James: Interesting comments from Kristian Huselius about Mike Keenan, his former manager with the Florida Panthers and the man who effectively gave him away to the Calgary Flames because they'd run out of patience with him. I'm not surprised that Huselius would try to put a positive spin on things; he knows, as most athletes do, that the days of confiding something to the hometown (or home country) newspaper and thinking they'll go no further are over and done with in the Internet era. I'm sure that when Jarome Iginla gets back from his Mexican vacation (he is currently out of cellphone range) that he too will have only nice things to say about the prospect of playing for Iron Mike. Iginla will undoubtedly get an earful of Keenan stories from Brendan Shanahan (who Keenan traded out of St. Louis for Chris Pronger) when the NHL's competition committee next meets, but publicly, you won't hear anything remotely negative from any of the Flames' players.
Personally, I've always found Keenan charming - but I've never had to play for him. Example: On Thursday, the Flames were completing the formal part of the news conference introducing Keenan as their new head coach. The scrums was already starting to form around Keenan and when I got there, he stuck out his hand and said cryptically, out of the blue: "Sometimes, the game calls you back in different roles."
It took me a second but then I grasped exactly what he was talking about. Almost a year-and-a-half previously, I was planning an Eastern Conference swing through Florida and Iran into Keenan during the world junior championships in Vancouver, after jogging around the seawall at Stanley Park. I wondered if Keenan had time for a preliminary chat - about his life and times and the direction in which his team was heading. Keenan was GM of the Florida Panthers at the time; Jacques Martin had been brought in from Ottawa as the team's new head coach that year; and the Sunshine Boys, Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts, were tag-team partners for the Panthers; Martin Gelinas was there, post-lockout, after having been dropped by the Calgary Flames. The Panthers were rife with stories of interest to a Canadian hockey audience.
Keenan talked about the challenges of working with a restricted budget in Florida and hinted that things could get challenging in the Roberto Luongo negotiations. We talked about all manner of topics - including the fact that he knew Nieuwendyk's father from his days running a sporting goods store in Whitby, Ont. - and eventually the conversation got around to coaching. Keenan always struck me as a career coach, someone who took management positions as they came up, but mostly wanted to be on the ice or behind the bench. That was his background; that was his upbringing.
His answer, to my question about whether he wanted to go back behind the bench, went like this:
"Sometimes, the game calls you back in different roles," he said, alluding to his managerial position with the Panthers. "Do I like coaching? Do I have a passion for coaching? Yes, I do. But I reflect back upon Scotty (Bowman)'s career. People forget he was out of the game for four years, doing television. Then he got back in as a scout (with the Pittsburgh Penguins) and then after Bob Johnson died, he got back into coaching and it evolved from there over the course of a long period of time.
"People ask, 'how does that happen?' Well, you have to reference it over the fact that the average coaching career is two-and-a-half years and you're talking about people who've been involved in the game for 20 or 25 or 30 years in Scotty's case. Do I think I would coach again? I think about it from time to time, but I'm not sure if that's in the cards, or if that's going to happen."
On Thursday, Keenan's words turned out to be prophetic. The game did call him back - for his eighth try behind an NHL bench. In 20-plus years of doing this, Keenan has had his share of successes and failures - more successes in his early years, more failures in recent times, something he attributed to the relatively weak teams that he ended up with over the last few years.
The one thing that you can say about Keenan is that the style of hockey that he wants to play - pressure fore-checking, an aggressive in-your-face approach - is back in vogue again. Even in the trap era, Keenan always wanted to play a more pleasing, Oilers-influenced brand of hockey. Accordingly, it isn't so much a question of Keenan needing to adapt to the new NHL, after three years on the coaching sidelines, as it is of the NHL catching up to the way Iron Mike always wanted to play the game. Stylistically, things came full circle for him. Now, if he can just get that player relationship thing going, it may work out for them after all.