It was cold in Montreal on December 6, 1995. The day wouldn’t have been too bad, except for the wind. A brisk westerly knocked the temperature down to a keen minus-ten degrees. A few flurries swirled in the gray sky. It was definitely a winter-coat kind of day and Patrick Roy was wearing his on the day he was traded from the Canadiens to the Colorado Avalanche. Aboard the Lear waiting on the tarmac for takeoff enroute to Denver, he sat stone-faced in his black jacket while distant photographers snapped his image through the jet’s window with telephoto lenses.
Another ex-Hab was on that jet too, but his picture didn’t make the papers. Mike Keane, then the 28-year-old captain of the Canadiens, was the throw-in in one of the most shocking trades in team history. Just eight months earlier, in April, his best friend…then-captain Kirk Muller…had been suddenly traded to the New York Islanders. Two days later, coach Jacques Demers called Keane into his office and told him he’d be taking Muller’s place. Keane never knew whether it was Demers’ decision or his teammates’. In any event, his tenure in the post would be short-lived.
In the early-morning hours of December 6, Keane got the word: He was the latest captain to be traded away by the Canadiens. Caught up in the maelstrom of Roy’s departure, his life was upended in a sidebar to the main story. He packed his bags, hid his shock and confusion, and boarded the jet for Colorado alongside the goalie whom he’d seen both adored and reviled by fans, media and management during Keane’s eight years in Montreal. He remembers sitting with Roy on the way across a continent to their new team. They talked about the friends they were leaving, what had happened and what awaited them at the end of the journey.
"I think we were both a little bit uneasy about what was going to happen," Keane says now. "Both of our first trades, a different city. Looking back, for me, I’m just a player in the national hockey league. Patrick Roy was a world class icon for the Montreal Canadiens that thought he’d never be traded. It didn’t set in I believe until a couple of weeks later for Patrick. We talked about we were hesitant because it was the old Quebec team, and to be honest with you, I didn’t like anyone on that team. We played them for eight years, eight times a year and you get a very healthy dislike for everyone on that team. It’s a real difficult thing to do. Once you get to know them they’re all not bad guys. But it took a little bit of time. That’s what we talked about."
The two were thrown together in a way they’d never been in Montreal. Degrees of star power, divides of language and culture; nothing mattered then except that the two of them stood shoulder to shoulder in enemy territory, just as they’d done for years with the Canadiens.
"We were friends. But we got a lot closer once we got traded," says Keane. "We were going to Quebec City…well, Quebec Nordiques in Denver where we weren’t liked too much. And we didn’t like them too much. We were the only two that we knew. We got a lot closer in that three or four years we were (both) there. He ended up being one of my closest friends in hockey."
Keane and Roy are still close. Today, Keane sees the events of December 2, 1995…when Roy allowed nine goals against the Detroit Red Wings, then erupted in fury at team president Ronald Corey after being pulled from the game…with a friend’s perspective.
"Well, it happened so fast. We were playing Detroit and we didn’t play very well," Keane recalls. "Mario Tremblay, who was coach at the time, was a first year coach. I think maybe he…well, obviously…left Patrick in too long. He didn’t ask him if he wanted to stay. I think all goalies are different. Some goalies want to stay and work on things or whatever. Some don’t like to be pulled. I think you have to ask at least. Especially a goalie of Patrick’s stature. That never happened. And then, Patrick, who was very…um..passionate…got into it with him. And things just escalated so fast. Patrick left the building and it was a big hush, hush where he went. And then obviously, the next couple of days, we were traded. Things escalated so fast. You got named captain, you were happy, things are going well and the next thing you know, you’re on a plane to Denver. That’s the way the game is sometimes."
Despite the oft-discussed perception that there was bad blood between Roy and Tremblay, Keane claims he wasn’t expecting a blow-up of the kind that came to pass thirteen years ago.
"No, not until that happened. Patrick said they were roommates at one time. I don’t think they butted heads. It was just a matter of him disrespecting Patrick. And looking back, it’s a learning experience for me too. No goalie wants to be embarrassed. But still, you have to ask him if he wants to be pulled, if he wants out, if he wants to stay in or whatever. And that never happened. And then Patrick went to Mr.Corey and said I’ve played my last game. And you knew something was going to happen."
Of course, something did happen. Keane and Roy helped the Avalanche to the 1995-96 Stanley Cup. Roy went on to another Cup and a third Conn Smythe trophy with Colorado. Keane moved on and later won his third championship in Dallas. Roy hung up his skates as a player in 2003, the same year his number thirty-three was retired by the Avalanche, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2006.
These days, the two whose lives changed irrevocably on December 6, 1995, are both still passionate about the game that brought them together. Roy is coaching the Quebec Remparts and has a Memorial Cup championship on his resume behind the bench. Keane is still playing. At 41 years of age, he’s the captain of the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose. As one who befriended Roy in the worst of times, he’s got no time for critics who say the goalie doesn’t deserve to have the honour of having the Canadiens retire his number because of the way Roy left the Montreal.
"I think that’s a bunch of garbage," Keane states. "I’m happy Patrick actually accepted (the honour). I talked to him the day it happened and I told him he’s getting soft in his old age. Because I don’t think ten years ago he would have accepted. But I’m happy that he actually moved on. He knows it’s a huge honour. Montreal was a really special time in his life. I’m glad he put away the old wounds and accepted. This is something that’s going to be up there for the next hundred years."
Keane thinks he probably won’t be there to see Roy’s number rise to the rafters at the Bell Centre. His team is playing the San Antonio Rampage in Winnipeg the night before the big event. But he’ll be there in spirit. And he’s thrilled for the friend he gained at the same time he lost a team, on a cold Montreal day thirteen Decembers ago.
"For him, it’s a very special honour. I’m very proud of him."