A year ago, Jeremy Colliton was getting ready to coach his second season with the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL.
In a rather stunning turn of events, Colliton found himself behind the bench of the Blackhawks a month-and-a-half or so later, replacing Joel Quennville. Colliton's focus now is to get the Blackhawks ready for the 2019-20 season and with less than two weeks until Opening Night against the Flyers in Prague, the 34-year-old is busy preparing his team.
Still, Colliton found time to sit down with Blackhawks Senior Writer Chris Kuc to discuss taking over the storied franchise, his coaching style and strategies, balancing work and family life and more.
Kuc: You took over as coach last November and had to implement your systems on the fly. How beneficial has it been to have had the summer and this training camp to get everybody on the same page?
Colliton: It's been nice to have some time to - first of all as a staff make some plans and with the practice time that we do have - have a progression as far as how we're going to roll things out and get the guys prepared not only just to play preseason games but for the season too. It's a lot easier to evaluate your guys. We're trying to make sure we have the best players on the team and we have a structure. So that's kind of been our two goals coming into camp here and so far I think we're making some progress.
Did the strong finish last season when you made a run at a postseason berth help matters?
Yeah, definitely. I think we made a lot of our progress from January on. The first six weeks was tough. We had some trouble defensively and just getting consistency. I think anytime we'd start to build a little bit of momentum, even from period to period, we lost it. It's hard for the guys emotionally to recover when you're playing a lot of games in not many days. The schedule backed off a little bit after Christmas and I think that was helpful to us and we started playing better.
How difficult was it to gain trust with the players while at the same time getting them to adapt to new systems?
Obviously, you're trying to get better every day and trying to establish relationship with players and build a trust but when the games keeping coming there isn't a lot of time for those little conversations that make a big difference. So it's been really good. Obviously, at the end of the year we started playing better and that helps too. And then throughout the summer we had the chance to have meetings with the guys and now in training camp we get to spend a lot of time. That helps a lot.
You were 33 with no NHL coaching experience, did you have to sell yourself to the players?
I don't think of it as selling myself. I just want to be myself. Sort of what you have to do is just show you can help and show you have a plan and you're willing to take feedback and have a two-way conversation. Ultimately, we're here for them and we're in it together. We want to have success as a team and as an organization. If you prove that by how you act day in and day out then you get it back.
Was it easier for some players to accept you than others, including those who were close to Joel Quenneville?
Oh, maybe. That's not for me to say but, yeah, there were some guys that I had before in Rockford and so of course it's going to help just like it's easier for guys who played for 'Q' for a long time. They had a relationship and they knew what was expected day in and day out and when someone new comes in and has a different way of doing things, even if it's very small, change is hard and it's natural to resist change. That's not surprising.
Were you worried about those who went through the battles with Quenneville being wary of a new coach?
You're not really worried, you're aware of it and recognize it's going to be part of the process and it has been. It's ongoing. One thing that I think is important is to always remember that we have to constantly evolve as coaches and players. We can't do what we did yesterday and think it's still going to work. We have to keep getting better so I need to constantly be learning and looking at what other teams are doing and come up with new ideas and the players are the same. Even if we have a lot of success this year, if we do the same thing next year it won't be as good.
Both as players and coaches we have to make sure we keep that hunger to come up with a new way. We have a lot of guys with that type of personality in our room.
Did being in this spot happen a lot sooner than you imagined?
Yeah, I was really grateful to the Blackhawks for giving me the opportunity in Rockford. I was really happy in Sweden and they treated me extremely well but just the chance to come to an organization like this and the winning pedigree and actually, 'Q' was a big reason why I wanted to come. I wanted to be around him, a guy with his pedigree and success just kind of see how he operated. Kind of my plan was to be around an organization that is used to winning and just see how they do things.
Of course, at one point everyone wants to be at the highest level possible but the opportunity came earlier than I expected.
Was it hard to wrap your head around the fact you were suddenly coach of the Blackhawks?
I think I'm pretty even-keeled and try to live in the present and focus on what's important right now. That's easier said than done when results are not going your way but I think that's what you have to do to have success. There are no freebies at this level. You have to prove yourself every day. That's the focus you have to have.
What was the biggest lesson you learned as coach that maybe hadn't occurred to you going in?
I think just getting used to the tempo of the league, the schedule. There is no rest. When we first came in there were 24 games in 46 days. There just was no time to practice. We were traveling all the time and we had a lot of one-game trips which didn't make it easy. So that was just trying to find a way to keep making progress even when we didn't have a lot of time with the players. You have to be careful with the volume that you try to ask them, whether it's practice or video or meetings and things, when you're playing so many games. That's why you have to do so much in training camp. Your practice time that you get during the year, a huge chunk of it is in September. We recognize that and we have urgency coming in here. That's one thing we intend on making use of.
What are your strengths as a coach?
I think I have a pretty good feel for the players. I try to run the team in a way that as a player I would have wanted or respected. Ultimately, you have to make a call and you have to set the direction for things. But we want them to enjoy being here. I love to compete and we're trying to get them excited about it. I think that's important. I also think I'm about doing what works, not set on doing it any one way. You adapt to your team. I know they really want to win and as coaches it's up to us to find a direction that we should go to have success. I think it's fun to do that.
Are you one of those coaches who spends 18 hours at the rink or do you make sure you get quality family time?
I think you put the work in when it's time and do it as efficiently as you can. We all have families and I think it's important to take care of them. It's family first so when you have a chance to get home, you get home. Part of that is being efficient when you're at the rink and maybe it's doing some things at home when the kids are in bed and that's fine - there's nothing wrong with that. But I think it's important to get home and spend some time with them because you're not going to get those years back when they're young kids.
Are you still learning new tactics and strategies at the NHL level?
We are always learning. The league is constantly evolving. If you look at the way the league was played five years ago, even a year ago, there is going to be huge change. There are some things that are constant and it seems like if you look at games 30 years ago, similar things help you win but you have to innovate, you have to come up with new ways. Sometimes you borrow from the old to come up with new wrinkles. I think that's fun, I think that's a challenge, whether that's reacting to what other teams are doing against us or maybe it's coming up with something that excites your own team. That's part of why I like coaching.
Do you model your coaching style off anyone in particular?
I try to as much as I can read about other coaches and how they do things, whether it's the top coaches in our league or even football coaches, whether it's (Bill) Belichick or (Gregg) Popovich in basketball. In town, I've had the chance to chat with Jim Boylan a little bit. It's fun, it's interesting. Everyone has different ways of doing things, whether it's within your own sport or even between sports. We can try to take the best of what others do and make it your own. That's what the best people do not just in sports but in business too.
Video: Andrew Shaw's return to the United Center
So what will see from the '19-20 Blackhawks that we didn't see last season?
We had a team that probably couldn't play as aggressive as we would have liked to have played last year, so we adjusted as the year went on.
With the changes that have been made personnel-wise we have the opportunity to have more of a pressure, aggressive, forechecking team at times. We'll always having the ability to sit back and play in transition and that's great but I think you have to be flexible tactically and I think we have the opportunity to do that this year.
You've made your first training camp cuts as an NHL coach. How do you approach that?
You just tell the truth. It's not a fun conversation. I've been in that position on the other side. Just be honest with guys and try to give them as much feedback as you can. I don't think it does anyone any good to sort of dance around it. Just tell them how it is and players want that. They respect it and then they can take it with them and hopefully that feedback helps them in their career to take another step.
How do you feel about finishing training camp and starting the season in Europe? That's certainly different than most teams.
There are positives and negatives to it. I'm choosing to focus on how it's going to help us. It's a shortened timeline - we have less time to make decisions with our team - but we also have more time once our team is relatively set to come together and build a chemistry and practice. I think that will be a benefit to us.