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Keenan Gets Earful of Garden Boo-Birds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They came from upstate and downtown, trudging through the blackened snow left over from last week’s blizzard to get to Madison Square Garden and make their voices heard.

A little slush wasn’t going to keep New York Ranger fans from telling Mike Keenan what they thought of him for leaving town under a cloud of controversy a month after he coached their team to its first Stanley Cup in 54 years.

From the moment Keenan walked behind the visitors’ bench Sunday night until the buzzer marking the end of the Rangers’ 3-3 tie against the St. Louis Blues, he was a lightning rod for marginally obscene chants, boos and dozens of home-made signs that bade him good riddance.

“He’s a rat. He’s not welcome here,” said Frank DeGrazio of Carmel, a town several hours north of New York City. “He should never have come back.”

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The phrasing varied, but the sentiments were identical. “The traitor is in the house,” read one placard in the upper reaches of the 18,200-seat arena. “Coach Keenan, thanks for the memories, now you’re the enemy,” read an elaborate, multi-colored sign held by a fan sitting a few rows away from the Blues’ bench.

One fan drew an apple that had a worm in it, with Keenan’s face on the worm’s head. Next to it were the words, “The worm is back in the apple.”

And of course, there were statements that can’t be repeated in polite company, which Ranger fans have never been accused of being.

Diane Lockley of Commack on Long Island contributed to the jeers that serenaded Keenan as he made his first appearance at the Garden since June 14, 1994, the day of the Rangers’ seven-game Cup triumph over the Vancouver Canucks.

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Because of the lockout, the Rangers and Blues didn’t play last season, but the passage of time hasn’t cooled Lockley’s anger.

“I just think he’s an idiot,” she said. “Sure, he won the Cup, but everybody is angry because he lied and left.”

Keenan had said a few days ago he anticipated a warm welcome because he had left on a winning note. He insisted fans wouldn’t jeer him as Knick fans had jeered Coach Pat Riley, who left town last summer for Miami after a similar power struggle with his Garden bosses.

Fans would have forgotten that Keenan accused the Rangers of breaching his contract by being a day late with his playoff bonus and then accepted the Blues’ coaching and general manager’s jobs. They wouldn’t remember the headlines in the brash New York tabloid newspapers, the ones that compared him to Benedict Arnold, he predicted, and they’d be fuzzy on the details of his punishment, a fine of $100,000 for conduct detrimental to the league and a 60-day suspension for having negotiated with the Blues while still in the Rangers’ employ.

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“I think by now, the only thing they reflect upon is that we won,” he said.

Keenan was wrong. They had neither forgotten nor forgiven.

He didn’t expect to get a standing ovation, but he didn’t expect so many boos. “But we won the Stanley Cup and, to me, that’s the bottom line,” he said.

“It’s an unforgiving business, I guess. . . . If it wasn’t enough for the fans that we all played some part in the success, that’s their prerogative. That’s fine.”

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But it wasn’t fine with Keenan. When he emerged from the tunnel that leads from the dressing rooms to the ice and heard the first catcalls, he was impassive for a moment before giving a small, ironic half-smile. He decided against making any grand gestures, as Riley did by blowing kisses to the crowd.

“I understand where [their hostility] comes from, but that doesn’t mean I have to embrace it at all,” Keenan said.

It came, he believes, from efforts by Ranger executives to paint him as the villain and portray General Manager Neil Smith as the good guy in their struggle.

“That’s part of what’s gone on here. There’s been a great deal of marketing done by Madison Square Garden throughout the entire departure and throughout the issues involved,” Keenan said.

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“And they have a huge marketing department, much bigger than what I’ve got. So that can pretty well put any slant or hype on just about anything they want in the biggest media center of the world.”

St. Louis players thought the fans’ reaction could have been worse. “It was pretty tame, actually,” goaltender Grant Fuhr said. “You never know what to expect here. I’ve been through worse.”

It also helps that the Rangers, who have the NHL’s second-best record (28-11-8) and a 17-0-3 streak going at home, are in better shape than the Blues, who are 18-18-8. Had their situations been reversed, the boos might have been nastier.

“As time goes on, I think people will forget,” Ranger captain Mark Messier said.

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“But the crowd is definitely loyal to the [Rangers’] red, white and blue.”

Keenan acknowledged he was glad the game was over.

"[The year in New York] was the apex of my professional career and something I worked hard for over a long time,” he said. “Winning the Cup was the greatest thrill of my life. . . . There are not many people in the industry who have the chance to come back to the place where they won the Stanley Cup.”


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