THERE IS one difference this time. No one acts surprised. Mike
Keenan is bulldozing his fourth NHL franchise in nine seasons,
and by now everyone in the hockey universe understands that this
is what the man does for a living. He tears professional hockey
teams apart and puts them back together, and he does it with all
the warmth and tenderness of one of those guys who club baby
seals. You hire Keenan, you know there will be casualties.
The St. Louis Blues knew. They knew what they were getting when
they signed Keenan to a five-year, $10 million contract in the
summer of 1994. One year later, while many softhearted St. Louis
fans were hoping he would get bored and go away, the Blues'
owners did a strange thing. They added a sixth year to Keenan's
contract. Apparently, they weren't too disappointed that the
coach still hadn't discovered his sensitive side.
Keenan, hockey's most notorious mercenary, says he would like to
stay with the Blues for the life of his contract, which means
that, unlike a lot of things in St. Louis, the Blues definitely
aren't going to be dull. It also means the team will have a good
shot at playing in the Stanley Cup finals at some point.
Keenan's teams tend to do that. The Philadelphia Flyers (1985
and '87), the Chicago Blackhawks ('92) and the New York Rangers
('94) all went to the finals under Keenan, with the Rangers
winning the Cup in his only season on Broadway. "I'd like to be
in one place and help build an organization," says Keenan. "The
goal is not to win a Stanley Cup. The goal is to win many
Keenan insists he has matured and mellowed in his 11th season as
an NHL coach, but he still prefers to keep everyone, from
players and reporters to Zamboni drivers and skate sharpeners,
on their toes. "He still has an aura about him," says right wing
Brian Noonan, who has played for Keenan in Chicago, New York and
now St. Louis. "He thinks if you keep people on edge, they'll
Of course, if they don't play better, Keenan sometimes chooses
to shove them over the edge. At week's end the Blues were 8-9-2
and six points out of first place in the Central Division. They
were one of the big disappointments of the first month of the
NHL season, and Keenan, as always, exhibited all the patience
and understanding of a meter maid with bad feet.
Already this season he has suspended veteran goaltender Grant
Fuhr for showing up at training camp out of shape, scratched
center Dale Hawerchuk in front of friends and family in a game
at Buffalo, traded forward Esa Tikkanen to the New Jersey Devils
for a third-round draft pick, and removed the captain's C from
the jersey of Brett Hull. And that doesn't even include the rash
of off-season moves that made Iron Mike the least popular man on
the banks of the Mississippi.
Among the favorite sons he shipped out of town during the summer
were 50-goal forward Brendan Shanahan, who was dealt to the
Hartford Whalers for 21-year-old defenseman Chris Pronger; and
goaltender Curtis Joseph, who went to the Edmonton Oilers,
essentially for two No. 1 draft picks. For the most part St.
Louis fans have reacted to Keenan's moves as if he had traded
the Stan Musial statue to Colorado for a case of Coors. "I'm a
risk taker," Keenan says. "Some people might view me as
extraordinary in that area. But you have to take risks to
improve a franchise."
None of Keenan's actions caused more of a stir than his
treatment of the Golden Brett. Keenan said the decision to strip
Hull of his captaincy was made in October by "three experienced
coaches," dragging assistants Bob Berry and Roger Neilson into
the fray. Together, he says, they concluded that newly acquired
forward Shayne Corson was better suited to serve as captain this
season. Keenan said the move was nothing personal, but Hull took
offense. "The heck it's not personal," Hull said at the time.
"It's a complete slap in the face. I've changed my whole game
for him, and that's not good enough."
Michael and Lisa Marie have nothing on Hull and Keenan. It is a
fascinating relationship between two headstrong hockey legends
who will have to get along if the Blues are going to win
anything. Hull is outspoken, upbeat and outrageously popular in
the land of the Blues. Even Keenan would have a hard time
pulling the trigger on any trade involving Hull. "You hear
rumors, but it could never happen," says one player. "The city
just wouldn't allow it."
In a loss at Buffalo on Oct. 22, Keenan kept Hull on the bench
for much of the third period. After the game he said Hull "took
the night off." The next day, off came the C. While Hull
initially was steamed, he soon accepted the move and even
expressed some relief. "At first I was kind of upset and
thinking, God, what are people going to think of me now? I must
look like a loser," says the 31-year-old right wing. "Then I
phoned Allison [his girlfriend] at home, and I told her, and she
said, 'Who cares? It was a pain in the butt anyway.'"
As always, when Keenan opens fire on his players, a bigger name
makes for a bigger target. Before he stripped Hull's captaincy,
he took the entire jersey off Hawerchuk, scratching the veteran
from that game in Buffalo, where he had been a star for the
previous five seasons. "His folks were there, he played there,"
Hull said of Hawerchuk. "That's not something I would consider
very respectful to a future Hall of Fame player." The protest
probably would have made Keenan laugh, if only he knew how.
Hawerchuk's folks? So now we want Mike Keenan to consider family
outings before making personnel decisions? "He's a 32-year-old
man," Keenan says of Hawerchuk, who signed a three-year, $7.3
million contract with the Blues in the summer.
Hawerchuk is in the same predicament as the other free-agent
signees in St. Louis this season: He asked for it. He knew what
he was getting into with Keenan, and he signed the deal anyway.
"My father thought I was crazy for coming here, but I wanted the
challenge," says Hawerchuk. "I know a lot of people are down on
Mike, but I also know he's the one coach who can get the most
out of me."
The Blues went 28-15-5 in the lockout-shortened 1995 season, but
they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the
Vancouver Canucks. Then Keenan went to work--signing, trading,
slashing, burning, hurting all kinds of feelings. Doing what
Mike Keenan does. After a few weeks of throwing money around,
spending more than $25 million on free agents, Keenan received a
surprise edict from his superiors that made an already
precarious situation even more volatile: The Kiel Partners, the
Blues' ownership group, had been restructured, and the bottom
line had changed. He was told to pare the payroll from $24
million to $20.5 million.
The Blues had previously been considered the rum-soaked sailors
of the NHL, spending lavishly on players and sending the
league's salary structure skyward. Now the plan was to win their
first Cup on a budget. It was as if Hooters had told its
waitresses to start wearing petticoats.
Keenan swears that he is not angry or bitter about the team's
new philosophy. But it had to be a slight kick in the head to
get the word after signing Hawerchuk, Fuhr ($2 million for two
years), Noonan ($2.8 million for three years) and Geoff
Courtnall ($6.6 million for three years) to lavish deals. "There
has been a restructuring of the organization as far as finances
are concerned," says Keenan. "Our owners wanted to recoup some
of their losses from last season. I can accept it. I consider it
a challenge to do this in midstream."
Perhaps the most daunting challenge for Keenan will be to do
this in St. Louis, the city that feels like a small town. Every
man has his own idea of hell on earth, and for Keenan such a
place surely has a few things in common with his current place
of employment. There is, for example, only one major daily
newspaper in St. Louis--the Post-Dispatch--and that paper is not
even a screaming tabloid. It would be enough to drive the man
crazy, if Keenan hadn't already made the trip years ago. "When I
took this job, people said, 'Oh, St. Louis--the media's going to
be so much easier to deal with,'" says Keenan. "Well, I think
it's been twice as difficult. Believe me, one newspaper is much
tougher to deal with than five or six." With five or six
newspapers, there was a chance that at least one of them would
see things his way.
The fans, meanwhile, are loyal and passionate, and they will
stand behind their hockey heroes, win or lose. For a man like
Keenan, who thrives on conflict and confrontation, coaching in
St. Louis is like skating onto the set of Barney each day. I
love you. You love me. The team has never finished first
overall, has never won the Stanley Cup, but the fans have been
there like doting kin, piling into the rink to root for the sons
of St. Louis. We're a happy family.
In some cities they throw food at their players when things
don't go right. In St Louis they bake them cookies, just to lift
their spirits. The Blues, at times, seem to be the best high
school team in the NHL. "It doesn't always matter if we win or
lose," says Hull. "The fans still want to see their favorite
guy, that one player they've embraced. I'm not questioning the
moves Mike has made, but I think the organization underestimated
the fans' loyalty to their favorite players."
Hull has a weekly two-hour radio show, and even when the team
was in a recent slump, it sounded more like a 1-900 love line.
"If one more person called to tell me I'm the greatest," he
says, "I swear I was going to throw up."
Keenan set out to change everything from the attitude in the
city to the carpeting in the dressing room. Blow it up and start
again. At the start of this season, there were just four players
remaining from the 1993-94 team, which played to 102% capacity
at home. Now with all the new faces on the club, especially the
one that never smiles behind the bench, attendance has slipped.
The average gate was still more than 17,000 after eight games,
but for the first time in the '90s, empty seats could be seen at
"I was totally unaware of how much the sports heroes--as opposed
to having a winning team--meant to this city," says Keenan. "But
this team has gone past the second round of the playoffs just
once in the last 11 seasons. So we could do what some people
wanted and have five or six very popular players and give them
60 percent of the payroll. But there's one problem with that:
We're not going to win. Now if that's what the town wants, then
I don't know why ownership brought me in."
While the fans still were reluctant to boo the players on the
ice, they had no trouble letting Keenan have it. He was hooted
nightly as the Blues slipped into the division cellar a month
into the season. Eventually, the video board in the Kiel Center
stopped showing closeups of Keenan's face, the image that
elicited the loudest catcalls from the crowd. After the team
lost four straight a couple of weeks ago, the Post-Dispatch
sports section featured a page of letters to the editor,
including eight on the topic of the Blues. All eight were
critical of Keenan. "If we all [get] together, our voices will
be heard and maybe we can get Mike Keenan out of town!" wrote
one reader. "I try to do what I think is right, but I can't
please everyone," says Keenan. "My job is to do what's best for
the Blues, and I'm trying to do that."
Blues fans don't have to love him, but they do have to get used
to him. Their team is his team now. If they're squeamish, they
might want to look away.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Since he arrived in '94, Keenan has made his mark on the Blues' roster, replacing all but four players. [Mike Keenan]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHOKeenan suspended Fuhr (above) for being overweight and has limited Adam Creighton's ice time. [Grant Fuhr; Adam Creighton]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Both Hull, who was stripped of his captaincy, and J.J. Daigneault (36), have fallen on hard times. [Brett Hull]
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA [See caption above--J.J. Daigneault falling on ice]