Playing for coach Mike Keenan in Chicago was like camping on the side of an active volcano. You had to accept the reality that he erupted regularly and that there was always a danger of being caught in his lava flow. He was a tyrant, a schoolyard bully, an oldschool coach who tried to motivate players through intimidation, belittlement and fear.
The truth is that Keenan scared me into being a better NHL player. I was 18 when I began to play for Iron Mike, and I was afraid of him. As a rookie, I felt as if my future depended on pleasing Keenan. I believed he was capable of murdering my career before it began. I believed he could do that with no sense of remorse. Before Keenan threatened me in my second NHL exhibition game, I didn't view myself as a physical player. Within a short period of time, he had bullied me into becoming one.
The veterans on the team didn't fear Keenan; they merely despised him, and I believe Mike liked it that way. He was always hard on players, like a drill sergeant trying to ready recruits for the dangers ahead. Dealing with Mike's rants was one of the job requirements for being a Blackhawk. One night, the Blackhawks were playing in St. Louis, and Keenan became enraged about our effort to the point that he ripped out seven ceiling tiles in the visitors' dressing room.
Keenan was a screamer who thought nothing of singling out one of his players for a personal attack, just to let the team know how upset he was with how the team was performing. Over the course of the season, Keenan had accused most of his players of being "chickenshit" or "an embarrassment to your family."
"You don't deserve to be in the fuckin' league," Keenan would often scream at you. "You should be ashamed of the way you are playing."
Mercy was not usually on the table when Keenan had a lock on a player. Some of Iron Mike's most memorable tirades came against Dave Manson, a defenseman who played for the Blackhawks early in my career. Manson was a skilled player with a heavy slapshot and a combative personality. Once teammates realized how quickly Manson's temper could boil over, they started calling him "Charlie Manson," in reference to the convicted murderer Charles Manson, who had those scary, crazed-looking eyes. When Dave Manson lost control, he looked as if he might kill you.
Dave was a tough competitor who had amassed 352 penalty minutes in my first season with the Blackhawks in 1988–89. During one game, Keenan had determined that Manson was responsible for everything wrong with the Blackhawks that night.
"You're fucking brutal," Keenan screamed at Manson between periods. "You are the reason we're losing this game."
Manson had his skates unlaced and his jersey off when Keenan began unloading on him with this verbal barrage. Initially, Manson took his medicine, like we all did at various times. But during Keenan's rant, Manson snapped. He stood, yanked off his shoulder pads and flung them across the locker room, just missing Keenan as he ducked out of the way. That was merely the first salvo of Manson's attack. As the pads were launched, Manson began running, in his skates, directly at Keenan.
Keenan fled out the door with Manson on his tail. We all scurried to the door to witness the outcome. You can imagine how fucking comical it was to see Keenan sprinting down a hallway, in the bowels of Chicago Stadium, with Manson in determined pursuit. As he chased Keenan, sparks were leaping off Manson's skates as the blades scraped across the cement. If Manson hadn't lost his balance while trying to run on skates, he might have pummelled Keenan.
The strangest aspect of the repeated Keenan–Manson confrontations was the truth that Keenan liked Manson. He liked Manson's toughness and his aggressiveness. He was big, he was strong, and he had a mean streak. Keenan would have loved to have a roster full of players with Manson's ability. Keenan pushed on Manson because he believed Manson had more to give. Manson had licence to scream at Keenan, to chase him down the hallway, even to physically assault Keenan because Keenan liked his potential. In always hollering at Manson, Keenan's objective was to make him play every game at his highest level to prove that Keenan was wrong about him.
To Keenan's credit, he could take abuse in addition to giving it out. Every season, he would come into the dressing room in full gear and say, "All right, you motherfuckers; this is your chance to take a shot at me." Keenan would play 30 minutes for each team, and he would take a beating. Manson couldn't wait to get his shot at Keenan. Once, he hit Keenan so hard it looked like he almost fucking decapitated him.
Once, we were on a western road trip, and Keenan decided to scrimmage with us at the Kings' old practice facility in Culver City. Mike Eagles and Bob Bassen went after him with vengeance.
