The hiring of Mike Keenan as coach by the Calgary Flames ensures that all eyes will be on potential confrontations between him and the players as the season gets underway. The possibilities for drama will at least add to the excitement surrounding the club and may even work in the Flames' favour.
Keenan is roundly loathed by many who played under him before, including the likes of Brett Hull, Wayne Gretzky and Roberto Luongo. There seems to be a trend that indicates the more gifted the player, the more likely Keenan will use him as a focal point for abuse should the season go pear-shaped. Former receptacles of Keenan abuse mention that things are great with him as coach when the team is winning (that's a stunning factoid, perhaps those same players can point to a coach who turns into a real nasty son-of-a-bitch as the team is riding a 10 game win streak) but that he morphs into a sociopath as the wins become scarce.
That type of psychology has the real makings of a vicious circle. If the coach begins degrading and humiliating players as things fall part, they are not going to feel any sense of enjoyment in playing the game. Not that losing should be a positive experience but there's got to be some way out of the pit of despair that comes with being in a serious slide. It's hard to latch on to that elusive frame of mind that can help turn around a season when you devote more mind space to fantasies of opening up your tormentor's face with a skate blade than actually improving your play.
Keenan's most recent coaching forays have been rather unpleasant affairs that ended badly. He seems to thrive only in situations where a team may be on the cusp, suffering from some malaise and in need of being prodded in the right direction. Riding out extended periods of losing with clubs that are rebuilding doesn't seem to be his cup of bile.
This potentially bodes well for Calgary then as they had a team that was widely panned as under-performing last season, not a club that was lacking the players to make things happen. They haven't done much in the off-season in terms of tinkering, though their defense will be somewhat different with the addition of Cory Sarich and Adrian Aucoin, replacing Roman Hamrlik and Brad Stuart.
Overall they have a solid team including one of the best goaltenders in the league in Miikka Kiprusoff. This will be one of the potential fracture points in any Flames melodrama involving Keenan. His history of yanking goalies with abandon likely has Kiprusoff pondering the inevitable instances of being replaced in game situations this season.
Because Keenan's tendency to turn into a nasty piece of work is so widely known and has been part of the whole narrative that has accompanied his arrival in Calgary, he has played it down along with the claim that time has mellowed him. In my experience, those who thrill at the thought of degrading others rarely lose that habit but perhaps being out of the game for some time truly has had some effect.
I don't believe Keenan's special relationship with Calgary GM Darryl Sutter provides him with any kind of insulation or gives him the license to engage in too much lunacy if the Flames don't show some improvement over last year. The kind of lunacy that somehow just wouldn't resonate as much as it did in the past anyway. But depending on how things come together, the Flames might not get to the stage where they find out whether or not Mike Keenan really has changed as a coach.