CHICAGO – A championship coach not long before, Peter Laviolette was assisting his 11-year-old son’s team when the underachieving Philadelphia Flyers called.
Now, how’s this for a resurrection? From youth league assistant to head coach of the Eastern Conference champions, Laviolette has come a long way the past seven months.
So have the Flyers.
Between the high expectations and a coaching change, injuries and general inconsistency, and then an epic post-season comeback, Philadelphia didn’t take the easy road to get to the Stanley Cup finals. Yet there were the Flyers as the series began on Saturday, staring at the Chicago Blackhawks in a matchup between championship-starved franchises.
And just like Laviolette, the coach in the other box—Joel Quenneville—knows a thing or two about taking over a talented but struggling team.
“They’re both very good teachers of the game,” said the Flyers’ Chris Pronger, who played for Quenneville in St. Louis. “They both are intense behind the bench and push their players to play to the best of their abilities.”
And they both have their teams in position to win it all for the first time in decades.
The Flyers’ last championship came in 1975, when the Broad Street Bullies fought their way to their second straight title. The Blackhawks’ last hoisted the Stanley Cup in 1961, when Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita were starring on Madison Street.
For Laviolette, this is familiar territory. He coached Carolina to the championship in 2006 but got fired after two straight playoff misses and a 12-11 start last season. Overall, he’s 272-212-64 in parts of eight seasons, including two with the New York Islanders.
“When you’re out, you wonder if you’ll ever get back in,” he said. “When you do get back in, you certainly are appreciative of the opportunity.”
Quenneville is 536-329-135 over parts of 13 seasons, but this Stanley Cup run is a new experience for him. Although he was on Colorado’s staff when the Avalanche won it in 1996, no head coach had more playoff games (120) and earned more post-season victories (63) without leading a team to the finals before the puck dropped on Saturday.
“You always look to the beginning of the season you hope, you envision yourself in this position as well,” said Quenneville, who replaced franchise icon Denis Savard early last season. “But I felt very fortunate to be here in Chicago last year. At the right time at the right moment of having a young group and a special opportunity.”
Laviolette was working for TSN wondering if he’d get another chance when the call came from general manager Paul Holmgren in early December.
With one win in seven games and a disappointing 13-11-1 record, the Flyers weren’t meeting their high expectations after adding goalie Ray Emery and Pronger. So John Stevens got fired after three-plus seasons with a run to the conference final, and Laviolette replaced him.
“I know guys felt guilty when Johnny got fired,” enforcer Riley Cote said.
The adjustment took time.
There were changes in the neutral zone and the approach to forechecks. There were also high marks for the new coach.
Players could see the progress after a few weeks even though the Flyers never really shook their inconsistency.
They still needed a shootout victory against the New York Rangers in the final regular-season game just to make the playoffs, and, it took a monstrous comeback against Boston in the conference semifinals to keep this run going. They went from trailing 3-0 in the series to falling behind 3-0 in Game 7 but pulled it out—just when it seemed they were out of magic—on a power-play goal by Simon Gagne.
Gagne had returned from a broken toe to win Game 4 with an overtime goal.
They’ve also dealt with injuries to goalie Brian Boucher (knees) and right wing Ian Laperriere, who missed 10 games with a brain contusion and mild concussion, during this playoff run, not to mention the broken right foot Jeff Carter sustained last month.
Yet for all the twists,for all the wild turns, they’re playing for a championship.
“Once the playoffs rolled around, we’d been through so much, understood what we needed to do night in and night out to be successful. We’re kind of seeing the rewards of that,” Pronger said.
Cote praised Laviolette’s attention to detail, particularly his ability to break down turnovers “to a science.”
“He’s a very prepared person,” said Cote, who had not played in the post-season.
Like Laviolette, Quenneville helped improve his team. He brought structure when he was hired but gave a promising young team with stars like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane enough freedom, and he’s not afraid to tweak the game plan or change lines on the fly.
“He keeps the dressing room pretty relaxed,” Marian Hossa said. “He might want some players to play a certain way defensively, but he knows he’s got a lot of offensively players and he keeps them loose and says ‘You guys do whatever you need to do, but defensively I want you to do this.’ Not every coach does that.”
The 51-year-old Quenneville grew up a Blackhawks fan in Windsor, Ont., and was just a toddler the last time they won it all.
“I was one of the oddballs in the city,” he said.
Now, he’s one of the most popular coaches in this city.
Jettisoned from the Avalanche in May 2008 despite a .579 winning percentage over three seasons, he got arrested on a drunk driving charge in Colorado that September—right around the time the Blackhawks had hired him as a scout.
The following month, he was back on the bench after replacing Savard with the Blackhawks off to a sluggish 1-2-1 start following a 40-win season.
With a new coach and stars like Toews and Kane, Chicago soon began to live up to the lofty expectations and advanced to the conference finals after finishing second in the Central division with 104 points and 45 wins.
The Blackhawks kept the momentum going this season, finishing second in the Western Conference with 112 points while winning 52 games during the regular season, and strengthened a bond with fans that had been shattered under late owner Bill Wirtz.
They’ve gone from playing in half-empty arenas for years to becoming the hottest ticket in town, and Quenneville just might be the most discussed coach in Chicago—no small feat with Ozzie Guillen managing the White Sox.
There’s the Mike Ditka-like moustache. There’s the stoic demeanour. And there’s the chance to join Ditka and Guillen in that small group of championship Chicago coaches.
“I think that it would be—it will be a great achievement for everybody, I think the city will go wild and crazy,” Quenneville said. “I guess we’re all in this position right now, we get to enjoy the excitement that’s in Chicago.”