Keenan wasn't the prettiest of players, but he had played college hockey at St. Lawrence University. He could skate, and when he took to the ice against us in practice, he went to war. Everyone knew this was our time to go after Keenan, but we also knew that there would be no free shots. Keenan was a fucking stick hack, and when you got near him he would chop you up.
Keenan always tried to stay one step ahead of his players, particularly with regard to controlling our lives through curfews and practices and so forth. It's said that Keenan learned all of his tricks to control players from the great Scotty Bowman when Keenan was an American Hockey League coach in Rochester. At the time, Bowman was in charge of Rochester's parent club in Buffalo.
When we were on the road, Keenan would give the bellman a hat and tell him to ask every player who came in after curfew to sign it. Keenan could then inspect the hat the next day and know who had violated curfew. Other times, he would sit in the lobby reading a book and catch his drunken players stumbling in at three in the morning.
Some of us had our ways to beat the curfew setup, most of which involved making sure we didn't return to our rooms through the lobby. At the Los Angeles Airport Marriott, for example, we would use rocks to make sure that the side doors remained ajar so we could sneak back into the hotel.
"I am," I admitted, "and I need to use your phone."
Early in my career, we had back-to-back games in Calgary and Vancouver. We flew from Calgary to Vancouver after the game, and with the time change, it was still after midnight when we got to the Westin Bayshore hotel. With a game against the Canucks the next night, we were supposed to go directly to our rooms. But players always liked going out in Vancouver because the Roxy was a favorite player hangout. We were only going to Vancouver twice a season, so you couldn't waste a trip. Several of the guys, me included, took the elevator to our rooms and then took the stairs back down to the ground floor and fled out the side door.
Several beers later, it was past three in the morning, and I returned to the team hotel by myself. I was standing in front, wondering whether I was walking into a well-executed Keenan trap. Had he paid the night manager to keep a list of players coming in late? Would there be an autograph seeker waiting for me by the elevator to essentially ask me to sign my own death warrant? Would Keenan himself be standing watch? Anything was possible with Iron Mike.
Wanting to avoid any possibility of a Keenan ambush, I went around the side of the building to find the loading dock. That was locked down tight, as was the entrance to the hotel kitchen, which was on the same side of the building. But as I inspected the area, I noticed a ventilation grate; and peering through it, I could see into the hotel's kitchen. Back then, hotels were still issuing metal keys, not key cards, and I used my key to unscrew the grate. Within a couple of minutes, I had the grate removed and was scooting through the air duct, attired in a suit. I ended up breathing in plenty of soot and dust, but it was a small price to pay to pull one over on Keenan.
Once in the kitchen, I grabbed a ham sandwich and a Bud Light and took the service elevator up to my floor. I remember sitting in my room at four in the morning, munching on my sandwich and sipping my beer, feeling like I had just pulled off the crime of the century.
Truthfully, NHL coaches had to play babysitter and night watchman in that era because I believe my generation had more of a frat-house attitude than today's players. Modern players are far more concerned about rest, eating properly and following a training regimen that doesn't include consuming mass quantities of Molson Canadian. When I played, it was expected that you would go out on the road and drink with your teammates until it was nearly dawn. Today, players seem to live in the weight room. We lived primarily in taverns and bars. I didn't start spotting abs on players until I was about 26 years old. Keenan tried to keep track of us on the road mostly because he was trying to discourage us from finding trouble. When I was a young player, it did often seem as though I was only two or three steps ahead of finding myself in hot water.
One night, during a trip to Calgary, a bunch of the Blackhawks met people at the bar who invited us to a party at a house outside of town. The invitation came at about 1:30 in the morning, but stupidly I decided to go. One other Blackhawk decided to go, but we ended up in separate cars. We were driving well outside of town when the situation turned bad. In wintry conditions, we ended up in an accident. The car completely flipped over. Even though I was a passenger and not the driver, I could see the headlines in the morning paper: Drunken young Blackhawks star Roenick detained after late-night traffic accident.
Panicked by the thought of what Keenan would say, I embraced the only strategy that offered me any hope of getting out of this mess: I ran. I got the fuck out of there. I ran through the snow into a neighborhood. The problem was that I was on foot, more than 30 miles from my hotel. I was in a residential area. No stores or pay phones were anywhere. Plus, it was now after two in the morning. My only option was to knock on someone's door and ask to use a phone to call a taxi.
