Italy enjoys dawn of the Keenan era
by Andy Potts|01 MAY 2023
Head coach Mike Keenan keeps a sharp eye on Italy's progress at the 2023 World Championship Division IA tournament in Nottingham, Great Britain.
photo: Karl Denham
Not many teams in World Championship Division IA have had a Stanley Cup winning head coach. In Nottingham, though, Mike Keenan is leading Italy's promotion push.

The legendary Canadian, now 73, has seen it all and done it all in a trophy-laden career – but he’s still relishing the challenge of building a team and improving the players around him.

It’s early days for the Iron Mike era, but the initial signs are promising. The Italians enjoyed comfortable wins in their first two games in this year’s championship and have the only 100% record in the group.

“This team is beginning to learn a lot about winning,” Keenan said after watching the Azzurri beat Korea 6-1 on Sunday. “It takes discipline and work and structure as well as team play, and now they’re getting better at it.”

Initially, Italy approached Keenan for advice about the next coaching appointment as the country looks to build towards hosting the 2026 Olympics. Before long, that turned into an offer for Keenan and his assistant Mike Pelino to move to Italy and take charge of that program. Potentially, it could see Keenan coaching at the Games, the only major international tournament where he has yet to work.

Although the current Italian team lacks the kind of stellar names that won Canada Cups with Keenan in 1988 and 1992, or lifted the Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994, the coach is keen to point out that his career has covered all levels of the game.

“I’ve coached in the minors, in major juniors, in the American league, and also in an international league in Russia,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of very different experiences and as a result I think I’ve been able to utilise some of that to help teach and improve the players here in Italy.”

Keenan’s players are buying in. Team captain Thomas Larkin, an unexpected scoring sensation in Nottingham so far, is enjoying the coach’s trademark demanding style.

“I’m not gonna lie, we had a very hard preparation camp before we came here,” Larkin said. “We’re very happy now the games have started and we can really take that work out onto the ice.

“The expectations should be high, we should be held to a high standard. I think coach Keenan has been really good at demand a lot from all the players and making sure we all show up every day.”

Team-mate Luca Frigo is excited to be working with a coach who has such an impressive track record. “He’s had a great career and now he’s helping our development as a nation,” he said. “We’re very grateful that he’s here. 

“Coach Keenan is making good changes. He’s having a great, great impact on our team with the coaching he’s brought here. We know we have to bring our best work every day, and we get rewarded.”

Italy is well placed to make an instant return to the top division this week. But the aim is longer term, with Keenan and his coaching staff looking to push a new mentality in Italian hockey.

“Coach Keenan brings a lot of experience to the table, not only him but all the assistant coaching staff and everyone around us,” Larkin added. “He keeps reminding us how winning begets wining – the more you win, the more you expect to win. It’s a good mentality to have.”

Keenan, meanwhile, is encouraged by his team’s response. “They enjoy the opportunity to improve,” he said. “This is a very respectful and receptive group. We’ve done a lot of teaching and we’ll continue to do that, but they’ve been great in terms of their response.”