‘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.