CHICAGO – Denis Savard’s plan was to improve on what the young Chicago Blackhawks accomplished last season and make a push for the playoffs.
He won’t get that chance. After only four games and just hours after the team’s first victory of the season, he was fired as coach Thursday and replaced by Joel Quenneville.
The Blackhawks, who have missed the playoffs nine of the past 10 seasons, improved to 1-2-1 following a 4-1 home victory over Phoenix on Wednesday night.
On Thursday morning Savard, a Hall of Fame player and one of the franchise’s most popular figures, got the word from general manager Dale Tallon that he was out.
“First and foremost, I’m proud of what we accomplished last year with the young kids in the lineup. I hope for them to do well,” Savard told The Associated Press by phone. “It’s a tough day, no question. I’m hurt. I worked hard to do the best I could to get the team on its way to the Stanley Cup.”
Tallon said letting Savard go was the most difficult decision he’d ever made. Telling him was just as tough.
“There was some silence and a lot of emotion. He handled it with tremendous class and dignity as he always does,” Tallon said at a news conference. “He accepted it and we’re going to move on.”
Tallon said the evaluation process had been ongoing since training camp and the decision was an organizational one. He said the Blackhawks seemed to come out in the pre-season without the same energy they displayed had at the end of last season when they won 40 games.
“It was a flat camp and we got out of the gate flat,” Tallon said. “It just didn’t seem that we carried over the energy that we had to finish the year last year. We felt we needed to send a message and invigorate this team. …
“It’s about moving forward, about achieving and winning and developing a consistent approach. And we felt we needed a more experienced person in that position and that’s why we made the decision.”
Savard became coach in November 2006 and finished that season with a record of 24-30-7 in 61 games. Last season, Savard led Chicago to its first 40-win season since 2001-02. The Blackhawks went 40-34-8 but still missed the playoffs.
Asked why he was fired so early in the season, Savard said: “You have to ask them that question.”
“John (McDonough, the team president) and Rocky (Wirtz, team chairman) made a commitment to the fans we were going to be in the playoffs and (eventually) win the Stanley Cup,” he added. “They probably thought somebody else would be better to get them there. I don’t know that.”
The 47-year-old Savard retired after a 17-year career in 1997. He played with the Blackhawks, Montreal and Tampa Bay, finishing with 473 goals and 865 assists. He was Chicago’s first-round pick in 1980.
He started the 1997-98 season as Chicago’s developmental coach before joining the Blackhawks coaching staff as an assistant coach under Craig Hartsburg on Dec. 3, 1997.
Quenneville has coached the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche, and his first game as coach of the Blackhawks is Saturday at St. Louis. He has a 438-283-118 record in parts of 11 seasons. He was signed by the Blackhawks as a pro scout in September.
“Joel brings us a wealth of experience and a winning track record that will have an immediate and lasting impact,” Tallon said.
Quenneville said he’d watched the Blackhawks play in his role as a scout but had planned to spend the season away from the bench, even though he explored a coaching vacancy during the off-season.
“It was a little different watching from afar. The appetite and the passion that creeps in when you coach hopefully comes out tomorrow. I expect it to,” Quenneville said.
Tallon has made three coaching changes during his tenure that began June 21, 2005. He replaced Brian Sutter with Trent Yawney and then appointed Savard after Yawney was fired.
Rocky Wirtz took over the team following the death of his father, Bill Wirtz, a little more than a year ago. Since then, Rocky Wirtz has hired McDonough, the former Chicago Cubs president and marketing guru, as president. The team has mended fences with former stars like Bobby Hull, made sure that home games are televised – something Bill Wirtz was opposed to – and allowed Tallon to spend in the free-agent market. In the off-season the Blackhawks signed free agent defenceman Brian Campbell to an eight-year contract that is worth US$56.8 million.
The Blackhawks also have two young stars in last season’s rookie of the year Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
Quenneville and the Avalanche agreed to end their relationship at the end of last season after Colorado was swept out of the playoffs by the Detroit Red Wings. Quenneville was 131-92-23 in three seasons with Colorado. He spent eight seasons with the Blues, becoming the team’s winningest coach with 307 victories.