Coach ‘Iron’ Mike Keenan is a KHL champion, winning the Gagarin Cup 20 years after he hoisted the Stanley Cup. He caught up with THN for a Q&A about fascinating Russian journey.
‘Iron’ Mike Keenan has enjoyed a poetic spring. Almost 20 years to the day after winning the Stanley Cup as coach of the New York Rangers, the legend added to his resume by winning the Kontinental League’s Gagarin Cup with Metallurg Magnitogorsk. His first season coaching in the world’s No. 2 pro league culminated in a thrilling, seven-game victory over Lev Prague in the final. Keenan caught up with THN to describe his fascinating journey, including the KHL’s high standard of play, Russia’s crazy drivers, karaoke and the possibility of an NHL return.
THE HOCKEY NEWS: What was your No. 1 reason for accepting a KHL coaching job in the first place?
MIKE KEENAN: I took the job because I wanted to get back into coaching and the NHL showed no interest. It was not only an opportunity to experience a different hockey setting, but also a cultural opportunity to study other people from a different country.
THN: Paul Maurice had a similar experience before you, leaving the NHL to coach Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Did you seek him out for any advice before you embarked?
KEENAN: I talked to Paul quite a bit prior to my departure or even accepting the job, just to get a feel for the environment I was going to face. Just as importantly, I wanted some detailed information about the organization itself.
THN: Did he warn you about anything?
KEENAN: Not really. He had his own opinion, and I respected it, but I probably went with a completely different approach than what Paul did. In fairness, I’m a little bit older. I think he was a bit more anxious about coaching in the NHL, and I was more interested in the experience.
THN: What were your first impressions of KHL players? How did they respond to you in the early going?
KEENAN: They were really great. We pretty much outlined the expectations we should have of each other from day one. Then we had a brief training camp in Magnitogorsk for a few days, then we went to an Olympic training site in Garmisch, Germany. So we got into more details about our program and what we expected on and off the ice. But the group was really receptive and easy to work with.
THN: Were you recognized as easily around town, or did a KHL coaching gig afford you more anonymity than an NHL one?
KEENAN: Magnitogorsk isn’t a very big city. It’s about 400,000 people. The hockey team’s a focal point for the community, and immediately I was recognized by the public everywhere I went.
THN: Any early culture shock? What stood out to you as different from home?
KEENAN: We had a driver, and I don’t know if there were any rules on the road, but it was completely different than what you’d experience in North America. They’re a lot more aggressive. They drive fast. The other aspect is that I was anticipating a little bit different food menu (laughs). As it turned out, it wasn’t a great deal different. I was surprised. There were a lot of fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, fresh fish, meat, poultry. The food was great. The thing that surprised me immediately was the driving. But other than that, I was at the arena most of the time. If not, I was back at the baza where I lived, which is like a university dormitory. They’ve got a KHL station which is 24/7, 365 hockey. I watched quite a bit of that, and I also had access to English news like BBC and CNN, and some other English channels. So between that and the hockey, that’s pretty much of the existence of our home life.
THN: Was the language barrier between you and many of your players difficult to overcome?
Keenan: No, we were very fortunate. Ilya Vorobyev was one of our assistant coaches and translator. He’s excellent at it. His father’s a legendary coach in Russia, and Ilya has mastered not only the English language, but besides being a Russian and speaking Russian, he mastered the German language as well. He was our lifeline right from the beginning. He was able to communicate at an intellectual and/or emotional level what we were trying to accomplish. And a few players could understand a little bit of English, enough to follow instructions. We had five imports, three Canadians. So, for example, if we were doing a drill, I’d put the Canadians up front so they could demonstrate what we wanted done. And everyone picked it up quickly. There were some challenges, but we had a good staff and a pretty open-minded, receptive group of hockey players.
THN: People are always comparing the caliber of play between the NHL and KHL. Did anything surprise you?
Keenan: In our first KHL game, I was shocked. I didn’t think it was going to be that intense or that good. We went through 10 pre-season games and our team did well, went 8-1-1. Then we came to our opening game on the road. We played Dynamo Moscow. They’d won two consecutive championships. Well, I wasn’t ready and the team wasn’t ready for the level of competition and the intensity of the play. That was a big wakeup call for me in Game 1. I knew the league was good, but I didn’t think it was that good. That surprised me. So I had to make some adjustments in terms of our preparation. It took a little bit of time.
THN: Anything strike you as unique about the league’s structure or style?
