CHICAGO – Joel Quenneville had prepared for life after hockey knowing his playing career was winding down and he might have to leave the sport he loved.
“I was a retail broker in Hartford in the summers for about five years toward the end of my career, preparing for that day,” Quenneville said. “I knew Plan B of my life was about to occur.”
But in the summer of 1991, after a season spent shuttling between the NHL’s Washington Capitals and their AHL team in Baltimore, Quenneville was introduced to coaching through a couple of clinics and the rest of his life would never be the same.
Now coaching his third NHL team with the Chicago Blackhawks, Quenneville this season became just the 14th coach to win 500 games.
After eight seasons running the St. Louis Blues – where he won 307 games – and another three with the Colorado Avalanche, Quenneville expected to be away from the bench to do some scouting for the Blackhawks at the start of last season. But four games into 2008-09, convinced that they needed more veteran leadership, the Blackhawks fired Denis Savard – one of the most popular players in team history – and Quenneville was back at the helm.
Now he’s a much-watched sports figure in a city that is once again crazy about hockey. The Blackhawks made the Western Conference final last season and are now one of the league’s top teams with a roster of young and skilled players. Through Wednesday’s games, Chicago had a 14-point lead in the Central Division, trailed only San Jose in the Western Conference standings and was just six points behind the NHL-leading Capitals.
The mustachioed Quenneville, dressed in dapper suits during games and in a let’s-go-to-work warmup for practices, has the Blackhawks in position to contend for their first Stanley Cup title since 1961. He has given the young team structure and discipline while allowing his players the space they need – something he understands from his 13-year playing career.
He is recognized as a top in-game coach who is able to make crucial line changes on the run or alter a game plan when necessary.
He has the respect and the attention of his locker room.
“I don’t think anyone wants to win too much more than him and he just keeps it really loose and relaxed for us,” defenceman Brian Campbell said. “He really makes it simple, quick and gets us excited for the game.
“He gets his point across and you’re not sitting for 25 minutes in a meeting. We’re ready to go after he talks to us.”
Quenneville’s game is centred on getting the puck and keeping it. Puck possession is the game he wants and it’s one factor in the offensively talented Blackhawks being a top team in fewest goals and shots allowed per game.
“It’s speed, it’s quickness. Rely on your skills and rely on each other, play a pressure game,” Quenneville said, summing up how he likes the game played. “I just think it just complements our young group.”
Quenneville’s competitive side flared last season in the Western Conference final against the Red Wings. Fuming over a roughing call against the Blackhawks during a scrum that led to a power play and a Detroit goal, he went on the offensive in his postgame news conference.
“I think we witnessed probably the worst call in the history of sports there,” Quenneville said, not flinching. “They ruined a good hockey game and absolutely destroyed what was going on the ice. … Never seen anything like it.”
The statement cost him US$10,000. His players say Quenneville can make a point in a controlled manner, even in the electric and often noisy atmosphere of a playoff game.
“Obviously he gets intense and gets worked up on the bench just like anybody does and get emotional during the game, but beneath it all keeps a pretty level head and know what the right decision is to make in certain situations,” said Jonathan Toews, the team’s 21-year-old captain. “He’s pretty much on top of everything that happens out there, so his experience definitely helps us a lot.
“In some situations, I don’t think there’s anything he hasn’t seen, so he never really overreacts.”
There are issues for Quenneville to deal with. He might have to sort out the team’s goaltending situation where backup Antti Niemi has at times outplayed starter Cristobal Huet. And one of his next challenges as the Olympics kick off will be to maintain a momentum and a rhythm during the break. Some of his players will be on the ice, others will be resting.
The Blackhawks have six players going to Vancouver, meaning Chicago teammates could be bumping heads and knocking each other into the boards while playing for their countries.
“When you are playing hockey, it’s not the time to think about that,” Quenneville said. “I think as a coaching staff you try to keep your guys fresh going into it the best you can and at the same time, keep en eye on the guys that are going to be in the Olympics and when they return.
“Everybody is dealing with the same schedule, the same type of return from the Olympics. We’ll gauge it.”
The Blackhawks have had 80 straight home sellouts going into Saturday night’s game against Atlanta, the final home game before the Olympic break. Then they’ll regroup for practice and go after the final five weeks of the season. Their success so far has raised expectations.
Quenneville, of course, would like to coach in his first Stanley Cup final but knows there is a long road ahead.
“The timing has been great and it’s a fun team to coach,” he said. “We really like the progress we had last year. … We’re at a different part of our season right now and we like the way things have gone. But there is still a lot of hockey left. We want to get better. We want to keep proving that.”