He was one of the most popular hockey players in Chicago history -- and then he was sent out of town in the prime of his career. We talk with former Blackhawks star Jeremy Roenick about his time in Chicago on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Read an excerpt from Roenick's book, J.R. My Life as the Most Outspoken, Fearless, and Hard-Hitting Man in Hockey. And watch a web-exclusive conversation with the hockey great.
Chapter 3: Knowing My Creator
Playing for coach Mike Keenan in Chicago was like camping on the side of an active volcano. You had to accept the reality that he erupted regularly and that there was always a danger of being caught in his lava flow. He was a tyrant, a schoolyard bully, an old-school coach who tried to motivate players through intimidation, belittlement and fear.
The truth is that Keenan scared me into being a better NHL player. I was 18 when I began to play for Iron Mike, and I was afraid of him. As a rookie, I felt as if my future depended on pleasing Keenan. I believed he was capable of murdering my career before it began. I believed he could do that with no sense of remorse. Before Keenan threatened me in my second NHL exhibition game, I didn’t view myself as a physical player. Within a short period of time, he had bullied me into becoming one.
The veterans on the team didn’t fear Keenan; they merely despised him, and I believe Mike liked it that way. He was always hard on players, like a drill sergeant trying to ready recruits for the dangers ahead. Dealing with Mike’s rants was one of the job requirements for being a Blackhawk. One night, the Blackhawks were playing in St. Louis, and Keenan became enraged about our effort to the point that he ripped out seven ceiling tiles in the visitors’ dressing room.
Keenan was a screamer who thought nothing of singling out one of his players for a personal attack, just to let the team know how upset he was with how the team was performing. Over the course of the season, Keenan had accused most of his players of being “chickenshit” or “an embarrassment to your family.”
“You don’t deserve to be in the fuckin’ league,” Keenan would often scream at you. “You should be ashamed of the way you are playing.”
Mercy was not usually on the table when Keenan had a lock on a player. Some of Iron Mike’s most memorable tirades came against Dave Manson, a defenceman who played for the Blackhawks early in my career. Manson was a skilled player with a heavy slapshot and a combative personality. Once teammates realized how quickly Manson’s temper could boil over, they started calling him “Charlie Manson,” in reference to the convicted murderer Charles Manson, who had those scary, crazed-looking eyes. When Dave Manson lost control, he looked as if he might kill you.
Dave was a tough competitor who had amassed 352 penalty minutes in my first season with the Blackhawks in 1988–89. During one game, Keenan had determined that Manson was responsible for everything wrong with the Blackhawks that night.
“You’re fucking brutal,” Keenan screamed at Manson between periods. “You are the reason we’re losing this game.”
Manson had his skates unlaced and his jersey off when Keenan began unloading on him with this verbal barrage. Initially, Manson took his medicine, like we all did at various times. But during Keenan’s rant, Manson snapped. He stood, yanked off his shoulder pads and flung them across the locker room, just missing Keenan as he ducked out of the way. That was merely the first salvo of Manson’s attack. As the pads were launched, Manson began running, in his skates, directly at Keenan.
Keenan fled out the door with Manson on his tail. We all scurried to the door to witness the outcome. You can imagine how fucking comical it was to see Keenan sprinting down a hallway, in the bowels of Chicago Stadium, with Manson in determined pursuit. As he chased Keenan, sparks were leaping off Manson’s skates as the blades scraped across the cement. If Manson hadn’t lost his balance while trying to run on skates, he might have pummelled Keenan.
It wasn’t their only hot-tempered confrontation. During a playoff series against Edmonton, Manson once pushed Keenan up against a wall by his collar before players intervened.
The strangest aspect of the repeated Keenan–Manson confrontations was the truth that Keenan liked Manson. He liked Manson’s toughness and his aggressiveness. He was big, he was strong, and he had a mean streak. Keenan would have loved to have a roster full of players with Manson’s ability. Keenan pushed on Manson because he believed Manson had more to give. Manson had licence to scream at Keenan, to chase him down the hallway, even to physically assault Keenan because Keenan liked his potential. In always hollering at Manson, Keenan’s objective was to make him play every game at his highest level to prove that Keenan was wrong about him.
If you couldn’t cope with adversity, the Chicago dressing room was not for you in those days. Keenan blow-ups were a regular occurrence, and they often involved some item being thrown or kicked. Another time in St. Louis, Keenan broke some toes kicking what he thought was an empty plastic ice chest. He was yelling at us between periods, and apparently he didn’t realize the chests had been filled with Gatorade just before his arrival. When his foot struck the ice chest, it stopped like a car slamming into a brick wall. The players all knew immediately that Keenan was in pain, and you could see players with their heads down, trying to stifle their laughter. But Keenan continued his rampage, and he walked out of the dressing room without a limp. No way was he going to acknowledge he was in pain.
Later, we were told by stadium personnel that Keenan fell to the floor in agony after he shut the door behind him.
There was another time when we had gone through a very bad week, had lost three in a row, and the players knew Keenan was going to skate us until we were ready to puke. We came out for practice that morning and the lights were off. So we just started to skate around the rink. Five minutes passed, and no coaches appeared. Ten minutes passed, and still no coaches to be found. We just kept skating around the rink in the dark. Soon, 20 minutes had passed, and then 30 minutes.