Keenan: The hockey itself is completely different playing on an international-sized ice surface. Yet in the final we played in a hybrid arena. It’s between the Olympic size and width and the NHL’s. The NHL and the Olympics are 15 feet different, and this is probably about seven or eight feet different in terms of width. It’s the same length for all of them. So you had to make different adjustments. Vladivostok is a new team, and it’s a Russian team, but there’s a big push there to try to have the game played on NHL ice surfaces. So they had two arenas, one with the NHL size and one with Olympic. And when we played them in the playoffs, we played on the NHL-sized rink. That’s their choice. That’s what you call home ice advantage. The old Chicago stadium or Boston Garden, the Montreal Forum, Maple Leaf Garden, even the old St. Louis Blues barn, they all had certain aspects. The Chicago Blackhawk ice surface was not completely NHL-sized. It was a little bit narrow in the corners compared to the arc there is now. Those things don’t exist anymore, it’s more cookie-cutter now, but back then there were lots of differences. In the KHL you experience the same thing. The arc of the corners isn’t all the same, so it’s interesting.
THN: How are the KHL playoffs versus the NHL’s?
Keenan: Our playoff series against Prague, I’d say that series was just as competitive as any NHL series I’ve been in. Maybe the final in the NHL would be a little bit better, but certainly the final in the KHL would be comparable to what you’re seeing in the NHL today. It was very fierce, very intense, a lot of skill. The rules are a little bit different for different teams. There are eight countries represented in the league. Next year there will be nine. And the Russian teams can only have five imports. The non-Russian teams can have as many as they like. And the team we played in Prague had 16 imports. We had five. So we were playing an all-star-team from the Czech Republic, and on top of that there were players from Canada, Sweden, Finland, and Slovakia.
THN: Given the challenges you overcame with Magnitogorsk, where does this championship rank for you? It’s been 20 years since you won the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers.
Keenan: It’s tough to win any championship, and I’m fortunate. I was in the Memorial Cup final, won the Calder Cup in the American League, the University Cup, the Stanley Cup final four times. Won the Stanley Cup, two Canada Cups, World Championship, two junior championships. But I’d say this ranks up there with the New York Ranger victory. Obviously winning in New York is a much bigger deal, my first NHL Stanley Cup victory. But this ranks up there for me because of how much more difficult it was to go to a foreign country, to play in so many different countries, to travel vast distances. Some of our road trips were eight hours of flying just to go to a game. One thing, too, that I appreciated very much when I first got there: I reflected on my NHL experience when a number of foreign or import players came to our NHL teams. I was so unaware of what their needs were, not even thinking, “They can’t speak English, they’re in a foreign country.” We should’ve had interpreters for them. We should’ve had people going grocery shopping with them, driving them around until they get acclimated. Because that’s exactly what it was like when I first got to Russia. I said, “Well, how do I get to the grocery store? How do I communicate with somebody at the store? How do I ask for a certain product? How do I even get to an address? I don’t know the streets. That was the other thing besides the driving. That time it took to be comfortable with your surroundings. I’m thinking, “Man, I’m not sure how many NHL hockey players who couldn’t speak the language really were able to give us their best shot, because there were so many other issues they had to deal with.” So from that perspective, it was a real eye-opener.
THN: During the Gagarin Cup celebration, your players were really tossing you high in the air. Any scary moments?
Keenan: No, not at all. That’s a Russian tradition. They do it for must most Russian coaches if you win a championship. And they asked one of our assistants if it would be OK if they did. He just said, “Sure, go ahead.” He told me that afterward (laughs), but, yeah, it was a neat celebration.
THN: And the karaoke? It needs no introduction at this point.
Keenan: That was put up in the dressing room. Sergei Tereschenko heard I was in a rock ‘n’ roll band. You wouldn’t tell by my voice now, but when I was a kid. And he said, “Why don’t you sing for us?’ And I said “I’ll sing for you if we win the championship.” So when we won, he came across the dressing room and said “Well, now you have to sing.” And I said, “You’re right.” So that was fun.
THN: The song was in Russian, right? Did you pick up some words while you were there?
Keenan: No, but I knew that song a little bit. Ilya was singing it in Russian, and I’d heard the song enough to know some of the lyrics. I think they thought that was pretty cool.
THN: You’ve learned so much over the last year. What advice would you pass on to any other ex-NHL coach crossing over to the KHL?
Keenan: The most challenging aspect is the translation. Make sure you’ve got a great translator who’s able to deliver the messages you want the players to receive, whether it’s something on the ice, something in between periods, whatever the case. The environment I was in was heartland Russia. I wasn’t in fancy Moscow, where a lot more people can speak English, or St. Petersburg. I was in the middle of the country, in the Ural Mountains. Very few people speak English there, even now, compared to the more populous cities.
THN: Is it true you wouldn’t return to coach in the NHL? Is there no perfect offer that would tempt you?
Keenan: Yeah, I said that, but the context should be clarified. Someone asked me and I said, “Well, I’ve had no interest from the NHL. So I’m not even thinking about it.”
THN: But, theoretically, you’d have an open mind if a team knocked on your door.
Keenan: Yeah (laughs), obviously I would.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin
This is an extended version of a feature that appears in the June 23 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.