That's what I did, and when the man came to the door in his pajamas, he opened his storm door and his eyes bugged out.
"Holy shit," he said. "You're Jeremy Roenick."
"I am," I admitted, "and I need to use your phone."
Only in Canada or Chicago would I have been recognized. Even bleary-eyed, in the middle of the night, this man recognized an NHL player when one showed up on his doorstep.
The funny part of the story is that the guy invited me into his kitchen and offered me a Molson Canadian. In the 45 minutes it took for the cab to find the house, the Good Samaritan and I talked hockey and finished off his case of Canadian. I imagine he had quite a story to tell his buddies at work the next day. Meanwhile, it was almost four o'clock when I returned to my hotel. But I was up in time for the morning skate, hoping I had dodged a bullet. Clearly, the people in the car that night and my friend with the beer didn't rat me out, because no one from the Chicago organization ever brought it up to me.
The closest I ever came to being arrested involved an incident that occurred when Keenan took the team to the resort area of Banff, Alberta. The team was scheduled to play Calgary and Edmonton in the same week.
At about two in the morning, after spending most of the night in a bar, five or six players and four or five local women, decided to visit a nearby hot springs that was closed to the public. Since it was located halfway up a mountain, we hired cabs to transport us and then paid the drivers handsomely to come back in 45 minutes to retrieve us. Snow was falling, and we had to scale a fence to get inside. We had brought beer along, and in short order we were drinking and jumping into the springs just to keep warm. Even with the steam rising, it didn't take long for us to start feeling the cold.
When the cabs didn't come back on time, we decided to start walking down the zig-zaggy road. I remember I had a brown suede coat that I wrapped some of my clothes in. That meant I had no coat on, and it was freezing. I remember joking that we should just cut through the woods, because it was a shorter trip back to the hotel. Everyone laughed, because there was probably six feet of snow covering the ground. There was no way we were going to do that.
We kept hoping the cabs were on the way, and when we heard cars coming up the mountain, we were initially relieved. But when we looked over the side, we could see it was a police car and what looked like a paddy wagon. Immediately, we figured the police had heard the taxi drivers talking on their radios about coming to get us and they planned to arrest us for trespassing before we were rescued. Quickly, we decided our only option was to leave the road and start trudging through the snow. One by one, we climbed over the ledge to start the snowy descent. Holding my clothes under my arm like a football, I must have looked like Herschel Walker high-stepping my way through the snow.
Not knowing we had gone down the side of the mountain, the cops drove to the springs. When they arrived, they could see us scrambling down the mountain. They came after us. Some of the snow was up to my chest, but we all reached the hotel's parking lot right before the cops arrived. They thought we had already made it into the hotel, but we hadn't gotten that far. There was so much snow, they couldn't see we were on the other side of the parking lot.
When the cops left, we strolled into the hotel lobby and came across an employee cleaning the floors. We were covered in snow, our hair turned to icicles by freezing sweat as we hustled down the mountain.
"Why did you guys have a snowball fight at three o'clock in the morning?" he asked.
Keenan didn't catch us that night, either.
I hope my readers don't get the impression that I didn't like Keenan. I love the man for molding me into the player I became. He was Dr. Frankenstein, and I was his creation. He was a father figure for me, and he nurtured my game through a tough-love approach. We fought regularly in my years in Chicago. More than once, I screamed, "Go fuck yourself, Mike."
Mike wanted the fires always burning in his dressing room. He wanted everyone always mad at him, and he liked it when players held each other accountable. There were some fistfights in the dressing room as players fought, not like sworn enemies but like brothers who would still love each other when the scrap was over.
Today's NHL dressing rooms are tame by comparison to what Chicago's dressing room was like back then. Today's players don't confront each other the way we did. In my opinion, today's players are too touchy about criticism. When you came into our dressing room under Mike Keenan, it was like joining a house of gladiators. There would be pain and suffering. But in that environment, I matured into a very good player, and the Blackhawks became a quality team.
Excerpted from J.R.: My Life as the Most Outspoken, Fearless, and Hard-Hitting Man in Hockey with the permission of Triumph Books.