Finally, Keenan came on the ice, carrying a chair that he parked at centre ice. Sitting down in the chair, he commanded half the players to line up at the goal line and the other half to line up along the side boards.
A whistle emerged from his pocket. He pointed to those of us on the goal line and told us to skate up and back. He blew the whistle. We skated up and back. Then he pointed to the players along the side boards and blew the whistle, and they skated across and back.
When those players returned to the side boards, he pointed to us again and blew the whistle. We did this for 15 minutes, and then he rotated the players along the side boards to the goal line and vice versa. Fifteen more minutes of up and back and across and back, and then we switched again.
After more than 45 minutes of this, we were all dog tired, and defenceman Trent Yawney was in the goal-line group going up and back. On the return trip, he stopped at the blue line. Keenan watched Yawney coast the final 35 feet and yelled, “Trent Yawney, go again.”
Yawney went again, and for the second time, he started to apply the brakes at the blue line instead of the goal line.
“Trent Yawney, go again,” Keenan bellowed.
Now we were all lined up watching Yawney being skated by himself, some of us thankful that Yawney’s misfortune has allowed the rest of us to catch our breath. Don’t recall how many times Yawney went up and back, but I’m clear on my memory that on one of his trips up the ice, he skated as fast as he could and caught Keenan with his shoulder. Keenan was knocked rudely from his chair, spilling hard onto the ice.
We were all stunned, petrified at the prospect of what Keenan might do.
What Keenan did was get up, sweep the ice off his pants, and scream: “It’s about fucking time you hit somebody, Yawney. Everyone off the ice.”
As we were all leaving the ice, our captain, Denis Savard, never a Keenan favourite, said, “If I knew that’s all we had to do to get off the ice, I would have hit the motherfucker on the first fucking shift.”
Singling out one player to blame always seemed central to Keenan’s strategy. Maybe he just knew that shredding one player was far more uncomfortable for players than the ripping of an entire squad. It angered us. Probably, that was his objective.
Sometimes, if a player wasn’t working hard enough in skating drills, Keenan would punish him by forcing him to watch all of his teammates being punished.
“So, you don’t want to work today,” Keenan would say to the offending player. “That’s okay, because you have teammates that will work for you. You just rest.” Then Keenan would have that player stand there while he skated us up and down the ice.
“You can thank your buddy for this skate,” Keenan would say.
Of course, we would then be screaming at the teammate who forced us to be punished. Keenan seemed to like to have his dressing room filled with tension. He believed his team performed at a higher level if they were on edge. He liked to push his players to that edge any way he could. He clearly seemed to believe that keeping his players shoulder-deep in adversity at all times kept them sharp.
He was constantly benching players or criticizing them for some reason or another. Goalie Darren Pang played 35 games in net for Keenan in 1988–89, and Keenan pulled him 13 times. That’s 37 percent of the time. Keenan once pulled Pang 28 seconds into a game against Pittsburgh when he was beaten on breakaways by future Hall of Famers Mario Lemieux and Paul Coffey.
“If you had a bad warmup, Mike might pull you,” Pang once said.
When Ed Belfour was in the net, Keenan was just as willing to pull him. He would grab Belfour by the mask sometimes when he was yelling at him.
Belfour, the pride of Carman, Manitoba, and I were rookies at the same time, and he was the person who showed me that goalies could be temperamental, eccentric personalities. It was common for him to stay after a game until one in the morning, trying to sharpen his skates the way he liked them. Not wanting to stay that long, the Chicago equipment guy would leave the road skate sharpener out for Eddie so he could stay as late as he wanted. Eddie was crazy about many aspects of his game preparation. If he came off the ice and his chewing gum, water or tape wasn’t where it was supposed to be, he would start throwing items and yelling at the trainers.
The two most volatile players on the team were Belfour and Manson, and they often clashed verbally and even physically. Eddie didn’t like his tower buzzed with high shots in practice. One time, Manson fired a shot off Eddie’s head in practice, and we all knew Eddie wasn’t going to let that go.
A few minutes later, Keenan had us doing a drill where the player swings across the centre of the ice and takes a pass before heading into the offensive zone and shooting. As soon as Manson took off to receive his pass, Belfour charged out of his crease. When Manson made his turn and looked back for his pass, Eddie was there to crush him with a booming hit. They were both travelling at high speed. It was like a car wreck. Then, Belfour whipped off his mask and the two men fought toe to toe in one of the most intense fights you will ever see.
Eddie was an exceptional goaltender, but he was a little bit off his rocker at times. His emotions could blow up. Russian great Vladislav Tretiak was Chicago’s goaltending coach when Keenan was there. Our goalies one season were Belfour and Dominik Hasek, and Keenan said that Tretiak, who would put the pads on in practice, was more technically sound.
One day, Keenan watched Tretiak and then turned to Eddie and said: “You have just lost your job. I’m playing Tretiak tonight.”
When it came to Keenan, it was difficult to know whether he was kidding or not.
This excerpt from J.R.: My Life as the Most Outspoken, Fearless, and Hard-Hitting Man in Hockey is printed with the permission of Triumph Books/ www.triumphbooks.com/JR