Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Confidence man

Mike Keane is a key point man for the Jets, dispensing help and guidance to prospects as they climb the ladder to the NHL

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JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Mike Keane is at his home in Winnipeg with his dog Hank and a job with the NHL�s Jets, tending to the club�s prospects.

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JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Mike Keane is at his home in Winnipeg with his dog Hank and a job with the NHL�s Jets, tending to the club�s prospects.

It is one of GM Kevin Cheveldayoff's constants, that the Winnipeg Jets are all-in on draft-and-develop.

The draft part of the equation is always prominent, highlighted each June at the NHL's selection process.

The develop part is more nebulous, more scattered and certainly takes longer. It's here where the Jets have been both careful and deliberate with the prospects and those whose full-time responsibility it is to oversee the progress.

 

The franchise's first hire in this department was former Manitoba Moose player Jimmy Roy, who was trusted for nine seasons to never take a night off. And never did.

With development's increasing importance to the franchise, the Jets turned to another trustworthy pro, adding three-time Stanley Cup winner Mike Keane to the staff as Roy's assistant just more than a year ago.

When his 17-year NHL career was finished, Keane, now 47, gave five more leadership seasons to the AHL's Moose before hanging up the skates in 2010.

He was respected for his longevity, for the way he played the game and for his honesty in all departments, but his new job is not trying to recreate himself amongst the organization's strong stable of prospects but to facilitate the growth of the future Jets to be their best.

It means spending time with all of the Jets' draft picks and prospects.

"We make sure that everyone's on the same page with their coaching, their development, their eating, their billets, their schooling, to make sure the only thing they have to worry about is their hockey," Keane said earlier this week.

It means he's at times a liaison, sometimes a handler, often a resource. He'll watch games, practices, take players out for lunch, talk to their coaches to get feedback.

In building these relationships, Stanley Cup rings and long playing careers aren't the selling points.

"That's the biggest challenge," Keane said. "Say what you want about them, whether it's never being told 'no,' or being coddled, today's player is a different breed and they're very confident. There's nothing wrong with that but there will be a time in their young career where they're not as good as everyone and they have to start to work at it.

"I think that's when some kids get pushed out of the game because everyone becomes good and they don't know how to work past that adversity. We just try to make sure if we have kids who are really good at the junior or college level, that's the first step. Next step is playing against kids same size as you or quicker than you or stronger than you and it's up to you to overcome that and push harder."

The premise of this week's conversation with Keane was to find out if his new role suited him one year into the job and what kind of pressure he's feeling being one of the hands on the steering wheel of the franchise's future.

"Because of the Winnipeg situation, well, if this was Detroit and these kids weren't in their immediate future, it doesn't change things," Keane said. "You still want them to develop as pro players on and off the ice as quickly as possible.

"But you can't hurry it. If it happens to be a year, great. If it's three years, great. You want to make sure you're doing justice for the kid. You never say, 'You have to play this year.' That does nobody any good. That's all negatives. You want to have positive progression into becoming a pro player. I have no pressure because we're all confident in our abilities to lead them in the right direction.

"It's a strong group of young players and once they mature into adults and get a man's strength, their hockey talents will take over."

Keane's return to an official position in pro hockey followed a break of nearly three years, a valuable time he needed to reset himself.

"I wasn't bored," he said. "My years off were great; I could easily have taken another one off. But talking to a lot of people, they said, 'Don't take too much time off because there are a lot of people that want to get back in the game and if you do want to, you want to make sure you're still up with the game, in the pulse of the game.'

"Two (plus) years off was enough for me. I got great offers from people to coach but I knew that once I came back into the game, I wanted to learn it again, the off-the-ice part of the game.

"This is a great position for me, not a lot different than when I played for the Moose, talking to the kids and seeing how they were doing and making sure they're doing the right things and helping them along the way."

It sounds like he was ready to get busy when the Jets came calling in 2013.

"I had to get back to work so I could relax," Keane joked. "When I was off, there was always something going on. I talked to some players who said when they retired, they were bored. For me, there weren't enough hours in the day -- for meetings, hockey games, charity things, stuff going on with my kids. I'd work out in the morning and the kids would be out of school at 3 o'clock and it was go, go, go and get home at 10 at night.

"It was a lot of fun. I travelled, which I never got to do when I played, so it was all a good experience."

In his new role, Keane said it's vital to be working for and with people he knows well.

"Jimmy (Roy), for starters, does such a great job, so amazing," Keane said, then laughed as he dropped one of his customary verbal missiles, "I wish he had those smarts on the ice when I played with him.

"He's so computer savvy, has such attention to detail. He's unbelievable. He has a million things on his plate but he's really organized. This role is perfect for him because he has so much passion for the position. He's a great guy to have as a boss because you can bounce anything off him any time of the day. He always picks up his phone. That's pretty cool to have.

"Working with people you really know is your lifeline. You have to make sure you're surrounded by people you trust. I've known Zinger (assistant GM Craig Heisinger) for 25 years, and (Jets co-owner) Mark Chipman for a long time. I know what their mission statement is about. They surround themselves with good people, on and off the ice. It's about positive environment. You won't go wrong when you have those values.

"When they came to me about the position, I jumped at it. First of all, it's home. Second, I'm surrounded by people I trust -- Zinger, Chipper, Chevy, Jimmy."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 27, 2014 D1

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