Keenan Operates under a High Pressure System

Article excerpt

Well, sure, said Stephane Matteau. Mike Keenan behaves rather differently now than he did when he coached in Chicago and Matteau played there earlier this decade. "Before," said Matteau, "he was screaming a lot. He was wild on the bench."

Matteau now plays for Keenan on the Rangers. Also noticing the moderation in the boss' demeanor are Matteau's teammates, Greg Gilbert and Mike Hudson, who also worked for Keenan's Blackhawks.

"He doesn't need to give us a boot in the butt all the time anymore," Gilbert said. Hudson remembers a "tight, nervous locker room every day" and a coach "who used to have meetings to decide when our next meeting was."

So why has he changed?

"I don't know," said Hudson. "Go ask Cal."

"Cal" is Dr. Cal Botterill, a professor of psychology from the University of Winnipeg, a part-time aide to Keenan.

In that the Rangers had the best record in the regular season and have won eight of nine games in the post-season tournament, Botterill said he won't fix things that aren't broken.

"In Chicago, by this time, we had at least eight `lifeboat' meetings," Botterill recalled. "We haven't had any here, none at all."

A "lifeboat" meeting, he said, is a session in which players are told to "grab an oar, or be on one. Either you're with us or you're holding us back."

Few teams have psychologists, but Keenan's methods seem to be working, without the hurt feelings he left behind in previous jobs in Chicago and Philadelphia.

If he worked in the corporate world, Keenan would be classified a "turnaround specialist" who knows how to put a business back on the right track before moving on to the next job.

If he were measured by meteorologists, Keenan would be a one-man, high-pressure system from Canada, blowing through town and changing the weather. So far this season, there have been more sunny days than thunderstorms.

"Mike has really evolved," said Botterill, who also assisted Keenan in Philadelphia and Chicago. "If he hurt people, it was because he cared for people and saw things in them they might not have seen in themselves. I try and re-enforce his best instincts and tell him why they work. He is, and can be, a very intimidating individual."

Even the kinder, gentler Mike Keenan fills a room with nervous energy and commands attention by speaking in long paragraphs of carefully chosen words.

His voice is deliberate, even, with an edge to it, much like the strict school teacher he used to be.

A 44-year-old man with a trim mustache and a sturdy physique, Keenan gazes at people with steely dark blue eyes beneath a high forehead topped with brown hair combed back and slicked down.

Give him a black hat and a wand and he could be the magic hypnotist on the stage. You are under his power. You will obey.

Although Keenan's teams have reached the final four round in six of his nine years as a head coach, he has left jobs and cities with bridges smoldering behind him. When he left Chicago, he also left behind a marriage.

"I've tried to learn from the mistakes I've made," Keenan said in an interview last week in his office at the Ice Casino of Rye Playland. "I'm not mistake-free nor have I been mistake-free. I'm not happy with some of the mistakes I've made. But you can't live in the past, you can only learn from it."

In his first season with the Rangers, Keenan admits to angst in his personal life while putting together what may be the best campaign of his coaching career. His team is a finely calibrated mixture of personalities and talents with little dissension and a healthy, if wary, respect for the coach.

Kevin Lowe, a veteran, said he is surprised that Keenan gives players so many off days and urges them to spend time with their families.

"He's pounded that home quite often," Lowe said. "Coming from a hockey coach, it is a little strange. …