An interview with Mike Keenan, 64-year-old coach of Metallurg Magnitogorsk
Iron Mike. Mr. Keenan. Coach. What should I call you?
Mike is fine, thank you.
Mike, I have to say, when we were setting up this interview, I was surprised to see you use exclamation marks and “LOL” in your emails. Aren’t you supposed to be mean?
[Laughs] Oh, well.
What’s the best part of the Kontinental Hockey League experience so far?
Dealing with the players. The hockey’s been great, better than I expected. We’re very pleased with the way the season’s going. We’ve got a strong, very young and receptive team.
Any aspects of the KHL that are better than the NHL model?
In the KHL, there are more knee injuries than head injuries because you have a little bit more time to see what’s coming and prepare yourself for contact.
Where do you live?
I’m kind of in the middle of nowhere. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour plane ride southeast from Moscow, just above Kazakhstan—borderline Siberia. There’s a huge steel factory here. It would be comparable to Hamilton, but a little more rugged. It’s a very basic culture, very Russian. There’s not a lot of English spoken. Me and my coaching staff, we live in a place from the Soviet times called the Basa. It’s like a university dorm except I’ve got a full ensuite, a kitchen and living room. I’m like the dean of the dorm.
The dean of a Siberian dorm. I’ll bet you never pictured this.
No, but I don’t have any issues with it. Living in Siberia… it’s like telling an American you live in the Northwest Territories. They’re going to say, “Where?” [Laughs]
You’re a veteran coach, but were you nervous the first time you met the players? In Siberia, they don’t understand you…
No, I wasn’t. I’ll tell you why: Because I met them in a hockey dressing room. I’m very comfortable there.
When you’re angry at practice or during a game, doesn’t it lose its lustre through the translator?
No, it actually doesn’t, because the players seem to know enough—they either hear it, feel it or see it.
Can you swear in Russian?
No, I can’t, and I don’t need to. [Laughs]
Walking onto the plane for your first away game, did you think about the devastating Lokomotiv crash?
No, not at all. Aircraft accidents happen, and unfortunately it happened in this league, but it doesn’t cross my mind. The planes are comparable to any I’ve flown on in North America.
Have your players brought up that ’87 Canada Cup?
No, but they’re very well aware of it. The older players for sure. They don’t talk about it. When Canada and Russia play now, they’ll come in and congratulate me if we beat them. Or if the Russians beat Canada, I congratulate them.
You’ve been called a tyrant and a bully. Deservedly so?
Ah, not at all. I’ve always been firm and demanded a lot. I know the athletes who played for me, in particular the better athletes, know that I helped them succeed. And that’s all that matters.
Which player did you have the biggest conflicts with? Dave Manson, maybe? Jeremy Roenick says Manson wanted to beat you up, and ran after you in his skates.
I can’t remember, but that probably happened. I wouldn’t say it didn’t. There have been so many incidents, I can’t keep ’em all in the file.
That clash you had with Eddie Belfour is unforgettable.
I pulled him out and he didn’t like it. When I reminded him of our discussion about how much I was going to play him, he was fine. It took about 10 seconds to explain and he was fine.
Have you softened at all?
I think I have. I think everybody does. I started coaching and teaching in high school in the early ’70s. That’s 40 some odd years ago.
So, you’re nicer, but you’re still pulling goalies a lot—two changes in three minutes, recently.
Yes, and that’s something that’s new to them in the KHL. But every time I’ve done it, it’s worked, because we’ve come back to win. They’re getting used to it.
Are you drinking a lot of vodka these days?
I am not, no. Very little, actually. I like to have a glass of wine, but when I’m coaching, I don’t. Put it this way: If you want to drink lots of vodka here, you can.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.