During nearly three decades as a professional journalist, I have had my share of confrontations with those I’ve covered. Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson cursed me out loudly. Redskins cornerback Brian Davis threatened to break my legs. Caps owner Ted Leonsis yelled at me over the phone. Orioles designated hitter Lee Lacy profanely told me to get out of his face.
However, being alone in a room with Mike Keenan was one of the few experiences that intimidated me. Keenan was then the fire-breathing coach of the Chicago Blackhawks, a man wild-eyed enough to have yanked All-Star goalie Ed Belfour by the neck.
While working on the feature about Keenan, I was given one of my favorite all-time quotes from then-Caps center Peter Zezel, who had broken in under Keenan with the Philadelphia Flyers. The ever- upbeat Zezel, who died in 2009 at 44 of a rare blood disorder, said, “Playing for Mike Keenan was one of the greatest experiences of my life and I never want to do it again.”
Ironically, Zezel did play for Keenan years later with the St. Louis Blues, but I’ve always remembered that quote when considering the role of NHL coaches.
Unlike football coaches who tend to be mad scientists, always watching tape and designing plays, or baseball managers, who live for the strategic pitching changes and pinch-hitting situations, hockey coaches are usually more motivators than tacticians.
Sure, the Caps changed their style from Bruce Boudreau’s racehorse motif to Dale Hunter’s protect the net focus after their coaching change last November, but the switch took weeks to really come to fruition. And general manager George McPhee said recently that he would like Hunter’s replacement to employ a combination of those approaches.
“We really liked the way that the team competed (for Hunter),” McPhee said. “They played their guts out. We want to maintain that kind of commitment and play a little more up-tempo.”
Boudreau lost his job because the players had stopped listening to them. He admitted that he could no longer motivate them to perform at their premium level. And so he was axed.
That’s the way it works with NHL coaches. The Los Angeles Kings fired Terry Murray in December after three-plus years and they went on to win their first Stanley Cup under Darryl Sutter, who had previously been canned by the Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames while making it past the second round of the playoffs just twice in 11 seasons.
Keenan coached the Flyers to the finals in two of his first three seasons but was gone a little more than a year later. He prodded Chicago to the 1992 finals, but “drove us physically and mentally insane,” forward Steve Thomas told Sports Illustrated, and moved to the front office the next season.
In 1994, Keenan directed the New York Rangers to their only Cup during the last 72 years but feuded so much with GM Neil Smith that he left for St. Louis with four years left on his contract, earning a 60-day suspension and a $100,000 fine from the NHL for his behavior. Keenan has since coached the Blues, Flames, Vancouver Canucks, Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers over parts of 10 seasons while winning just one playoff series.
Don’t expect the 62-year-old Keenan, who hasn’t been behind an NHL bench in three years, to resurface in Washington no matter how high a flame Alex Ovechkin and Co. need lit under them. In fact, none of McPhee’s previous five hires (Ron Wilson, Bruce Cassidy, Glen Hanlon, Boudreau and Hunter) had ever been an NHL head coach.
That could rule out such experienced candidates as Marc Crawford, Paul Maurice, Murray (the Caps’ coach from 1990-94), Pat Quinn and John Stevens and make it more likely that Washington’s next coach will come from the ranks of minor league champion Jon Cooper or NHL assistants Craig Berube, Adam Oates (a Caps captain under McPhee) or Mike Sullivan.
Although McPhee knows that it would be good to have a coach in place to help woo free agents when the market opens on Sunday, he noted that the Devils didn’t hire Peter DeBoer until July 19 last summer and went on to reach the finals.
“There’s no need to set an artificial deadline,” said McPhee, whose Caps have been coach-less since Hunter resigned on May 14. “What’s important is hiring the right person and … knowing you’ve done a real comprehensive (search). Do you hire the coach to fit your talent? Do you hire the coach whose system you like? … If you’re the coach, you’ve got to sell this to the players and have them buy in and that’s what works.”
Of course, as Boudreau discovered last November, what works eventually stops working and then it’s time for the next coach.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin