5-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers Sunday night, Chicago had a two-games-to-one lead in the NHL's best-of-seven Campbell Conference finals. There are observers of the Blackhawks who insist they have gotten this far despite Keenan. Or perhaps that Chicago has come this far to spite him. Keenan's many critics, noting that the Philadelphia Flyers fired him in 1988 after he had guided them to three divisional championships and two Stanley Cup finals berths in four seasons, say a team can run on negative fuel only so long before its flame dies.

So far in the 1990 playoffs, the Blackhawks, a fair-to-middling collection of largely veteran players who won the title of a pedestrian Norris Division by a mere five points, have blown away the Minnesota North Stars and St. Louis Blues in seventh games. Chicago was so dominant in those games that it seems fair to ask why the Blackhawks allowed those series to drag on to the limit. One theory is that Keenan's constant line juggling, his mind games and his verbal floggings keep his players on such an emotional roller coaster that it is difficult for them to put two good games back-to-back. Another theory is that the Blackhawks are an easily distracted group that needs a tough coach's daily boot to, as Keenan puts it, "refocus their energies."

Take Chicago's goaltending. Having received only short-term success from each of his three goalies—rookie Ed Belfour and veterans Greg Millen and Jacques Cloutier—Keenan has concluded they are all short-term talents. So, that's the way he's using them. As of Sunday, Captain Hook had changed goalies during 12 games this season, including five times since the playoffs began.

Conventional wisdom, which is rarely as sound as Keenan's wisdom, holds that a goaltender's fragile confidence can be permanently damaged if he is prematurely removed from games. Since baseball managers seldom put a pitcher's mental well-being ahead of securing the next out, Keenan wonders why he must baby his goalie at the cost of stopping the next shot on goal. "It [using relief goalies] may become the thing of the '90s," he says.

But you would have to administer three doses of sodium pentathol to find out what Chicago's three wary goalies really think of Keenan's methods. Probably they feel they can't be at their best being used this way. Indeed, after all his juggling, Keenan may have succeeded only in turning the psyches of three eminently capable goalies into quivering masses of Jell-O. But it's also possible that there is no real pea under any of the three shells and that, when it comes to goaltending, Keenan has conned his way through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Another object of Keenan's manipulations is center Denis Savard. On one side are those who see Savard—a talented, temperamental, 10-year veteran—as a shining constant during a largely dreary era for the Blackhawks. These critics don't understand why Keenan plays with the poor guy's mind. Others view the 5'10", 175-pound Savard as an overrated, point-grubbing personification of the selfishness that has long imprisoned Chicago in mediocrity. They don't think the Blackhawks can turn him loose to score as many points and turn over as many pucks as he wants and still hope to win. Keenan has come to see Savard as somewhere in between: a quality player who, in the course of playing for a franchise going nowhere, has developed bad habits. Keenan also looks on Savard as a man who too often loses his head, but whose heart is generally in the right place.

Thus Keenan, who understands that it is healthy for a star to have an ego, did not take umbrage when Savard came to him before Game 2 of the St. Louis series and demanded to know why he wasn't playing more. When he didn't buy Keenan's explanation—that Keenan expected a physical series and wanted the diminutive Savard to have something left at the end—Savard supposedly protested by leaving the hotel where the team stays before home playoff games. In another version of the incident, which some Blackhawks leaked to Mike Kiley of the Chicago Tribune, Keenan kicked Savard out of the hotel. Keenan denies that.

By Game 7 of the St. Louis series, Savard was back in his regular role and playing well. By the fifth minute of Game 1 at Edmonton—after Savard had completed all of two shifts—he was benched again. Keenan, feeling no first-period pulse from his team, sensed that too many veteran Hawks were experiencing dèjà vu of blowouts they had suffered at the hands of the Oilers in the 1983 and '85 playoffs. So he tried to make it through the first period with his younger players—and planned to peel the paint off the locker room walls with a few well-chosen words at the period break.

When the Blackhawks got to the room, however, center Troy Murray, another veteran who had been used sparingly, screamed first, demanding to be told why he wasn't playing. Defenseman Dave Manson told Murray to sit down and shut up. "I just watched them," Keenan said later with a smile. Yep, just another typical intermission for the Blackhawks. When the second period of what turned out to be a 5-2 Edmonton victory began, both Savard and Murray were again playing regular shifts.

That didn't stop Savard from crying to the media the next day. "I know I'm a good person," he said. But his public whining did not keep Keenan from playing him more than 20 minutes in Game 2. When Savard made a terrible giveaway that led to a tying goal for Edmonton early in the third period, Keenan in effect forgave him by allowing him to take his regular shift the rest of the way, including an extra one in an obvious defensive situation in the final minute. He finished the 4-3 Chicago victory with one goal and two assists, including one on defenseman Doug Wilson's game-winner with only 1:59 remaining.

That assist earned Savard an "I'm proud of him" from Keenan. And Iron Mike may have been prouder still following Game 3, in which Savard set up three more goals in Chicago's victory.

Thus did the Blackhawks, who were too miserable to die last week, stay very much alive in the playoffs. To this point the players haven't figured out whether their coach is a detestable, raging maniac or a manipulative genius. If they keep winning, Keenan knows, it won't really matter.



Murray, who was told to shut up in Game 1 against the Oilers, put up here in Game 2.



A hothead himself, Savard doesn't always take guff from Keenan (inset) sitting down.



[See caption above.]