Until three weeks ago Vancouver Canucks players would leave their dressing room and come face-to-face with a message that read, THE VANCOUVER CANUCKS POSSESS TRADITION, EVERY PERSON WHO WALKS THIS HALLWAY HAS AN OBLIGATION TO MAINTAIN THIS TRADITION. WITH THAT IN MIND, WE MUST PURSUE ONLY ONE OBJECTIVE, WITH LITTLE REGARD FOR PAIN, FATIGUE OR PERSONAL EGO. THE OBJECTIVE...DON'T EVEN ASK! The players would stare at the words, and the words would stare back—a standoff between the pros and the prolix. Then, turning left to head to the ice at GM Place, the players would step on rubber carpeting that bore the legend, MASTER TECHNIQUE, BUT LET THE SPIRIT PREVAIL, a noble sentiment but a little too Zen for a group of men who take out their teeth to go to work.
Well, that was Zen and this is now. Mike Keenan was hired as the Canucks' coach on Nov. 13, replacing the overmatched Tom Renney. Keenan is thought of as Iron Mike in the hockey world, but there's an awful lot of Martha Stewart in him. The first thing he does wherever he coaches—Vancouver is Keenan's fifth NHL job—is to add a few homey touches. So down came those words, the well-intentioned but lame handiwork of Renney, and up went some white paint. The inspirational carpeting vanished, too. A picture of the Stanley Cup, Keenan's favorite work of art, was hung above the chalkboard in the dressing room. Players' mug shots went up above their stalls to add a dash of self-esteem, and the old team pictures that used to occupy those spaces have been moved to the hallway so the Canucks won't forget about their tradition, which consists of a pair of losing appearances in the Cup finals (1982 and '94), five winning seasons in 27 years, some of the most hideous uniforms in sports history and one retired jersey, number 12, which belonged to a current assistant coach, the immortal Stan Smyl. Last week arena workers were measuring the corridor outside the dressing room for a curtain to give the players added privacy, and they awaited delivery of a locker room carpet with the layout of an NHL rink woven into it.
Keenan has also made less cosmetic alterations. He put back together the NHL's longest-running defense pair, Jyrki Lumme and the glacial Dana Murzyn, now in their seventh season as partners; let rookie defenseman Mattias Ohlund and Bret Hedican play against the top lines; tossed Alexander Mogilny on right wing with center Mark Messier and left wing (well, most of the time) Pavel Bure to form an All-World line; and increased the minutes of strapping rookie center Dave Scatchard. Keenan even used Bure at center for an entire game and snippets of others, despite the fact that the Russian Rocket's only training at the position was overhearing coaches tell centers where they should play. One other change: With Keenan at the helm, the Canucks, who were 4-13-2 under Renney, were 5-3-2 at week's end.
Rome wasn't redecorated in a day. Vancouver played sloppy, impatient hockey in a 3-2 home loss to the San Jose Sharks last Thursday. "I wondered when the ugly head would rear itself, and the monster didn't disappoint us," said Keenan, after dispatching his players to postgame remedial stationary-bike riding. He looked as if he wouldn't mind if they pedaled all the way to their next match, in Denver. Against the Colorado Avalanche last Saturday night the Canucks were beaten 6-4 despite a hat trick by Bure. Still, Vancouver, which lost 10 straight games earlier in the season, is competitive every night under Keenan.
"Same hands, same feet, same heads," says former captain Trevor Linden, the centerpiece of the Canucks for nine seasons, until Messier signed a three-year, $20 million free-agent deal over the summer. "The same players are here. The only difference has been the coach."
While Keenan has been lucky—Messier recently recovered from swelling under his kneecap; Mogilny, who was a restricted free agent, finally signed a contract three games before Renney was fired; winger Martin G�linas returned from a knee injury three games after Keenan took over—he also, as Linden puts it, "knows how to make the light go on for a group of professional hockey players." Keenan has a program, which encompasses everything from refurbishing the locker room to demanding superb conditioning to instituting an up-tempo pressure game based on pursuit of the puck. The program usually has worked out well even if sometimes Keenan hasn't. This is what makes those Has Mike mellowed? questions absurd. Jim Carrey might play King Lear, but you know at some point he'll go back to talking with his buttocks, because you don't abandon what has worked. Likewise, Keenan isn't going to scrap an approach that helped turn around teams in Philadelphia and Chicago and brought the New York Rangers their first Stanley Cup in 54 years.
Keenan's reputation not only precedes him but also embellishes him. When Vancouver players learned that Keenan had been hired, several sidled over to ask right wing Brian Noonan if Keenan really is that prickly, and that's giving him the benefit of a couple of letters. Noonan is considered a leading interpreter of Keenan, having played for him in four cities. He's part of the unofficial Iron Mike Repertory Company, a troupe that winds up with Keenan the way Tony Roberts and Julie Kavner keep showing up in Woody Allen films. Noonan assured his teammates that Keenan would hold short but hard practices and run a terrific bench, keeping third-and fourth-liners in the game while giving top players as much ice as they could handle.
Messier, the Canucks' captain, turns 37 next month. He isn't the player he was when he won the Cup with New York 3� years ago—he cheats in his defensive zone and often passes up chances for a hit—but he's still a splendid security blanket: He's warm and comforting and has been through the ringer. He serves as Keenan's sounding board and conduit, as he did in New York. Coach and captain talk every day. "Coaches in one room, players in the other—that went out with the hula hoop," says Messier, who had had 10 points in 10 games since Keenan's arrival. Of course, Messier also talked every day with Renney.
The coaching job was simply two sizes too large for Renney, who couldn't reach a bored veteran team in his season-plus-a-month in Vancouver. Last year his practices dragged on like bad novels, his banning of beer on team flights struck the players as petty, and he didn't heed the advice he solicited. When training camp opened in September, Renney tried to change, relenting on the beer and opening up the Canucks' defensive style, but this only rankled players, who thought his transformation was just an attempt to curry favor and keep his job. The only thing he could bribe the players with was success, and when Vancouver didn't win, they drifted away from a man who never had played or coached in the NHL.
A telling example of this occurred on Oct. 25, in a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Renney replaced Bure with Linden for an important defensive-zone face-off toward the end of regulation, and that ticked off the mercurial Bure. In overtime Bure skated languidly to the bench on a line change as the puck was moving past him into the Vancouver zone; his nonplay led to the Penguins' winning goal. In the dressing room afterward Renney confronted his recalcitrant winger, who said he had been tired.