OPEN MIC: Panthers coach Mike Keenan

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Jim Kelley

The resume reads like a travelogue: Philadelphia, Chicago, New York , St. Louis, Vancouver, Boston and now Florida. Mike Keenan is the definition of a well-traveled coach. He's also a poster boy for both controversy and success and his being fired has often been as celebrated as his being hired. But say what you want about Keenan, he wins. It may not be done the way some people like it, but he has a reputation of making bad teams better and making good teams great. Along the way he's won converts, made enemies, bruised egos and made friends. He's been hired by the best of them and fired by the same group. Now he's doing it in Florida with the , a team that has made great strides this season and though likely to miss the playoffs they are a better team with Keenan then they were before he arrived. FOXSports.com caught up with the man they call "Iron Mike" by telephone for a bit of interesting conversation. FOXSports.com: You've coached, with success, at the highest levels in hockey: Stanley Cup, Canada Cup and international events. You've been with high-profile teams and high-profile cities. What's it like starting almost from scratch with a young-team in a non-traditional market like Florida? Mike Keenan: The thing you quickly realize is that teams go in cycles. Florida has been in a down one in a market that would support a playoff team if it were playing better. A little like the transition team we had in Chicago. The franchise at the time we arrived was at an all-time low in terms of season ticket holders and only drawing 8,000 to 10,000 a night and they were dead last in the standings. In the course of four years we won the President's Trophy and went to the Stanley Cup finals. As that progressed you couldn't get a seat in the building. That's a tremendous example of how on-ice success will sell tickets in that market. FOXSports.com: True enough, but Chicago is a proven hockey town. Florida is about as far as you can get from there and still be in the NHL. MK: But Florida has proven itself in the past. They had success in this market when they went to the finals in just their third year. People here got excited about hockey and they will again. We have an opportunity here to bring that (enthusiasm and excitement) back. FOXSports.com: You have something of a reputation for dealing with established players seeking a final goal. What's it like working with mostly kids? MK: There's no question regards the context of the group and in terms of growth, that's very important. When we went to Philadelphia (the start of Keenan's NHL career) we had the youngest team in pro sports let alone hockey, but we had some guys who lent a veteran presence, guys like Brad McCrimmon. And Brian Propp was a seasoned vet and Tim Kerr was a proven goal scorer and we had Dave Poulin as our captain and he was young, but he was a strong leader. We had success with those guys helping the young guys along. In Chicago it was somewhat of a transition team as it went from an old team with players like Denis Savard and Al Secord and Doug Wilson and Bob Murray, guys who were there for a long time, but then we made the trade for (defenseman) and we grounded the team with him and Brent Sutter and a core group that we put the youngsters around and we went to the finals with them
NAME: Mike Keenan
POSITION: Head coach of the Florida
OTHER JOBS: Head coach in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Vancouver and Boston. General Manager in St. Louis and de facto general manager in Chicago.
WHY YOU NEED TO KNOW HIM: Because he wins. Call him controversial, abrasive, confrontational, what ever words you like, but when Mike Keenan goes to a team that team always plays better.

