When the New York Rangers vied for their first Stanley Cup since 1994, the coach of that team, Mike Keenan, had become the first man to win both the NHL’s top prize and the Gagarin Cup as champions of the Russian-based KHL.
Mike Keenan’s coaching style, like his personality, is tough, but fair. The newly-minted Gagarin Cup champion places a premium on working hard and being devoted to his hockey vocation. To do that, he embarked on a journey to Magnitogorsk, Russia, to coach Metallurg and is preparing for his second year in the steel city.
While the challenge of moving to a foreign city and coaching in an unfamiliar league would unnerve others, Keenan and his staff jumped in with two feet, ready for whatever transpired – including a title run.
Find out from Keenan how he handled coaching in a new country, whether he thought about going back to the NHL and how karaoke became a part of his life in Russia.
How did you find so much success in the KHL when you were balancing a new life in Russia?
We dedicated ourselves to hockey with our mission from day one being to win the Gagarin Cup. In saying that, we did find a very good balance between staying focused on playing successful hockey and living a new life in Russia.
Hockey is all consuming for us, we head to the rink first thing in the morning, put in a full day and then leave the rink at 7 PM for dinner. We either eat at one of our favourite restaurants or back to the Baza where we cook some of our own specialties. At the Baza, we watch the KHL channel, relax and then usually call it a night around 11 or 12.
Our lifestyle consists of being at the area and any socializing we do is out for dinner or the odd time when we have a few days off in between games and we’ll go to our favourite Karaoke place.
How much have you adapted to Magnitogorsk? Has it grown on you? Is it a place you might consider staying for a bit?
Magnitogorsk is a very good place to coach. It is a blue-collar city with hard working people who love their hockey and are very passionate about our team. We like Magnitogorsk a lot and we’re thankful for the environment around us.
Any interest in returning to the NHL or working as an analyst? Do you feel pressure to stay in the KHL and defend a title?
We first needed to catch our breath and evaluate the future. I have not been contacted about coming back to North America and we’re excited to fulfil year two of our contracts.
Did you think back to 20 years ago when you lifted the cup with the Rangers? How were you able to win in your first year in both cities?
In both cities I was very fortunate to have a great group of athletes, a great coaching staff, and a great group of people... when that is the case, special things can happen.
What is the biggest difference between KHL playoffs and NHL playoffs? Do you still see the two leagues as being similar?
The competition and the intensity are similar as both increase as you go further into the playoffs with the final round being at as high a level as one can imagine. The travel in the KHL is much more extensive, especially in our scenario this year as in the first round we played Admiral Vladivostok, which is an approximate 10-hour flight and six-hour time change going east. Then, in the finals, we played Lev Prague, which is approximately a five-hour flight and four-hour time change going west. Although travel is a factor in the NHL it is not nearly as difficult with the time change being a maximum of three hours and the most extensive travel not being until the final round.
The team seemed to celebrate a lot with you after the championship. What was your favourite part of that celebration?
The best part of the celebration was seeing the joy in our players’ faces and how proud they were of accomplishing something special.
Is this victory a "career revitalization" for you? Would you recommend other coaches spend a bit of time in the KHL?
Last season intensified my passion for the game and for coaching. It was very special to work with Mike Pelino, Ilya Vorobyov and Tomas Bjuhr along with our talented players. I definitely recommend the KHL for any coach who wants to expand his knowledge and experience of the game, not to mention a great cultural experience.
What's become your favourite part of Russia and living there? Do you ever look around and soak it all in, or maybe the opposite, wonder what you're doing there?
We immersed ourselves in this experience from both a hockey standpoint and a living standpoint and found Russia just a magical place to live. Each and every day we soaked it up, and appreciated so much being able to live this experience.
What's the outlook for Magnitogorsk as defending champions?
The league will once again be extremely competitive, most likely even more so than last season. The KHL is very balanced, especially in the top half of the league where not much separates the teams. For us to be successful again, we need good health and the right things to fall into place.