Keenan fired following 5-8-2 start

Updated: November 10, 2003, 2:10 PM ET news services

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Mike Keenan, who had been the leader in victories among all active NHL coaches, has been fired by the Florida Panthers.

Keenan will be replaced on an interim basis by general manager Rick Dudley, who made the announcement at a news conference Sunday. Dudley said he has already contacted candidates for the permanent job.

Sun, November 9
The firing of Mike Keenan was less about this year's 5-8-2 start and more about the future of the franchise.

I've played for Keenan and he's a great coach, but he doesn't care about winning two or three years down the road. He cares about winning now and will do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal.

For instance, if he believes there is a lack of effort by his players, he'll throw a tantrum -- as he proved last week.

That attitude can be perfect for a veteran team, but sometimes "chewing out" a young team can shake its confidence and hinder its performance and development.

Right now, Florida has the best young nucleus of under 25-year-old players in the NHL with Jay Bouwmeester, Roberto Luongo and Nathan Horton. I'm sure GM Rick Dudley doesn't want their development to be hindered by their coach, which would explain his decision to fire Keenan.

This team has a bright future and Dudley will probably look for more of a teacher/coach to take over next season.

"It was done simply because we felt the potential of this team was such that we wanted to play at a maximum or optimal level," Dudley said. "We did not feel we were doing that at this time."

The Panthers are 5-8-2-0 this year, tied for third in the Southeast Division. In what turned out to be Keenan's final game, Florida lost to St. Louis 2-0 on Saturday night.

"Sometimes when things aren't working as you want them to, someone pays a price," Dudley said. "And unfortunately, it's him."

Keenan was told of the decision by owner Alan Cohen after the Panthers loss Saturday night. Dudley said that had little impact as changes had been discussed long before the loss.

Panthers captain Olli Jokinen said he returned a phone message from Keenan at 4 a.m. Sunday, after his wife said Keenan called to inform him of the firing. Jokinen called it "the toughest phone call I've ever had to make."

"It was the players who let him down, because we didn't win the games," Jokinen said. "It's always up to the players. You shouldn't be afraid to play. You shouldn't lose your confidence. But like I said, you have to look at the big picture and hopefully Rick can turn this program around."

Keenan was not available for comment Sunday, team officials said.

The team's next game is at home Tuesday against Tampa Bay, a team Dudley helped build as general manager from 1999-2001.

"We've got the talent. Rick has put together a great group of guys," Panthers chief operating officer Michael Yormark said. "You see what the Lightning are doing. That's a team Rick put together and he's on his way to doing the same thing here."

As a coach, Dudley took the helm for the Buffalo Sabres from 1989-1992. The club had an 85-72-31 record under Dudley, and went to the NHL playoffs both seasons. Dudley also coached a variety of minor league clubs, including the International Hockey League's Detroit Vipers, whose record was 96-55-12 under Dudley.

Toward the end of last season, Keenan and Dudley had many battles, including a stretch in which two of Keenan's assistants were fired and the coach was barred from the ice for practice. The two often clashed on philosophy and coaching style.

Keenan was rarely on the ice for practices this season, choosing instead to let his assistants handle those duties. He did make a rare on-ice appearance at a practice Thursday, kicked one player out and then held a tense 35-minute closed-door meeting in the locker room.

Keenan has coached six other NHL teams -- the Flyers (1984-88), the Blackhawks (1988-92), the Rangers (1993-94), the Blues (1994-96), the Canucks (1997-98) and the Bruins (2000-01).

Keenan led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup title in 1994, the team's first championship in 54 years. The Rangers went 52-24-8 under Keenan, going from a non-playoff team to the President's Trophy winner and Stanley Cup champ in just one year. It was Keenan's only season with the Rangers. He also took the Flyers to the finals in 1985 and 1987, plus steered the Blackhawks there in 1992.

Keenan became the sixth coach in Panthers history in December of 2001, and last season, his first full year with the team, they finished 24-36-13.

His 1,222 career regular-season games are the fourth-highest total in NHL coaching history, as are his 584 career wins. But the Panthers never escaped also-ran status under Keenan, who hasn't led a team to the playoffs since taking the Blues to the second round in 1996.

Only five of the other 29 NHL teams had fewer points this season than the Panthers, who won just 45 of the 153 games they played under Keenan.

"I believe Mike tried, I really do," Dudley said.

Keenan had mellowed considerably from the style that earned him the nickname "Iron Mike" earlier in his coaching career. Many in the Panthers organization, though, believed his methods were not the best for a young team like Florida.

"They're a very, very talented group of people and I want them to understand that every time they go on the ice," Dudley said. "I think there were times that they lacked confidence. I want to help them get that confidence."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.