It was a little different in St. Louis and we had a very veteran team in New York (where Keenan won a Cup). We had a transition team in Vancouver, like Chicago, but this group, the entire group, is young. If you take and out of the mix and this is all 20-year olds with two 19-year-old kids. That's a different challenge. We have to develop a team, but also we have to develop a leadership group. When you do something like that you have to develop both the dominant roles and the sub-dominant roles. You have to develop leaders of skilled players, grinders, defense and goaltending. Something like that, the task is greater. The goal is two-fold in that you have to develop team ability but then team skills and leadership in groups and in sub-groups. That's a task. FOXSports.com: Is that why the Florida are often inconsistent? MK: Regards experience, you have to learn it and live it. That's how you get it and that results in a fluxuation in your game. Some nights we look like a team that is very, very successful and on some other nights just average. We are really a hard team to beat. If you look at the loss column we are among the teams with the least number of losses but then we don't yet have the experience and the mental toughness to win which is why we have the most overtime games played in the league. We are a tough team to beat, but we're not experienced enough to know how to win. The difference say between us and Dallas is they have 15 ties and two overtime losses and we have 12 ties and nine overtime losses. We've won some overtime games as well, but we've played 25-26 overtime-games. That's a byproduct of developing a young group. FOXSports.com: One of your trademarks seems to be singling out one or two players of promise who haven't achieved and then they become breakout players. It's happened most everywhere you've been, and now it's happening for Oli Jokinnen. How has that come about? MK: I guess from my teaching experience, the one adage that comes to mind is, "When does a teacher become a good teacher? It's when the student is ready to learn." There are all kinds of ways to inspire someone to learn and to improve. You can create an environment of support when needed and challenge them to be better when they think they've improved enough. Obviously there are a lot of levels, but fundamentally, when the student is ready to learn and wants to be better than he's shown to this point, that's when he starts to improve. FOXSports.com: That seems to tie into your reputation as a coach who demands excellence. MK: That's a fair assessment, demand excellence. I am (demanding) am because I believe in what we're doing and to be successful in this business you define it in the advancement in a group. Winning hockey is not normal. It's not normal behavior that wins you a championship its sacrifice, it's doing things you didn't think you could do and asking yourself to buy into something that you didn't think you could achieve. It's often a matter or ratcheting up the expectation or raising the bar and having people try to get there. FOXSports.com: Some do, some don't, but from what I read and hear lately, you've been stepping up the demands of late. MK: Sometimes the process has to be accelerated because though people say they have the patience, they really don't. That's why you see so many coaching changes. I'm comfortable with that. It's always how I've approached this profession. When not comfortable with that I'll leave. If I'm enjoying it and healthy enough, that's the way I want to do it. I want to believe players want to be better players. FOXSports.com: Is that what the players think you're doing? MK: Talk to some of them. Not all of them will say that, but I've had a lot of players who maybe didn't like me and they've told me that and that, at times, it was difficult. But they often say they became a better player or a better team and often they became better than they thought they were capable of becoming. FOXSports.com: How did you come by that philosophy? MK: My background is in teaching and this is not unlike that. Teaching is what coaching really is and if you think back, you probably had a schoolteacher who asked you to work hard, demanded more. If you did that, you became a better student, sometimes much better than you thought you could be, but you had to do the work. FOXSports.com: So you don't shy away from the taskmaster reputation. You're proud of that? MK: I am. I think a lot of my former players learned a great deal about being professional. In the end, you're striving for a situation like Scotty (former Detroit coach Scott Bowman, the winningest coach of all time) had and a team like he had. In the end, it was an extremely mature team regards experience. They were a little unsettled with Scotty in the first couple of years there and then they started winning and the started realizing what he was doing and that, really, he was helping them. He put players in situations that they didn't understand at first, but eventually they came to realize that he was allowing them to test them selves and they became better players and a better team for that. He's left that legacy with him. FOXSports.com: In the end, veteran hockey watchers maintained that that team could and did coach it self. That Bowman had positioned them for success and that he still was the master of the X and O and things like that, but that the will to succeed came from within the room it self. Is that what a coach strives for? MK: No question about it. My job is done and I've served this team well if this team could coach itself. And that's what Scotty was able to accomplish. He had put the team at a stage where it could coach itself and would coach itself. Dave (current head coach Dave Lewis) is a good coach and he is a part of that core group and they learned it with him and he has learned it with them and it's one of the reasons they continue to have success because they came to it together. FOXSports.com: There have been published reports lately that you are interested in going back to the New York or that they might be interested in you. I realize tampering is an issue here, but what's going on? MK: I didn't drop any hints. I'm happy where I am and I enjoy working with the young group we have here. As long as the owner is happy with me I'm happy staying. FOXSports.com: Well said, but what about the rumors? MK: It's flattering to hear the rumors but they are only rumors and nothing more than that. I've been asked questions about it and I've learned over the years that if you say nothing then people tend to fill in that void that you create by not addressing the issue. I don't like to do that and yes, I'm more or less responding to hearsay, but since you asked: Yes I enjoyed coaching the players (still there) and there are people that I had success with. They are great talents and enjoy that they speak fondly of me, but I'm very interested in helping this group and at this stage of my career I find it very interesting to start with so many young players and teach them how to become champions. One thing this group can do is keep you young, they try your patience. Some of these kids are the age of my daughter. I looked at the birth dates of some of these players and some were just being born when I was coming into the league (to coach). FOXSports.com: Do you like that? MK: Like I said, it's like teaching school. You go into that profession and it doesn't take long before you're sitting there and all of a sudden, 25 years go by and you look at the students in front of you and you say to your self "Oh my God, where the time go?" I enjoy that part of it, the teaching aspect. Like I said, coaching is teaching, I was trained to be a teacher and that's the part I enjoy. If I weren't healthy or I didn't enjoy it, then I'll leave. As far as whole New York scenario goes, I'm appreciative that people are making suggestions that I can help, but I'm more interested in staying here and developing this team. I'm hoping this is my last coaching stop. FOXSports.com: You fired assistant coaches Paul Baxter and George Kingston Thursday and replaced them with Duane Sutter and John Torchetti. What was that all about? MK: Duane has coached at the minor league and NHL levels and has previously played for me. He has an outstanding background, including several Stanley Cup Championships as a player. Rick (general manager Rick Dudley) and I have a tremendous level of respect for John and the fabulous job he has done in San Antonio. Both coaches will have significant teaching responsibilities as we continue to develop our young players. Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Red Wings, Rangers, Panthers, Chris Chelios, Igor Ulanov

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