Flames fire Keenan
Vicki Hall, The Calgary Herald/May 22, 2009
CALGARY - The Iron Mike reign is over.
A Calgary Flames news release titled "Keenan Relieved of Coaching Duties" hit cyberspace Friday afternoon, marking the official end of two years of Mike Keenan behind the bench at the Pengrowth Saddledome.
"Our team did not meet expectations," general manager Darryl Sutter said in the written statement. "Following detailed evaluation over the past three weeks - and taking into consideration all factors affecting our season-ending result - we believe this is a necessary change required to allow our team to continue toward our objective of winning the Stanley Cup."
Under Keenan, the Flames fell short of that objective, with two consecutive first-round playoff exits courtesy of the San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks.
"The Calgary Flames organization appreciates and respects Mike for accepting the opportunity to come to Calgary and are thankful for his efforts over the past two years," Sutter wrote.
With that, the general manager deferred all comment to a news conference scheduled for Tuesday.
The fates of associate coach Jim Playfair and the assistants probably won't be known until July 1, when all their contracts are up.
Keenan, 59, is expected to hold a news conference of his own early next week. He still has a year remaining on a guaranteed contract that is believed to pay him close to $1 million annually.
"I'm always saddened when things like this happen," said Harley Hotchkiss, a member of the Flames ownership group. " I'm sure it was (subject to) a full, thorough discussion by the key people."
Known for his hot temper and unpredictable ways early in his career, Keenan leaves Calgary with the reputation of a toned-down version of his former hard-line self.
"You can point fingers all you want, but obviously, the players have a lot to do with it," forward Eric Nystrom said from his off-season home in Long Island, N.Y. "But if ownership feels it's the right thing for the team, obviously it's something that had to happen."
Nystrom - like many Flames - learned of the head coach's dismissal via text from a teammate who spotted the breaking news on the internet.
It hardly came as an overwhelming shock to Nystrom, who figured something might happen after yet another abysmal conclusion to a promising season.
"We've been bounced from the first round for the past four years in a row," he said. "Nobody's happy with that. And we had that big lead in the division and saw that disappear."
In late January, the Flames held a commanding 14-point lead over the Vancouver Canucks in the race for the Northwest Division title.
In the end, the Canucks stormed back to finish first. Calgary dropped to fifth in the conference and opened the playoffs on the road in Chicago.
The injury-ravaged Flames fell in six games to the youthful Blackhawks.
"People here in Calgary are so nice," said forward Craig Conroy. "But being around the city after we lost, they want action. They feel like we had a better team and we should still be playing.
"Darryl had to make decision. I'm sure it was tough for him, but he's doing what he feels best for the team. And now he's going to have to find someone to replace Mike."
Conroy learned the news via text after watching his daughter Sidney, 4, shine at gymnastics class.
"I was a little surprised - to say the least," Conroy said. "I do like Mike. He's a great man and a great coach. I feel comfortable with Mike.
"It's not just the coach. It's the players. We have to do more. But a lot of times, the guy who takes the fall is the head coach. I think that's what happened here."
Sutter foreshadowed the move in his round of post-season media interviews. The general manager criticized his coach for riding goalie Miikka Kiprusoff to exhaustion.
Kiprusoff played a league-leading 76 games, and Sutter said his goaltender looked tired down the stretch.
"Kipper wanted to play the games," Conroy said. "He always said he wanted to be the guy to play, and Mike has the history of always playing his goaltenders that much. Was it too much?
"I mean, Mike would have given Kipper a day off if he wanted the day off. But he always wanted to play. But the year before, Keenan would play Curtis Joseph and everyone would go in the other direction. It's a catch-22. He either plays too much or not enough."
Sutter's other main complaint centred on the rumour that was team defence.
The Flames were No. 1 in that category in 2005-06, but slipped to No. 23 in 2008-09.
"That's the biggest thing - our goals against," Conroy said. "We have to play better defence. And if we do that, we've got the scoring.
"If we can get back to the top four or five in the league in goals against, then we're going to be a tough team to beat."
Keenan is ranked fourth all-time among NHL coaches in wins with 691 - just one back of third-place Dick Irvin Sr.
And Keenan savoured every single victory as a Flame, in the eyes according to Conroy.
"He was passionate about winning," Conroy said. "When we win, he's more happy than some of the guys. He would be in there cheering with us. Usually coaches just walk in the room and they're not really happy.
"Mike enjoyed the winning part."
In the end, he just didn't win enough.