And that’s a real mixed blessing

By Ryan Pike

The summer months are usually dull for Flames fans, full of solemn reflection on the past season and hopes for the upcoming entry draft. The announcement of the Flames relocating their farm team–transforming the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights into the Quad City Flames–would normally be the biggest news in a typical June and the biggest Flames news to be mentioned on message boards and the back pages of the Calgary Herald sports pages. This year was different.

After a single season behind the bench, Flames head coach Jim Playfair was replaced by Mike Keenan Thu., Jun. 14. Keenan comes to Calgary with a fair bit of infamy attached to his name, causing many Flames fans to declare Keenan’s hiring as signalling the end of the world. Though the past has seen precedents, these prognostications may be a bit overblown.

Rumour has it that Jim Playfair had to be replaced behind the bench. Despite posting a regular season-winning percentage second only to Stanley Cup-winning coach Terry Crisp, Playfair had “lost the room,” so to speak. Local media following the team reported that while conducting end-of-season interviews with the players, Flames general manager Darryl Sutter repeatedly heard the same message: Playfair just wasn’t the guy to coach the team. As assistant coach, Playfair had to be the approachable guy the players could vent to about how much of a hard-ass Sutter was as head coach. Playfair couldn’t simply turn a switch and go from “approachable” to “feared.” The previous three assistant coaches that became head coaches–Doug Risebrough, Guy Charron and Greg Gilbert–lasted an average of 94 games as bench boss. Outside hires have lasted an average of 213 games.

Accepting that Playfair had to go in order for the Flames to be successful is one thing, but why in Heaven’s name did Darryl Sutter hire Mike Keenan? The answers, again, are fairly simple. Mike Keenan is the closest facsimile of Darryl Sutter the Flames could hire. A veteran of 1,014 games coached over 17 seasons, Keenan is the guy that took the New York Rangers to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years way back in 1994. Sutter was also an assistant coach under Keenan in Chicago for two years, so he knows how the guy thinks. Sutter’s tendency to bring in familiar faces was successful for the Flames in the cases of Miikka Kiprusoff and Kristian Huselius, but he may be due for a failure.

Giving the reigns of a team to Mike Keenan has often been a recipe for disaster. While often cited as a brilliant hockey mind, Keenan has been characterized as brash, off-putting and downright crazy by many former players. He was blamed for turning then-brilliant Panthers rookie Huselius into a head-case player that nobody wanted. He’s notorious for pulling goaltenders seemingly at random, even pulling his goalie five times in a single 1987 playoff game. Most alarmingly, Keenan has repeatedly clashed with his bosses–his stops in Chicago, New York and Florida were all cut short after Keenan lost power struggles–and fans fear that Keenan will eventually clash with good buddy Darryl Sutter the way he did with longtime pal Jacques Martin in Florida.

Thankfully though, the Calgary Flames are blessed with two things that Mike Keenan’s previous teams did not have: Darryl Sutter and an ownership group that simply will not tolerate any crap from their coaches. Dave King was unceremoniously let go by the Flames in 1995, despite coaching the team to two division crowns, because his teams couldn’t win in the playoffs. Highly touted coaching prospect Don Hay was cut loose 68 mediocre games into the 2000/01 season. The ownership even replaced then-general manager Craig Button with Sutter in the spring of 2003 because Sutter’s no-nonsense approach seemed more likely to produce results than Button’s.

Mike Keenan has proven time and time again that he can be a fantastic head coach. He has also proven that he’s a horrific general manager. That said, as long as the Flames ownership and Darryl Sutter keep Keenan on a tight leash, there’s no reason the Flames can’t learn from past mistakes and find a way to bring the Stanley Cup to Calgary this season. At the very least, they could win a playoff round.

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