Monday, July 8, 2024

Review: Iron Mike (2024)

By Mike Keenan with Scott Morrison

I once had the chance to interview noted hockey coach Mike Keenan in a small group setting. In other words, I was in his office in St. Louis with one other reporter after a morning practice. After about 10 minutes with Mike, I have to say I was impressed. He was obviously a smart person with some interesting points to make about our questions. No wonder he won a lot of games - even if he had a reputation as Hockey's Machiavelli.

Therefore, it was an easy call to acquire a copy of his autobiography, "Iron Mike." What would he have to say about his entire hockey career?

It's fair to say that Keenan puts his various sides of his personality on full display here. He had an almost unmatched passion for winning, and drove all of his players hard toward that goal - too hard, in some cases. Keenan also generated plenty of opinions from all who knew him. It adds up to an unlikely but successful career.

Keenan first received a little notice in our part of the hockey world in 1981. He was an unknown junior coach from Ontario when Scotty Bowman of the Sabres tapped him to become the head coach of the team's minor league affiliate in Rochester.  Keenan won a championship in the American Hockey League with the Americans. From there it was on to the University of Toronto for a year before landing the head coaching job with the Philadelphia Flyers - a team that was supposed to be rebuilding.

Surprise. The Flyers reached the Stanley Cup Finals that first season, losing to the powerful Edmonton Oilers. Suddenly everyone knew that the man could coach. Keenan stayed through 1988, when some internal problems cost him his job. Note: That last part of the sentence will come up again. Keenan landed in Chicago, where he led the Blackhawks to the finals in the spring of 1992.... but was out of work before training camp. 

The Rangers eventually called at that point, and Keenan was behind the bench when New York ended a 54-year drought with a memorable Stanley Cup victory. However, he and Neil Smith never did see eye-to-eye, and Keenan eventually left for a job in St. Louis. From there it was on to Vancouver, Boston, Florida and Calgary in various capacities. There were other problems with people along the way. Keenan now is getting ready to coach the Italian National team in the 2026 Olympics. 

By the way, Keenan has a bit of a surprise for his old friends in the Buffalo-Rochester area. He writes that he was approached by the Sabres to replace John Muckler as the team's general manager in 1997. There aren't any details, but it's interesting to wonder how Keenan might have done in Buffalo. For starters, would he have coached the team? In any event, the Sabres' future would have been much different had Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff not turned up to run the team in 1997.

Keenan spends a little time on some of his coaching techniques here, and they weren't for the faint of heart. Yes, he would exile players to the locker room during practice for a lack of effort, threaten them with trades to other teams, etc. Occasionally a player - or players - would rebel. There were some frequent quarrels with team executives over personnel, as Keenan always pushed to acquire certain types of players that he thought could help him. It could be said that he sounds like football coach Bill Parcells in that sense. Parcells used to complain about personnel moves, and then issued the famous quote, “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.”

The acknowledgements are quite revealing when it comes to Keenan's level of commitment. He knows he drove himself and everyone around him too hard during his NHL coaching days, and paid a price for it on and off the ice (a couple of failed marriages are a reflection of that). Keenan once ordered a change of hotels in Washington on short notice because the team had lost in its previous visit there. He asked to fire a national anthem singer because his rendition was too slow. So be sure to read the whole book.  

It's a complicated package to fit into one mind, and it seems as if the book could have been even longer than it is. Still, "Iron Mike" is a chance to listen in on the thoughts of a personality that has been anything but dull over the years. Those who encountered him along the way in one form or enough certainly will be interested in hearing his side of the stories in full.

Four stars

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1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    I think you would be interested in a book I have on Japanese baseball titled "A Baseball Gaijin" by Aaron Fischman. Please reach out to if you are interested in a review copy.

    About the Book:
    A Baseball Gaijin follows the true story of Tony Barnette as he chases his dream to become a professional baseball player.

    He signed in Japan to the Yakult Swallows. The odds were against him, as less than one quarter of gaijin (“foreigner”) ballplayers who go to Japan appear in the majors.

    In 2015, he guided his team to the Japan Series. He’d go on to pitch four seasons with the Rangers and Chicago Cubs.

    Aaron Fischman worked directly with Tony to tell his story.