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Original Issue


Until three weeks ago Vancouver Canucks players would leave
their dressing room and come face-to-face with a message that
OBJECTIVE...DON'T EVEN ASK! The players would stare at the
words, and the words would stare back--a standoff between the
pros and the prolix. Then, turning left to head to the ice at GM
Place, the players would step on rubber carpeting that bore the
sentiment but a little too Zen for a group of men who take out
their teeth to go to work.

Well, that was Zen and this is now. Mike Keenan was hired as the
Canucks' coach on Nov. 13, replacing the overmatched Tom Renney.
Keenan is thought of as Iron Mike in the hockey world, but
there's an awful lot of Martha Stewart in him. The first thing
he does wherever he coaches--Vancouver is Keenan's fifth NHL
job--is to add a few homey touches. So down came those words,
the well-intentioned but lame handiwork of Renney, and up went
some white paint. The inspirational carpeting vanished, too. A
picture of the Stanley Cup, Keenan's favorite work of art, was
hung above the chalkboard in the dressing room. Players' mug
shots went up above their stalls to add a dash of self-esteem,
and the old team pictures that used to occupy those spaces have
been moved to the hallway so the Canucks won't forget about
their tradition, which consists of a pair of losing appearances
in the Cup finals (1982 and '94), five winning seasons in 27
years, some of the most hideous uniforms in sports history and
one retired jersey, number 12, which belonged to a current
assistant coach, the immortal Stan Smyl. Last week arena workers
were measuring the corridor outside the dressing room for a
curtain to give the players added privacy, and they awaited
delivery of a locker room carpet with the layout of an NHL rink
woven into it.

Keenan has also made less cosmetic alterations. He put back
together the NHL's longest-running defense pair, Jyrki Lumme and
the glacial Dana Murzyn, now in their seventh season as
partners; let rookie defenseman Mattias Ohlund and Bret Hedican
play against the top lines; tossed Alexander Mogilny on right
wing with center Mark Messier and left wing (well, most of the
time) Pavel Bure to form an All-World line; and increased the
minutes of strapping rookie center Dave Scatchard. Keenan even
used Bure at center for an entire game and snippets of others,
despite the fact that the Russian Rocket's only training at the
position was overhearing coaches tell centers where they should
play. One other change: With Keenan at the helm, the Canucks,
who were 4-13-2 under Renney, were 5-3-2 at week's end.

Rome wasn't redecorated in a day. Vancouver played sloppy,
impatient hockey in a 3-2 home loss to the San Jose Sharks last
Thursday. "I wondered when the ugly head would rear itself, and
the monster didn't disappoint us," said Keenan, after
dispatching his players to postgame remedial stationary-bike
riding. He looked as if he wouldn't mind if they pedaled all the
way to their next match, in Denver. Against the Colorado
Avalanche last Saturday night the Canucks were beaten 6-4
despite a hat trick by Bure. Still, Vancouver, which lost 10
straight games earlier in the season, is competitive every night
under Keenan.

"Same hands, same feet, same heads," says former captain Trevor
Linden, the centerpiece of the Canucks for nine seasons, until
Messier signed a three-year, $20 million free-agent deal over
the summer. "The same players are here. The only difference has
been the coach."

While Keenan has been lucky--Messier recently recovered from
swelling under his kneecap; Mogilny, who was a restricted free
agent, finally signed a contract three games before Renney was
fired; winger Martin Gelinas returned from a knee injury three
games after Keenan took over--he also, as Linden puts it, "knows
how to make the light go on for a group of professional hockey
players." Keenan has a program, which encompasses everything
from refurbishing the locker room to demanding superb
conditioning to instituting an up-tempo pressure game based on
pursuit of the puck. The program usually has worked out well
even if sometimes Keenan hasn't. This is what makes those Has
Mike mellowed? questions absurd. Jim Carrey might play King
Lear, but you know at some point he'll go back to talking with
his buttocks, because you don't abandon what has worked.
Likewise, Keenan isn't going to scrap an approach that helped
turn around teams in Philadelphia and Chicago and brought the
New York Rangers their first Stanley Cup in 54 years.

Keenan's reputation not only precedes him but also embellishes
him. When Vancouver players learned that Keenan had been hired,
several sidled over to ask right wing Brian Noonan if Keenan
really is that prickly, and that's giving him the benefit of a
couple of letters. Noonan is considered a leading interpreter of
Keenan, having played for him in four cities. He's part of the
unofficial Iron Mike Repertory Company, a troupe that winds up
with Keenan the way Tony Roberts and Julie Kavner keep showing
up in Woody Allen films. Noonan assured his teammates that
Keenan would hold short but hard practices and run a terrific
bench, keeping third- and fourth-liners in the game while giving
top players as much ice as they could handle.

