It wasn’t a surprise when Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Kontinental Hockey League hired a former NHL coach this season, having previously employed former Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice.
But it was surprising their new North American-born coach was “Iron” Mike Keenan, a legendary name in the NHL whose infamous temperament (and history with European-born players) could make for some exciting times in Russia.
Pavel Lysenkov of SovSport spoke with Keenan recently about why he made the move to the KHL, Ilya Kovalchuk’s move there, Crosby vs. Ovechkin vs. Datsuyk, how he’ll treat KHL goalies, the 1987 Canada Cup and some of his more notorious moments as a coach. Enjoy …
Q. Name three reasons why you decided to work in the KHL.
KEENAN: “The first reason is that I wanted to start coaching again. I was doing TV since I left Calgary with the exception of getting involved with Team Canada in the Maccabiah Games in Israel. I was the head coach and Mike Pelino was the assistant. We had to tell them we’d help them other coaches, because we were going to leave and come here. And Guy Carbonneau and Wayne Primeau ended up coaching them. And then last winter I did a program for CBC with children across Canada from Halifax to Vancouver. I was on the ice 11 hours every week teaching young people. That inspired me to start thinking about coaching again. And the third reason was that Magnitogorsk wanted me and pursued me for quite some time, and convinced me to come and coach in the KHL. And I like to teach. I am a former teacher. Magnitogorsk provided an opportunity.”
Why is your wife so interested in Russia?
“It’s interesting my wife has had a passion for Russian history for many years. She knows more about Russian history than an average Russian. She has read many books, and knows a lot more about their country than most Russians. It’s just something she is passionate about. I don’t know why. But she is fascinated about. I came here before as an NHL manager to scout players. We were very privileged when I came here to do a coaching clinic with Tretiak. Sergei Nemchinov and Tretiak made us guests to do a private tour of the Kremlin. But she was into history of Russia well before that.”
Paul Maurice said Magnitogorsk reminded him of the small Canadian town he was born in. What are your associations with the city?
“I don’t know where he was born. But I was raised just outside of Toronto in a community in Oshawa, where there is a huge car factory that employs many thousands of people, including my grandfather. My father’s father worked at the factory for 50 years. And my father and both of his brothers worked at the factory for over 30 years each. I worked as a welder at the factory when I was a university student. So, I was familiar with a factory town, which Magnitogorsk is. Similar atmosphere. He (Maurice) may be referring to Hamilton, Ontario. I don’t know if he is, or not, but it is also a steel town.”
About making decisions as the national team coach.
“When I coached Team Canada I had to make some tough decisions. I won’t go into the names, but I can tell you that for Canada Cup 1987 I cut five Hall of Fame players… I can think of Patrick Roy, Cam Neely, Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic…I can’t think of one more… But there were five of them. They were too young at the time. I cut young guys from the Canada Cup. There were others too, top players who didn’t make it.”
Will you stick to the principle of pulling the goalie after two goals?
“Probably not. The goaltending is different here. It is different from North America, because of the distance. Even talking to Pavel Bure he said I would make a good play here, but it is still too far to score. In North America you can make a play, shoot and score, because it is close. There is a difference in terms of the goaltending skill. Wasn’t Koshechkin voted an MVP last season? Another reason you won’t pull your goalie as much here is because there are 28 less games here. That’s a lot! 54 game schedule versus 82 – that’s a big difference. Sometimes you take a goalie out to give them some rest. But you don’t have to here because, for example, we don’t play a back to back game an entire season. That’s very, very different than the NHL.”
Why is Pavel Bure your favorite Russian player?
“He is one of my favorites for sure. Just because he played for me in Vancouver and then in Florida. I had Alex Mogilny as well. And then some great players in New York, the first Russians who won the Cup with the New York Rangers – Zubov, Nemchinov, Karpovstev and Kovalev. Kovalev is an unbelievably talented player. I had Yushkevich, Kravchuk, who was the first-ever Russian player taken by the Blackhawks when I was the manager. I took him and brought him from the Olympic team. I had a lot of good Russian players whom I had a good relationship with and a lot of success with. Pavel is a spectacular player for sure. He is my wife’s favorite, because every time he touched the puck, she would stand up.”
Is it true that you couldn’t stand each other in Florida or not?
“That’s not true at all. Quite frankly, the reason I went to Florida was because of Pavel. But our owner decided he couldn’t afford the budget, and that’s why I had to trade Pavel to New York, because the owner decided to cut the budget. The owner asked me and he asked Pavel if he could trade Pavel.”
Let’s revisit the third period of the 1987 Canada Cup. What direction did you give your team that you won 6-5?
