Mike Keenan on coaching future and current NHL superstars

Mike Keenan spent the better part of 25 years as an NHL coach, and recently signed on to lead the KHL's Chinese-based Kunlun Red Star for 2017–18. (Larry MacDougal/CP)

• Working with future NHL superstars
• A coach’s role preparing his team
• Coaching different generations of players

Coaches are involved in every facet of the game, from drawing up a last-second play to making sure the healthy scratch works harder instead of losing hope. They don’t often have time to talk at length, but when they do, you’d better listen. And learn.

In partnership with ProSmart, Sportsnet will publish a number of coaching-related pieces over the next couple of months. In this installment, legendary bench boss Mike Keenan discusses his philosophies on coaching.

Mike Keenan is one of those coaches who always seems angry. Even when he’s winning he looks like he’s about to rip a referee’s head off with his bare hands and spit on his decapitated body. And though he hasn’t always won (his NHL teams’ collective winning percentage is just .551), he enjoyed one of the longest careers in NHL history — having coached eight NHL franchises during a 20-season career. His teams made the playoffs 13 times and won the Stanley Cup once. Most recently he spent three years in the KHL, winning the Gagarin Cup in 2013–14. After a season off, he has signed on to return to the league with Chinese-based club Kunlun Red Star next season.

Arguably one of the most controversial coaches of the past 30 years, he is remembered as much for his victories and defeats as he is for his quarrels with NHL stars like Brett Hull and Trevor Linden. And though his often-unapproachable demeanour has led many to refer to him as “Iron Mike,” he cracked a smile or two and loosened his tie when we caught up with him a couple years back to reflect on a life behind the bench. 

“My teaching and coaching background goes back to my high school days. The first team I ever coached was a lacrosse team at Don Mills Collegiate in Toronto. My first hockey coaching experience was as a senior-A coach in Whitby. In coaching the lacrosse team, you understand that you’ve connected with a group or individuals, or both, and you drive a level of expectations into the group that they maybe don’t understand or don’t think they can realize, and once you get them to the point where they trust that what you’re saying to them is achievable, that’s when you see a difference in motivation in the individual players and in the team. 

Going back to my junior days, I coached Dale Hawerchuk and Larry Murphy, who became stars in the NHL. You could see that their intrinsic values for competition were there to begin with, and then you had to guide them to elevate their game, or learn more about their game, or become better players and give them the inspiration and the confidence so that they could actually achieve more difficult goals than maybe they had expected. 

With a guy like Hawerchuk, you give him confidence — but first you have to teach and instruct him. Then you have to play him in situations that continue to reinforce what you felt he could accomplish, whether he had some failures in certain circumstances or not. Then you come back and reinforce their participation in certain situations that give them a confidence boost. 


There was never a particular coach I liked to play against. I always liked going up against the best teams, but maybe that’s the same thing. When I was with Philadelphia, Al Arbour was coaching in our division and his New York Islanders had just been to the Stanley Cup Final for five consecutive years, winning four of five, so obviously you measure your team up against the defending champions. And then the teams that you knew were well coached and who you were coming up against, like the Edmonton Oilers with their dynasty, you’d always try to meet the challenges of playing the best, and in that case it was Glen Sather who was coaching and managing the team well. Of course, Scotty Bowman always had competitive teams. Pat Quinn’s teams were always quite well prepared. So you’re talking about people who had sustainability in the league. And most had good teams. Teams that you would be challenged to have your team play against.

It’s never about the coach against the coach. It’s about the ability to prepare your team and have your team ready to play against the opposition. And if any coach thinks differently they don’t understand. This is a player’s game. You have a responsibility — a very important responsibility — and a big role as a coach, but ultimately it’s the players who play and it’s their game on the ice. You have a big impact on what happens on the ice because of the deployment of personnel, but you can only work with the players you have on your bench and that deployment has to be predicated on the skill set and the strengths of the players on the team. 

People don’t always understand that for the most part, the star players are the easiest to coach. They understand the game, they understand the nuances, they understand team play. At least that was my experience. You understand their needs and, more importantly, they define your team. So the most important thing you have to work with is their ice time. And you make sure that that’s part of what they expect and that’s part of your responsibility if indeed they are identified as the best players. It was always my view that the best players should play the most. 

“I always liked going up against the best teams. Ones that you would be challenged to have your team play against.”

Coaching is all-encompassing. You continue to learn about yourself just as a player does. A rookie player becomes a changed player with three- or four- or five-years’ experience. And coaches likewise acquire some experience by being with the league and the players. That’s an ongoing process in the game — the changes in the development of the game — and that encompasses many areas. So you learn to make adaptations and you learn to rely on your experience just like a school teacher. When you’re a rookie school teacher, you’re spending hours every night doing your prep work to prepare for classes. And then you get four or five years under your belt, you’re still doing your prep but you’re working smarter rather than harder. Not that you’re not putting the time in, but you know you’re not walking on foreign ground anymore. 

When I came into the NHL in 1984, we spent a great deal of time watching games, reviewing our own games, pre-scouting games. We used video extensively. Not every team did, but the essence of your ability to adapt to the different generations and what they expect, not just as hockey players but as people, that’s what you’re dealing with—your ability to connect with those people of different generations. I coached in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s and in the 2010s, and that’s a passing of generations and you’ve got to develop an understanding for what’s coming up. 

There’s no one particular game that I’d like to go back and coach differently. But our first game against Pittsburgh when I was with the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1992 Final, I felt that I got a little bit distracted by the officiating. Mario Lemieux took a tremendous dive in the neutral zone and [Igor] Kravchuk, his stick was pulled out of his hand and [Jaromir] Jagr went in to score a goal. Both impacted the result of the game [the Pens would go on to sweep the Hawks]. We wound up losing the game and I was very distracted with referee Andy Van Hellemond at the time, and probably that was a little bit counterproductive. But that’s the emotion of the game. You’ve got to deal with it.”