The 1997-98 season was probably the most tumultuous one in Vancouver Canucks history.
It began with a lot of promise, as the team signed prized free agent Mark Messier in the summer. Dubbed the “greatest leader in sports” at the time, the Hall of Famer was supposed to help a talented Canucks team compete for a Stanley Cup, with the likes of Pavel Bure, Alex Mogilny, and Trevor Linden.
Needless to say, things didn’t go as planned.
It began with Linden handing over the captain’s C to Messier in October. Longtime GM Pat Quinn was fired in November.
And then the real fun started.
Before hiring a new general manager, ownership fired head coach Tom Renney and hired Mike Keenan to replace him. And it was Messier, who teamed up with Keenan to beat the Canucks in the Stanley Cup Final three years earlier, who was most responsible for the hiring.
Speaking on the Iron Mike Keenan Podcast with Scott Morrison, Keenan went down memory lane, telling some old stories from his Vancouver days.
Of particular interest was Keenan recalling how he was hired.
“I got to Vancouver via Mark Messier,” Keenan said. “Mark Messier went to the owner [John McCaw]… Mark went to John and said, ‘I’d like Mike Keenan to coach this team.'”
Keenan then flew to Seattle to meet with the Canucks owner, who essentially handed him a blank cheque.
“He said, ‘This is the worst negotiation I’ve ever been in before. You are the coach, how much money would you like and what’s the term?'”
Keenan signed a three-year deal, which matched the minimum term on Messier’s contract.
“That’s the first time — and thank you, Mark — where I’m in a negotiation and the owner says, ‘Tell me what you want. I have to pay you because I’ve already told Mark you’re gonna coach.'”
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Because the team still hadn’t replaced Quinn when Keenan arrived, the Canucks essentially made Iron Mike acting general manager.
And boy did he take advantage of that.
Before the season was over, Keenan traded many of the players leftover from the 1994 Stanley Cup finalist team, including Linden, Kirk McLean, Martin Gelinas, Dave Babych, and Gino Odjick.
“Pat Quinn was very loyal to his players, and I thought to a point where he overextended their lifetime as Vancouver Canucks,” Keenan said. “You can’t hang on to players forever.”
The Trevor Linden trade
Keenan’s most controversial deal was when he traded Linden to the New York Islanders.
“There was a conflict in the room, a divide in the room, between the leadership and that leadership was Trevor Linden and Mark Messier. It was time for a change in the locker room.”
Linden, who had been picked to play for Team Canada at the 1998 Olympics, was still highly thought of around the league, and was the most popular player in Canucks franchise history.
“Steve Tambellini [the assistant general manager] was supposed to be a part of it, but he stepped away from this decision because he didn’t think it was going to be very popular, and he was correct.”
Of course, there were also reports at the time that Keenan had shouting matches with Linden in the dressing room.
“There was an expectation that I had of him,” Keenan said. “I don’t know how comfortable the room was at that point. With the presence of Mark in the room, it changed the franchise.”
The room was divided, and Keenan was squarely in Messier’s corner.
“There had to be a selection and of course Mark was the fella that brought me in — I had a lot of experience with Mark, Canada Cups and the New York Rangers — so I was going to go with the man that won with me.”
Ironically, Keenan’s most unpopular trade turned out to be his best one, as the Canucks acquired Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan McCabe, and a third-round pick that turned into Jarkko Ruutu.
But Keenan didn’t stop at dumping most of the 1994 leftovers. He also shipped out Mike Sillinger, Grant Ledyard, and Lonny Bohonos. Keenan acquired Sean Burke, Geoff Sanderson, and Enrico Ciccone in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes in January, but by March all three players had been traded away in separate deals.
The Canucks finished the season with the third-worst record in the NHL, and Brian Burke was brought in the summer of 1998 to take over as general manager. By January of 1999, Keenan had been fired as coach and replaced by Marc Crawford.
Of all the players that hated playing for Keenan, one notable guy seemed to like him.
Bure pulled a Messier while he was with the Florida Panthers in 2001, paving the way for Keenan become his team’s new head coach, and eventually general manager too. Keenan said even lived in Bure’s Miami Beach penthouse for a short period of time before he got settled.
In a roundabout way, Keenan was a key figure to set the Canucks up for success for the next decade. McCabe was a key part of the deal made by Burke to bring both Sedins to Vancouver, while Bertuzzi became the league’s premier power forward for a period of time.
And then as GM of the Panthers in 2006, Keenan did the Canucks a solid by getting fleeced in the Roberto Luongo trade.