BENSENVILLE, Ill. – Through tears and sniffles, Patrick Kane made his feelings for Denis Savard clear.
He was still reeling Friday, a day after the Chicago Blackhawks fired their coach following a sluggish start. A Hall of Fame player and franchise icon is out. In his place is team scout Joel Quenneville, the former Colorado and St. Louis coach. And struggling to absorb it all was Kane, the rookie of the year last season.
“It was definitely a love relationship, where he just wanted to get the best out of me,” he said.
The Blackhawks went 40-34-8 last season behind young stars like Kane and Jonathan Toews and re-energized their fan base even though they missed the playoffs for the ninth time in 10 seasons. But after what general manager Dale Tallon described as a “flat camp” and a 1-2-1 start, the organization made the switch.
A 4-1 victory over Phoenix at home Wednesday wasn’t enough to save Savard, who replaced Trent Yawney in November 2006.
“This early in the season, it’s really weird,” Toews said. “It’s definitely something I didn’t see coming. We all take responsibility for our own actions, what’s happened so far. It’s tough.”
To defenceman Brian Campbell, the move showed just how serious the organization is about winning this season. Anything less than the playoffs is not acceptable.
“I think it shows young guys they’re committed,” said Campbell, signed as a free agent in the summer. “There are expectations to make the playoffs. I feel we can make the playoffs. It’s very serious. It’s not OK when it comes to April (to say) ‘oh well, we’ll try again next year.’ No, there’s accountability and you have to make the playoffs or else things will change and not everybody sitting in this locker room will be here next year.”
Did he think the team needed a change?
“That’s not my decision to make,” Campbell said. “I’m here to play hockey and work hard, and whoever is in command I listen to and play my hardest for.”
And now, that’s Quenneville.
Signed as a pro scout in September, he has a 438-283-118 record in parts of 11 seasons and his first game with the Blackhawks will be in familiar territory – at St. Louis on Saturday.
He said they “should be pushing to be a playoff team,” and he doesn’t plan to make drastic changes. He also offered few hints how the goalie rotation will play out between Nikolai Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet.
“I think we’re fortunate to have two solid goaltenders here,” Quenneville said. “It’s nice when we have tough decisions. … It’s still early as far as having a trend or pattern.”
He brushed off the timing of his hiring, saying “training camps are shorter now anyway so we’re not that far behind the eight-ball.”
“I welcome the challenge,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity. It’s a great place to be right now.”
And he’ll have at least one familiar face with him on the bench. Marc Bergevin, who played for Quenneville in St. Louis and is in his third season in the Blackhawks’ front office, will serve as an assistant coach.
“He’s firm, fair and strict,” Bergevin said. “He’s got a clear message.”
He’s also replacing a legend, which can be difficult.
Chicago’s first-round pick in 1980, Savard played 17 years with the Blackhawks, Montreal and Tampa Bay, finishing with 473 goals and 865 assists. 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.
“There’s no doubt what he’s done for this team and this organization,” Toews said. “On a personal note, I wish him all the best. It’s tough to swallow.”
Particularly for Kane.
The two were close, and the reality that Savard was gone struck him in waves on Thursday. The first came when he found out in the locker room, and it hit him throughout the night.
He sent Savard a text message and was planning to call later Friday, a conversation that figured to be emotional.
“He was my first coach in the league,” Kane said through tears. “I think he was, more than anything a great friend. … It’s difficult to see him go.”