Mike Keenan is set to embark on the most extraordinary challenge of his hockey career.
Considering that Keenan has served as head coach of eight NHL teams — the Philadelphia Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers and Calgary Flames — that is significant.
Keenan, long known as Iron Mike for his uncompromising methods, ranks fifth among NHL coaches in career playoff victories (96) and ninth in regular-season wins (672). He famously piloted the Rangers to the 1994 Stanley Cup to end the team’s 54-year championship drought.
He later became the first coach to win a championship in both the NHL and the Kontinental Hockey League when he guided Russian club Metallurg Magnitogorsk to the 2014 KHL title. But the same tenacity that pushed Keenan to great success sometimes created friction with players and management. None of his tenures lasted more than four seasons.
In some ways, all that serves as mere prologue to the job Keenan just accepted — head coach of Kunlun Red Star, the only China-based franchise in the 29-team KHL. Keenan, 67, recently spoke with ESPN to discuss his future before returning to China to begin his new job in earnest this week.
“It’s certainly a hockey experience,” Keenan said. “But it’s a life and educational experience as well.”
Why Keenan accepted the job
Keenan became intrigued by the possibility of taking on “an exciting and interesting challenge.”
As part of the new role, in addition to coaching Kunlun, Keenan will help oversee the Chinese men’s and women’s national teams. The goal is for the nation to put its best foot forward at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. He will also help establish the infrastructure for a feeder system to those teams, meaning his fingerprints will be on most aspects of hockey in China.
“It’s an untapped hockey frontier with the biggest population in the world,” Keenan said. “They are hosting the Olympics, and they do not want to be embarrassed. They want to be represented well.”
Keenan was recommended to Kunlun by KHL organizers and was named to the team’s technical committee in February. The team completed its inaugural season on March 2 with, coincidentally, a playoff loss to Magnitogorsk, Keenan’s previous club. Russian coach Vladimir Yurzinov Jr. resigned from Kunlun because of family reasons, according to the team, and the club announced the hiring of Keenan last week.
“The KHL is a very good league,” Keenan said. “They’ve got some very deep [rosters with] talented players throughout the league. I’m experienced enough, and I’ve seen enough North American teams play and [KHL] teams play. The top teams in the KHL can compete with some teams in the NHL, maybe up to the middle of the NHL pack.”
What Keenan’s team will look like
Keenan plans to immerse himself in player evaluations this week and begin making roster decisions. He will maintain authority over personnel, while a general manager will handle contractual matters. Unlike the NHL, where players go through a draft process, the KHL offers more options in free agency. While this allows clubs greater flexibility in finding players to fit a particular playing style, Keenan said he won’t devise a system of play until his roster has been established.
One distinct difference from the NHL to the KHL is the presence of Olympic-size ice surfaces. The standard NHL rink measures 200-by-85 feet. In the KHL, some surfaces are NHL-sized, while others are the 200-by-100 Olympic variety that caters to skill and wide-open play.
“Your preparation is different on a nightly basis,” Keenan said. “It depends on what ice surface you’re playing on.”
With that in mind, Keenan will have to construct a versatile roster. Meanwhile, the veteran coach said he hasn’t yet considered the makeup of his coaching staff.
“I haven’t even gotten that far, but I’ve had many, many calls from North American coaches wanting to go with me,” he said. “I’m not going to make any decisions about staffing until I go over there this week. I want to evaluate what we have there and make some decisions. There has been a lot of interest, though, from North America and Russia.”
Kunlun has tasked Keenan with making sure at least five Chinese players get regular playing time, and the league has stipulated that the club must carry at least five Russians on its roster. But Keenan said he doesn’t anticipate either mandate being a competitive hindrance. He’s already familiar with KHL personnel, and he will be able to tap players of Chinese ancestry from minor leagues and the collegiate and junior ranks to satisfy that requirement.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be from China,” Keenan said. “They can be from North America with some lineage to China — maybe their parents or grandparents or even great-grandparents. So in selecting five players from around the globe, I don’t think it’s that much of a challenge.”
Why this team is unique
The KHL maintained franchises in eight nations for the 2016-17 season. Russia is home to 22 of them, and Belarus, China, Croatia, Finland, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Slovakia have one team each. That creates a travel footprint spanning 10 time zones across eastern Europe and Asia, requiring creative scheduling and extremely long flights.
Kunlun split its games between Beijing and Shanghai this past season, but it will be based exclusively in Beijing next season in a renovated downtown facility. Keenan attended the team’s first two playoff games in Beijing, dropping the ceremonial first puck in the series opener, and he estimated the attendance was 8,000 for each game.
Keenan doesn’t consider language to be an obstacle to success with Kunlun. On the contrary, he expects that most players will speak English or Russian, and the vast majority of team staff and ownership already speaks English.
“Russia was more challenging,” Keenan said. “Because where I went in Russia, very few, if any, people could speak English — even amongst the team.”
Keenan believes establishing a franchise identity is the biggest task for his young organization. The 2016-17 roster was assembled quickly, and the team exceeded expectations by reaching the playoffs. But to keep improving, Keenan said the organizational framework must be cemented from the ground up.
“Developing the foundation and culture that is a prerequisite for winning is going to be a big challenge,” he said. “But it’s one that I think I’ve had tremendous experience over my career in being able to manufacture the environment that is needed to win.”