As Calgary hockey fans wait anxiously to see if the axe will fall on Mike Keenan, Craig Conroy has broken the silence with a public pitch for his coach.
However, the endorsement comes with a twist as the veteran Flames forward suggests the man formerly known as Iron Mike actually needs to be a little harder on the fellas.
"I've been on teams where they've fired coaches numerous times and it's not the surefire thing," said Conroy, citing a change in Los Angeles that saw his club sink to the bottom of the standings.
"To me, when you know what you have and you know what to expect and you can just fine-tune things, that's the way to go. If you start fresh, sometimes you say you've got to give a first-year coach a year to find out what he's got and I don't know if we have that time. It wasn't like we had a terrible season. We had injuries -- and that's not an excuse because everyone has them -- but we're so close. We had a great run but we didn't finish strong."
Granted, for obvious reasons, no athlete in his right mind would go public and suggest his coach should be fired.
However, as the first player to publicly back Keenan, Conroy cites plenty of reasons the 46-win club should stay the course behind the bench.
"Mike's got a good pulse for the team -- when we need days off, when we need to do things and he's approachable to talk to if there is a problem," said the 37-year-old, who says that wasn't necessarily the case when Keenan coached him in St. Louis in 1997, which is part of what makes the public backing of the once-feared coach all the more interesting.
"As a player, I'm comfortable with Mike. The coaching staff works hard and does everything everyone else does. Everything kind of flows -- the room is good. If we fine-tune a few things, we're going to have a good team and make the playoffs again."
By fine-tuning, he means tuning ever so slightly into Keenan's dark side -- the one that seems to have disappeared before he arrived in Calgary as mild-mannered Mike.
So, was he too nice?
"At times," said Conroy bluntly.
"He wants the guys in the room to hold one another accountable and we do. If he comes back next year -- and I think he will -- we can control the room but he's got to be more vocal and tell us exactly what he wants. And I think next year he'll do more. We don't have that team where Jarome (Iginla) is going to yell at guys, or I am, or Dion (Phaneuf) or Reggie (Robyn Regehr). We're not big into that.
"We try to talk and be positive, but I think Mike's got to come with the hammer -- and the hammer is ice time. If he doesn't like the way you're playing I think he needs to sit guys -- if you deserve to play, you play. At times he did it in the year but, at the end, when you're playing with 15 guys, you can't sit guys as you don't have enough bodies."
While many fans and media- types have fingered the coach as the obvious fall guy for the club's fourth-straight first-round exit, Conroy is hoping GM Darryl Sutter will take a much more rational approach and bring Keenan back for the third and final year of his contract.
"Obviously you can see people aren't happy with the way it ended and everyone wants to see something change -- that's just the way it is for every team," said the recent TSN analyst, who will remain in town as a soccer dad and golf enthusiast until the school year ends before summering in his native upstate New York.