Just shy of three weeks removed from his record 13th NLL Finals appearance and ninth NLL Finals victory as either a player, assistant coach, head coach or general manager, Saskatchewan Rush skipper Derek Keenan reflected on his 50-year-long relationship (and counting) with the game of box lacrosse and his road to success.
Although Keenen began orienting himself with the game at the age of six, it would be another 25 years before his professional debut with an upstart Major Indoor Lacrosse League squad right across the border a mere three-hour drive south of his hometown of Oshawa, Ontario.
“I played all the way through Junior-A with the Oshawa Green Gaels,” Keenan recounted of his pre-professional playing days. “Then I went to Ithaca College and was one of the rare Canadians that went to school down in the U.S. Now there’s a lot of them, but there weren’t so many back then. I continued to play locally with the Senior-A Brooklin Redman, but it wasn’t until the Buffalo Bandits signed me as a 31-year-old rookie – which was a bit of an oddity – that I started my pro career.”
Yet, even as he was nearly 10-years the senior of some of his teammates such as future NLL Hall of Famers John Tavares and Darris and Rich Kilgour Keenan was a substantial contributor to the Bandits in their first year as a franchise.
In his and the team’s first season, Keenan notched the league’s second-most points in the eight-game regular season with 49 (tied with Gary Gait and four behind Paul Gait) and the league’s second-most postseason points with 16 in three games en route to his first NLL Finals game and ultimately, his first victory.
That team didn’t win the title that year as a fluke. Due to great work from management, they were able to craft a team, that aside from the future NLL Hall of Fame players, which also included Jim Veltman, they had other excellent talents such as Bob Hamley and Kevin Alexander to name a few. Keenan cherished every moment playing with such high-caliber players.
“It was unbelievable,” Keenan said of having teammates who also played the game at such a high-level. “Even though we were a new team, we still had quite a few veterans that were on the team. It was a brand new franchise, so they could sign great free agent players. But, those young guys, it was so exciting to watch them play.”
The bandits followed their inaugural-success with another finals victory in 1993, each win giving Keenan feelings of great joy.
“Winning that first year was incredible because we didn’t start very well,” Keenan vividly recalls. “We started that season 0-3 and were struggling to figure out the league, but then we caught fire and didn’t lose a game the rest of the regular season and right through the playoffs. That second year, we were the first team to go undefeated, which is the last team to go undefeated through the regular season and playoffs. We were obviously a really good team that year too, but they weren’t easy championships. They were both against Philadelphia [Wings], they had the Gait brothers, and in 93’ it went right down to the wire.”
However, despite having played just two very successful professional years in his early 30’s, Keenan’s “real job” as he called it came a knocking, and he would take a six-year hiatus from the league to start a family.
“We started a family immediately following [the 1993 season],” Keenan said of his time in the early 90’s. “Aside from coaching my friend’s Minor lacrosse team, I really stepped away from the game until Toronto got a team and I came back as kind of a player/coach… My son was
born in 94’ and my daughter was born in 98’, so right in that slot before I came back in 1999 to play in Toronto.”
One of the most impactful relationships that Keenan formed while he was in Buffalo was with his coach, Les Bartley. In his return to the turf in 1999, the two would be reunited, first with Keenan as a player and then, in 2000, as bench-mates with Keenan becoming Bartley’s right-hand man as an assistant coach alongside Ed Comeau.
“We got a lot of [our success] through Les,” Keenan said. “He was focused on preparation more coach than any coach I’ve ever been around. So, I learned a lot from him: how to prepare for games, how you scout teams, how you watch film. He revolutionized that part of the game. He revolutionized how to coach. He became a lot more structured, a lot more technical. We played that way, and we were very successful.”
During their run of an unprecedented five consecutive NLL Finals appearances including Champion’s Cup victories in 99’, 00’, 02’, and 03’, the great minds on the bench were crafting great minds on the turf.
They couldn’t have known at the time, but those teams would produce a handful of current NLL coaches including three head coaches (the New England Black Wolves’ Glenn Clark, the Colorado Mammoth’s Pat Coyle, and newly-appointed Vancouver coach Chris Gill) and two current assistant coaches (the Georgia Swarm’s Dan Ladouceur and the Colorado Mammoth’s Dan Stroup).
