SUN Hockey Pool

'He was great for my career'

RANDY SPORTAK -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:54 AM ET

So there was Flames head coach Mike Keenan holding court.

It was after his team's morning skate in preparation for the San Jose Sharks in the middle of the pre-season and Keenan was performing his duties with the reporters.

Suddenly, the sage Peter Maher interrupted the proceeding with the words: "I think somebody wants to say hello."

Almost on cue, the long arm of Joe Thornton reached over assembled media members and he offered his congratulations to Keenan on his new job in the Stampede City.

It was honest. It was sincere. It was heartfelt from Thornton, who Keenan coached for most of the 2000-01 season in Boston.

"I like to see him back in the league," Thornton said. "He was great for my career. I owe him a lot. He was the kind of coach I needed to get me going."

As hard as Darryl Sutter could be, there are players willing to go to the ends of the earth for him.

For Keenan, it's the same way.

Even a player as jovial and happy-go-lucky as Thornton. And don't think for a second it was because Keenan handled him with kid gloves. Keenan is known for placing huge expectations on players, especially his stars.

A talent as incredible as Thornton, the 2006 Hart Trophy winner, can even end up in Keenan's doghouse.

"A bunch of times, yeah," Thornton said with a boisterous laugh. "I was in his bad books as much as his good books. But we understood each other, and I enjoy having him as a coach and a friend.

"I needed someone to sit me down and tell me what was expected of me. He was the right coach for me at the time.

"He was everything for me. But in the end, he put everything in perspective for me. He made me work hard, be disciplined. The type of player I am today, he made me that player."

Thornton still took a couple of seasons to become the elite star he is today, but Keenan said he saw a change in the first overall draft choice of 1997.

"He pretty much changed from a young individual -- a young boy if you like -- to a man in that particular turnaround season, gaining confidence and building an expectation to his game," Keenan said. "It accelerated his growth and he's become one of the best players in the league."

For much of that, Thornton credits Keenan. It was Keenan who told him to reach for his potential, and put him in the position to become more than a point producer.

"You're not just gonna be a scorer. You're gonna be a penalty killer, you're gonna play on the powerplay, take key faceoffs. He demands a lot of his best players," Thornton said. "You have to be everything. To be in his good books, you've got to take care of everything."

Keenan is known to have his detractors, but Thornton said the new Flames coach can be unfairly painted

Nobody will dispute Keenan is a hard taskmaster, but Thornton said it's easy to deal with when you come to the realization Keenan simply believes in working hard at all times and not taking shortcuts.

"Well, for some players, he's really tough. He's really tough on some players," Thornton said. "But I think if you're an honest player and work hard each and every night, he'll be fair to you. All you ask of a coach is be fair and he will be if you work hard each and every night.

"And he can relate to a lot of different players."

As for the job Keenan can do behind the Calgary bench, Thornton isn't ruling out big success. After all, he took a Bruins team that was floundering and coached them to a 33-26-7 mark over his stint and tied for the eighth playoff spot. The Bruins missed out on the post-season because Carolina had more victories.

"Our team was heading nowhere, and he came in and revamped the team," Thornton said.

"I was surprised when they let him go at the end of the year. I don't know what happened, but he turned that team around."


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