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KEENAN FINALLY ESCAPES FROM PENALTY BOX

Mike Keenan opened his welcome-back news conference Saturday with a joke he had 60 days to perfect.

"I didn't know you could sit in the penalty box that long," Keenan said. "Certainly, it's been an interesting time for me."Keenan has been on the sidelines since July 24, when he was suspended by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman for jumping from the Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers to the St. Louis Blues.

From then until Saturday, he had no contact with the Blues or anyone else in hockey.

"I didn't allow myself to miss it," Keenan at a news conference. "I knew I had to deal with it mentally. It was beyond my control. It wasn't a preoccupation at all and it wasn't an option, so I didn't worry about it."

Instead, Keenan spent his summer relaxing at his cottage in Ontario and relocating to a St. Louis suburb.

"I've been busy cleaning, doing house cleaning," Keenan joked.

Perhaps the inactivity dulled his often caustic tongue, because he was more low-key than usual in a question and answer session that required less than the hour allotted. Despite the presence of a contingent of out-of-town reporters, there wasn't much controversy generated by his abrupt departure from the Rangers, either.

When the question finally came up, Keenan said he has been unfairly portrayed as the bad guy in the episode and would "like to set it all straight," but can't because of a confidentiality agreement signed by both teams.

But it didn't prevent him from taking a quick shot at the Rangers.

"I can get up in the morning and look myself in the mirror with a clear conscious," Keenan said. "Unlike a lot of people in New York."

Keenan, 44, spent a lot more time talking about the aura of the Stanley Cup he delivered to long-suffering Rangers fans in June and the successful follow-up he expects in St. Louis. He also went into a superlatives overload, using the word "fabulous" at least a dozen times while describing the new Kiel Center, the team's fans and his new home city.

"It's our commitment to the fans and the city to go the distance," Keenan said. "That's what our mission is."

Keenan has missed much of training camp and the Oct. 1 season opener at Detroit is just a week away, pending a lockout. But he didn't appear at all anxious to get started.

The Blues are 4-1-2 in the preseason with associate coaches Bob Berry and Ted Sator in control.

"They're doing so well," Keenan said. "Let's not mess it up."