Keenan's arrival could drive Iginla, Kiprusoff out of town
CALGARY, Alberta -- The hire has implosion written all over it.
The debris field threatens to stretch all the way north to Edmonton, all the way south to Lethbridge.
The ending of this movie has the potential to mirror Jimmy Cagney in the final minutes of "White Heat," standing at the top of the chemical plant, emptying his bullets into a gas tank and shrieking "Made it, ma! Top o' the world!" as the mushroom cloud of fumes and fire envelops him.
Yes, "Iron Mike" Keenan is back. Harder to get rid of than a zit a day before the prom. His authoritarian jackboots traded in for a pair of cow-pie clogged cowboy kickers, bringing his blunt, uncompromising, signature style to Calgary.
This is high risk. But will it bring high reward?
"Mike's record is clear-cut," Flames general manager Darryl Sutter contended Thursday at a news conference introducing Keenan as the replacement to Jim Playfair. "I don't think it's anything I have to explain.
"He's a perfect selection to take our team to the next level. As I told Mike and Jimmy [the deposed head coach, now demoted to associate coach], together we can do something remarkable for this organization. When you have an opportunity of getting one of the top three or four coaches in modern history, you do that."
Not if you're looking for peace and quiet, you don't.
Sutter is banking his near-iconic status in Calgary on Keenan, his former mentor. If the Iron Mike experiment ends in ashes, and there are many, many reasons to believe it could, bet a fiver that the fallout will be widespread and indiscriminate.
This gamble is huge for both Sutter and the Calgary Flames. The stakes are massive. In the ruin of two first-round playoff exits and facing the expectations of a city saddled with delusions of grandeur, the pressure is on Keenan to be the coach of 1994 in New York and not the guy who bombed out in St. Louis, Boston, Vancouver and Miami.
And you have to wonder how Iron Mike's arrival will impact the long-term stay of the team's two most important players, captain and inspirational leader Jarome Iginla and bailout goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff.
Both are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents as of July 1, 2008. Iginla, frankly, had a miserable time dealing with the acerbic, unrelenting badgering of Sutter when he was coaching the Flames. Well, D. Sutts learned his craft under Keenan in Chicago, and frequently cites him as an inspiration. Oh, great. You can already hear Iginla reconsidering that "I want to re-sign as soon as possible" stance he adopted at season's close.
Kiprusoff, meanwhile, is a proud, if quiet, individual who loves the workload and hates to be shown up. Keenan didn't earn the moniker Captain Hook for giving his goaltenders a lot of leash.
You can already feel the tension.
The way Keenan handles these two players over the next few months will go a long way in determining where they wind up at the start of the 2008-09 season. Quite frankly, the Flames can't afford to lose either one, and treading lightly has never been one of Iron Mike's strong points.
How much can Keenan pull out of the Calgary Flames? Well, this much is certain: Historically, his abrasive style has the shelf life of a wheel of unrefrigerated cave-aged Gruyere. He hasn't had success of any kind since commandeering the Rangers to that 1994 championship (a Cup that really belonged to Mark Messier, anyway). In subsequent pit stops in St. Louis, Boston, Vancouver and Miami, he got no closer to the Stanley Cup than during his days in charge at the University of Toronto.
Only one Keenan team in the past 13 years has advanced past the first round of the playoffs. Hmmm, see a pattern developing?
At Thursday's news conference at the Pengrowth Saddledome, Keenan shared a story about his time in Chicago with Sutter as the two of them were trying to turn the Blackhawks into a competitive team.
"It's tough, isn't it?" muttered Keenan during one practice.
"Your problem," countered Sutter, "is that you haven't lost enough."
He hadn't then. He has lately.
Recap trivia time: How many playoff series have Keenan's teams won in the past 13 years? Answer: one.
"I'd love to stay here and end my career here," said Keenan, when asked about his many stopovers.
To do that, he's going to have to pull a rabbit out of his hat that hasn't been seen in over a decade. There is a lot at stake for the Calgary Flames' franchise, for the general manager who dipped into the waters of nostalgia and for the on-ice help who will feel the lash of Keenan's whip when he's displeased.
If the players believed Playfair was too close to the Sutter model, well, you're all welcome to enter Mike's World.
You brought it upon yourselves. Enjoy.
George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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