Messier, the Canucks' captain, turns 37 next month. He isn't the
player he was when he won the Cup with New York 3 1/2 years
ago--he cheats in his defensive zone and often passes up chances
for a hit--but he's still a splendid security blanket: He's warm
and comforting and has been through the ringer. He serves as
Keenan's sounding board and conduit, as he did in New York.
Coach and captain talk every day. "Coaches in one room, players
in the other--that went out with the hula hoop," says Messier,
who had had 10 points in 10 games since Keenan's arrival. Of
course, Messier also talked every day with Renney.

The coaching job was simply two sizes too large for Renney, who
couldn't reach a bored veteran team in his season-plus-a-month
in Vancouver. Last year his practices dragged on like bad
novels, his banning of beer on team flights struck the players
as petty, and he didn't heed the advice he solicited. When
training camp opened in September, Renney tried to change,
relenting on the beer and opening up the Canucks' defensive
style, but this only rankled players, who thought his
transformation was just an attempt to curry favor and keep his
job. The only thing he could bribe the players with was success,
and when Vancouver didn't win, they drifted away from a man who
never had played or coached in the NHL.

A telling example of this occurred on Oct. 25, in a game against
the Pittsburgh Penguins. Renney replaced Bure with Linden for an
important defensive-zone face-off toward the end of regulation,
and that ticked off the mercurial Bure. In overtime Bure skated
languidly to the bench on a line change as the puck was moving
past him into the Vancouver zone; his nonplay led to the
Penguins' winning goal. In the dressing room afterward Renney
confronted his recalcitrant winger, who said he had been tired.

Keenan won't put up with excuses like that, and the first three
weeks of his regime were a probationary period. History suggests
that Keenan won't be shy about overhauling the Canucks. When he
was with the Rangers, he lobbied general manager Neil Smith for
late-season trades that brought Noonan and forwards Craig
MacTavish, Glenn Anderson and Stephane Matteau to New York, even
though the Rangers had the NHL's best record at the time. Now
Keenan can go after his kind of players even more quickly: GM
Place is G.M.-less. Ten days before Renney got the ax, Vancouver
general manager Pat Quinn was fired. While Stephen Bellringer,
the team's alternate governor, says he plans to hire a general
manager, Keenan's three-year contract--worth a reported $850,000
annually--gives him a say in personnel decisions. On those
matters Keenan works with Steve Tambellini, a former player and
onetime Canucks public relations director who is Vancouver's
senior vice president of hockey operations. The 39-year-old
Tambellini is growing in stature, but Keenan has flossed with
guys who have thicker portfolios than Tambellini's.

"There was one team in the league last year that didn't have a
general manager, and it won the Stanley Cup: Detroit," says
Keenan. If nothing else, Vancouver's good start under Keenan has
reinforced his influence. The Canucks' Seattle-based owner, John
McCaw, who's about as public a person in the Northwest as D.B.
Cooper, stood in the runway behind the bench during a 3-3 tie
with the Red Wings on Dec. 1. "Didn't even know he was there,
and it didn't faze me when I saw him," Keenan says with a smile.
"I guess he was just having a look."

The only thing certain about Keenan's return is that it will end
badly. The last two times Keenan parted company with an
organization--the Rangers after the 1994 Cup and the St. Louis
Blues in 1996, following a fitful two-plus seasons as general
manager and coach--NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had to step in
and sort things out. In New York, Keenan broke his contract and
within days signed a five-year, $10 million deal with the Blues,
whom Bettman forced to fork over compensation to the Rangers. In
St. Louis Keenan was fired, and management refused to pay out
his contract, obliging Bettman to intervene again. Keenan walked
away with a nice undisclosed settlement and a lingering sense of
disappointment. "I learned in St. Louis that the things you
can't change, you have a responsibility to manage better," says
Keenan in an oblique reference to his clashes with hardheaded
star Brett Hull. "That's part of having strong leadership
skills, and I was disappointed in myself because I wasn't as
good a leader or as fair to my players as I should have been."

Now he has another chance to burnish his reputation as a Mr.
Quick Fix-it. For the formerly indifferent Canucks, one way or
another it's curtains.

COLOR PHOTO: ELSA HASCH/ALLSPORT Messier (left) started the season slowly, but he and the Canucks picked it up after Keenan started to set the tone. [Mark Messier in game]

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [See caption above--Mike Keenan speaking to Brian Noonan]

COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO Scatchard (20) & Co. know what to expect from the demanding Keenan: Lay it on the line--or else. [Dave Scatchard and opposing player in game]