“My answer was going to be number 99 and number 66. Putting two of them together made the difference for us. I don’t know if you remember that, but when we had that face off with Howerchuk, and Murphy was there as well, the difference was that Tikhonov was a bit miffed, curious because he would just rotate. And he had his 4th unit on the ice. And I put on our first. I had the last change, because we had the home ice advantage. I saw he had his 4th unit on. And I said he’d put our best guys against their lower block team. That was the difference for us. And we did that the entire series. He was very predictable. He would just stay 1st unit, 2nd, 3rd, 4th. 1, 2, 3, 4 in rotation. Most Canadian coaches don’t coach like that. The bench management is different.”
If you were an NHL GM and had to pick Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Pavel Datsyuk, who would you pick and why?
“They are all franchise players. I am surprised you don’t have Malkin there too. Sidney’s got some health issues. Datsyuk is getting older. And Ovechkin hasn’t won yet. So all three of them have a dilemma to a certain extent. Ovechkin and Crosby are obviously much younger. I would probably pick any one of them.”
Were you surprised that Kovalchuk decided to come to the KHL?
“I don’t understand what happened with his contract. I didn’t know you could do that. I don’t know how they did that. Because I thought the standard player contract in the NHL was binding and you couldn’t break it. Even if the club agrees. Because the union is that strong. The union doesn’t want them to break contracts. I don’t know if they skipped a payment and it became a legal issue then, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know how you can break a contract. I still don’t understand it. Something happened though. For me, something must have happened in legal terms. Maybe New Jersey didn’t pay him on purpose to break the contract.”
A lot of people in the KHL want to switch to NHL size rinks. What are your thoughts?
“It’s a completely different game, and the sense I am getting from the KHL people is that they may push to change to a smaller ice surface just because the game is more dynamic, there’s more contact, it’s quicker. The major issue in the NHL is head injuries. The major issue in the NHL is knee injuries. Guys sticking their knees out because there is so much space. That’s a consideration for sure. Because if you look at the man power loss, what the owners have to pay, the number of people who are injured and out is phenomenal. The NHL ownership because of concussions is losing a lot of man power. That’s going to be a big issue with smaller ice surface. But the dynamics…And it’s probably very crowd pleasing because it is so physical. There’s less room to go, there’s more contact.”
Do you remember a moment in your coaching career when you surprised yourself with an extraordinary move?
“I don’t know if this was a surprise, but I kept it to myself. It was during the Canada Cup that I didn’t show anybody, I didn’t tell anybody, including my assistant coaches, that I was going to put Gretzky and Lemieux together. I didn’t want to play them for the entire tournament together, but I wanted to surprise the Soviet Union. I wanted to have that element of surprise.”
Who was the most difficult player to coach in your career?
“There’s always an interesting thing with Brett Hull. We’re buddies, friends. But he was an interesting player to coach. There are others, and people will know who they are. There’s no reason talking about them, because, for example, Joe Murphy was difficult, but people here wouldn’t even know who Joe Murphy is. Brett Hull had a mind of his own. He was very stubborn. A superstar, an excellent player, but very stubborn. He knew how he wanted to play.”
Who was the player who never realized his potential?
“I had a kid named Todd Bergen. And again, people wouldn’t know who he is. He was a really good young player, when I was in Philadelphia. He was exceptional, but he just quit to play golf, because he liked golf better than hockey. Zherdev? I never really had players like that. My best players were always my best players. I didn’t have a player who was a really talented played but didn’t play well. Just the one kid I mentioned.”
What is the most memorable game of your career?
“The third game of the Canada Cup, or the seventh game of the Stanley Cup. Either one. Both are top memories.”
People say Keenan kicks trashcans in the locker room.
“I do that every once in a while to get them fired up. I tell you a funny story. The trainers played a trick on me once. There was an ice chest there and it was empty. I went to kick it but they filled it with ice. I kicked it and I broke my toe. So I don’t do that anymore.”
Jeremy Roenick wrote in his book that one Chicago player wanted to fight you.
“It was probably him. I don’t know. I was a tough coach in Chicago. Maybe Dave Manson?”
Alex Kovalev wrote in his book the Rangers leading 3-1 [in the playoffs] started losing because Keenan decided to leave for St Louis.
“That’s not true. That’s what the media wrote. But that was not true. I wanted to stay in New York. But the manager at the time, Neil Smith, didn’t want me. They guy that hired me, his name was Stanley Jaffe. And he was in charge of Paramount who owned the team. And the team was sold to Viacom. And when the team was sold, Stanley Jaffe was fired. So, the guy who hired me was gone. I was mad, I was upset that Neil Smith didn’t want me anymore, because I wanted to stay, because I felt we could have won another Cup in New York. So the rumors started that in the playoffs. If they were saying that it’s because the media was making the stories up. I didn’t go near St. Louis until way after the finals were finished.”