Ah yes, the old announce bad news on a Friday afternoon trick. That’s the second time we’ve fallen for that this year. The only element missing was putting the word out on Friday before a long weekend.
This stint lasted longer than all his other relatively recent gigs, but Mike Keenan — who as triskaidekaphobiacs well know was the 13th coach in Calagry Flames history — has been fired again, which means that all the guessperts who earlier this month breathlessly announced that the head man was safe but the lieutenants were in trouble were off the mark.
As usual, opinions — well-informed, knee-jerk and everything in between — will be split on the merits of the de-Ironification of the Flames, but one of the more interesting corollary aspects of Keenan’s two-year stint at the Saddledome is what effect, if any, will have on his legacy.
The answer, or at least my answer, is I don’t know. At the very least, the myth of Mike Keenan the Tyrant was exploded to smithereens in Calgary. Whatever ogre-like qualities marked his coaching/dictating work in Philadelphia and Chicago and New York and St. Louis had given way to a kinder, gentler nature. Not necessarily more successful, but kinder and gentler. There were sporadic explosions in media scrums and on the ice and in the dressing room, but to observers the outbursts always appeared calculated and theatrical rather than genuine fits of temper. Even Craig Conroy essentially suggested the other day that the Flames could have used more of Keenan’s evil genius persona and less of the doddering uncle.
Conversely, Keenan came to the Flames with a reputation of not being much of an X’s-and-O’s strategist, and that rep he lived up to spades. The assistants did much of the chalk-talking and Keenan rarely passed up an opportunity to give the boys a day off. Even the famous Westside summit following the San Jose debacle that launched a pretty impressive stretch of hockey appeared to be more of a collaborative effort than a Mad Mike production.
Making the final assessment of Keenan’s time with the Flames even more difficult to analyze is the turn of events late in the 2008-09 season that not only deprived the Flames of several key elements, but also forced the club to play shorthanded and cost Calgary a division title and a more favourable playoff seeding. That cap-fuelled debacle can’t be placed at Keenan’s doorstep unless you believe the coach is the one who convinced his former understudy Darryl Sutter to paint the Flames into a financial corner. While Keenan’s fondness for Olli Jokinen is well documented, it really is hard to believe that Sutter was bullied into any of his player acquisitions.
The flip side of the “Who’s Running the Show?” argument is what, if any, input Sutter may have had in the distribution of ice time to the players because there were certainly valid questions raised about the over- or under-utilization of Alex Tanguay, Todd Bertuzzi, Dion Phaneuf, Kristian Huselius and Miikka Kiprusoff et al over the past two seasons. If Keenan was indeed left alone to run the bench with his assistants, then he must bear the responsibility for how the players were used or misused.
On a final note, it’s interesting to look back at Sutter’s words from two years ago when the hockey world was stunned by Keenan’s hiring in the first place:
“Mike’s record is clear-cut. I don’t think it’s anything I have to explain. He’s a perfect selection to take our team to the next level. As I told Mike and Jimmy (Playfair, the outgoing head coach who was demoted to associate) yesterday, together they will do something remarkable for our organization.
“The bottom line is we have a very good hockey club and, when you have an opportunity of getting one of the top three or four coaches in modern history to come and coach your team, you do that.”
“To me, “there’s four or five of the modern era that are the great coaches. You can put Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour and Mike Keenan and Glen Sather (on the list) and, after that, there’s a whole bunch of us in the middle and there’s a whole bunch of them at the bottom.”
As for Keenan’s reputation? The larger-than-life persona?
“Because he’s been very successful for a long time,” said Sutter, “there’s always mythology. He has great expectations of himself and so those expectations for individuals, too. So that’s not mythology, really, that’s fact. You don’t win all those championships without having that.”