Beyond the Iron Curtain
"Iron Mike" Keenan knows what it takes to win the KHL. We caught up to discuss Roman Rotenberg's appointment to head coach at SKA, the fundamentals of coaching a global bench and more.
Legendary Canadian coach “Iron Mike” Keenan has realized success on both sides of the Atlantic. As bench boss of the New York Rangers, he presided over the first Russians to engrave their names on the Stanley Cup in 1994. Nearly twenty years later, he inked a deal with the KHL’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk—delivering a Gagarin Cup title in his first season overseas, and upleveling the coaching standard across professional hockey in Russia.
Keenan has managed international benches throughout his career—composites of varying hockey cultures that have come together to win the sport’s highest prizes. He counseled his assistant coach Mike Pelino in 2013 that it was “better to understand than to be understood,” an ethos that reverberates throughout the KHL—and particularly at SKA, with a rich amalgam of diverse talents.
Keenan and I caught up from Key West to discuss Roman Rotenberg’s new role as head coach, and the fundamentals required to realize coaching success.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): SKA General Manager Roman Rotenberg made waves in the Russian media when he moved into the head coaching role. You’ve coached—and won—at the highest levels of hockey in both Russia and North America. What do you make of the news?
Mike Keenan (MK): First of all, he will be successful because he's had a great deal of experience in the hockey world. He’s been exposed to a great deal of international competitions. As you know, he lived in Finland and learned the game there as well. He commands the room and has the leadership capability. When Mike Pelino and I went to Russia, I said that it's better to understand than to be understood. This means that you have got to understand the culture of the people in the KHL, the culture of the players. Roman obviously has tremendous insight into what it takes to be successful in the KHL because of his involvement in the league and the experience that he has had at every level. Now as a head coach, he has the advantage of having experienced a number of coaches and players. He has learned from everyone. Pavel Bure is an advisor to him. He's got a lot of important people, knowledgeable people to help.
GK: As Dave King said to me this week, coaching is as much about the staff as it is about the individual.
MK: Building the coaching staff is so important. I know that Roman has reached out to various coaches from many countries. I had this experience when Mike Pelino and I were in Magnitogorsk. Our assistant coach, Ilya Vorobyov, was Russian, but we had a Swedish goaltending coach. Roman has built and created a coaching staff that has experience in every aspect of the game.
GK: You began in the KHL around the time that Roman rose to prominence in SKA. How have you seen the team evolve in that time period?
MK: First of all, their record speaks for itself. That's the number one thing that stands out for such a successful operation or franchise in every respect. When we went to play there, it was always sold out. There were huge expectations. When a team has huge pressure in terms of expectations, it takes some strong leadership. This was the case when I was in New York—we had to keep the team focused, to not get sidetracked with distractions. They're in first place now in their conference and have had numerous successful seasons and championships. It's one thing to get to the top, and it's another thing to stay there. Roman has been able to do that, which is commendable.
GK: Do you think managerial experience translates to the bench?
MK: No question. I was a general manager in a number of situations. The first time was in Chicago. As a manager, you have to be the architect that builds the group or builds the team. You have to have various components, and you as a manager begin to understand what it takes to be a successful team. You definitely understand and know what the ingredients are, if you like, that would make a particular team successful. Having that knowledge is very helpful.
GK: As a coach, you also require a set of intangibles and interpersonal skills to be successful. What does it take, in your opinion?
MK: There are different styles of coaching for sure, but what you have to ultimately do is empower the players to take ownership of the group. That's where your coaching style and human relationships are built. You have to build them in such a way that your players believe in you and believe in each other. Ultimately, if you have done a really good job, they just need you as a coach to guide them. They've really bought into their beliefs and your beliefs, and you empower them to carry out the mission—which is to be successful and to win championships. Those relationships that you build as a mentor, as a leader, as a guiding force are very important.
There is an idea that the harder I work, the luckier I get. Roman is not shy about working, which is a very important part of the success equation for coaching. You have to live the dream and to be supportive, to set the example for the players. Obviously he's doing that.