Following the team’s fourth NLL Finals victory in 2003, Les stepped down for health reasons – he would pass away two years later – and Keenan was given his first shot at a head coaching gig to start 2004. It was short-lived, however, as he would be let go after the team started 2-4.
Despite the underwhelming numbers as a first-year head coach, Keenan wasn’t unemployed for very long. He was quickly hired as the head coach and general manager of the Anaheim Storm but again found himself hoping for work after the team folded at the end of his first season with the club in 2005.
Seeing how much Keenan had achieved thus far in his career including seven NLL Finals appearances and five championship wins as a player, assistant coach, and now, a head coach and GM, one of the league’s latest expansion teams, the Portland Lumberjax, brought him on to again take the reins to be the head coach and GM of the franchise.
“Anaheim was the first time that I was “the guy,” and I learned a ton,” Keenan remembers. “We didn’t have a great season, but we got better as the year went on. We were pretty good by the end of that year and were starting to take down some of the top teams. But, I was also able to learn a lot more about all the players as a GM and coach. When I went to Portland, there were a good number of guys who were with me in Anaheim who I was able to get through the expansion draft and trades. We were lucky to win the coin toss in the expansion draft, so we drafted Brodie Merrill that year, so we had a pretty good team to start.”
That first year in Portland, Keenan coached the team to the best record in the conference, finishing the season at 11-5. Two seasons later, having ended 2008 with a 6-10 record, the Lumberjax snuck into the playoffs and Keenan managed to coach that team all the way to the NLL Finals only to fall short of lifting the trophy.
“When we went to the final in 2008 it was exciting,” Keenan said. “We had Dan Dawson on the roster that year. It was all part of the learning curve, bringing in the right people, finding
character guys, but you have to have talent too… We had pretty good talent most years, and again, we went to the finals, which was pretty good for an expansion team, I think.”
Finding the right guys that have a blend of good character, hard work ethic and talent can be hard, but it’s one of the most critical policies when playing for Derek Keenan.
“I always have this policy: we want good characters, and we want good people,” Keenan stressed. “Sometimes you take a good person over someone who might be more talented. Usually, the guys who aren’t good people, and you find out very quickly, they don’t last long on the team. You need good leadership in that room from top to bottom.”
Much like the Storm, the Lumberjax would fold as a franchise by 2009. Shortly after his time in Portland, Keenan was hired for the same positions with the Edmonton Rush. Nine years later, Keenan has turned the Rush franchise into the formidable juggernaut that we just witnessed in the 2018 NLL Finals.
Keenan has implemented all that he’s learned throughout the years. Maybe that’s why his team’s keep getting better. With four straight NLL Finals appearances since 2015, as well as an NLL Finals loss in 2012, Keenan and his staff in Saskatchewan have become the mightiest team since his, Ed and Les’ Toronto Rock squads.
It isn’t easy to be as good as Keenan has been in so many facets of the game, appearing in the NLL Finals for more than half the years he’s been in the league since 1992. But, for the Uber- accomplished head coach/GM, the formula to success is relatively straightforward.
“I’ve always had an open mind to the game and still do to this day,” Keenan noted about his keys to being a winning coach. “I’ve always kept my mind moving forward and new ideas, but staying composed is really important, and I think I’ve gotten better at that each year.”
“You tend to be a lot more emotionally involved when you become a coach at that level,” Keenan said. “But, you learn from guys like Les, that, it’s best to keep your emotions in check. I learned to be more technical and in control, making sure to stay within the game. Composure is very important. I think all that ranting and raving and jumping on the bench, you just have to put that away.”
Looking at the Rush’s continued success in recent years, Keenan credits the ownership and his staff for working as a cohesive unit to help lift this franchise up after the club’s dismal years in their early stages.
“It starts with an owner, an owner who is hugely committed,” Keenan stated. “He suffered in the win-loss column and at the gate but stuck with it. It’s not just me; it’s Bruce [Urban], it’s my assistant coaches, it’s the office staff. I always say this to people, ‘we built this together.’ It’s not about Derek Keenan and what I’ve done, it’s about a group of people who work really well together to bring in the right talent.”
Regardless of who he would like to give credit to, a record 13 NLL Finals appearances, with likely many more to come, is a feat to praised. It is only fitting that Keenan continues to cement himself as one of the greatest lacrosse coaches the game of box lacrosse has ever seen having learned from Les Bartley.