On a Saturday morning late in the 2014-15 season—March 7, to be exact—Head Coach Joel Quenneville convened practice at the United Center. The previous night, after two ragged periods, his Blackhawks rescued a 2-1 shootout victory over the Edmonton Oilers. Next up was a visit from the rampaging New York Rangers.
As soon as he took the ice, it was apparent that Coach Q did not plan on taking his whistle for a leisurely skate.
“Let’s get ------ off around here!” he bellowed, loud enough to merit a banner headline in Sunday’s Daily Herald: “Enough is enough. Quenneville’s had it with Hawks’ spate of lackluster efforts.”
Witnesses reported that players not only listened attentively to his words, as in the famous E. F. Hutton commercial, but conducted rather crisp drills. With only 17 games remaining in the regular season, Quenneville sought to convey a sense of urgency. When the pucks were put away, he brought out a notecard with talking points.
Given the paucity of recorded public outbursts, Coach Q’s display was news. It is also noteworthy that Quenneville, a future Hall of Famer with virtually total recall on all matters pertaining to hockey, is strapped for details on his out-of-body experience.
“I honestly don’t remember that,” said Quenneville, smiling now. “I vaguely remember being angry about something around that time, but that exact moment? What was that date again?”
As for June 15—a Monday night, to be exact—no problem. With 22,424 providing the soundtrack of a constant din, Quenneville’s Blackhawks eliminated the Tampa Bay Lightning at the “Madhouse on Madison” in Game 6 of a scintillating Stanley Cup Final. He decided that, considering all the bumps and bruises along the way, this third National Hockey League championship in six years had been the toughest yet.
“But nothing these guys do surprises me,” Coach Q concluded. “Unbelievable.”
On the surface, that might qualify as a contradiction. After all, if nothing his players accomplish shocks him, then they are routinely, predictably the goods. But Quenneville’s message during the celebration was as clear as the one he grumpily delivered at that bygone gathering in March. When it counts, count on the Blackhawks. They are special, and he is honored to be where he is.
“This is really crazy now,” Quenneville said. “I mean, it was big in 2010 when we won. And it was a lot bigger in 2013. But now it’s gone to another level. The way these amazing fans love this team in Chicago. The way fans love this team everywhere we go. In the States, in Canada.
“It’s so tough to win. It’s so tough to make the playoffs. Look at our division. Five teams made the playoffs, all seven over .500. The last-place team in our division, Colorado, had 90 points! Then the postseason. We lost in the worst way possible last year—overtime at home in Game 7. That might have helped the appetite this year. We didn’t want to go through that again. Hell no.
“Then we fall behind to Anaheim three games to two. It doesn’t look good. Triple overtimes, three flights to the West Coast, landing at O’Hare at 3 or 4 in the morning. Are we doing this all for nothing again? But the guys found a way, because they always seem to find a way. I think fans appreciate how hard it is. I know I do.”
Fans, even those who happen to be in the Hall of Fame, also appreciate how the Blackhawks play.
“It starts with the coach,” said Tony Esposito, a Blackhawks ambassador. “Some coaches want to win every game 1-0. They can put you to sleep. Quenneville has great players, and he lets them play. Speed, skill. They’re the most exciting team in the most exciting sport, and he’s the man behind it.”
What is the genesis of all this? We introduce you to Gerry Cheevers, a Hall of Fame goalie who won two Stanley Cups with the Boston Bruins in the 1970s and is a fellow aficionado of Quenneville’s favorite publication, The Racing Form.
“I was broadcasting in Hartford after I retired,” said “Cheesey.” “Joel was playing with the Whalers. I told him he should go into coaching. Now he’s a better coach than he ever was a player. But I didn’t know that he would become a freaking genius behind the bench.”
Quenneville has secured more titles than any coach or manager in Chicago history except George Halas of the Bears and Phil Jackson of the Bulls. During his tenure with the Blackhawks, Quenneville has climbed to third place for regular-season victories on the all-time list of NHL coaches behind only Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour. Despite his iconic profile, Quenneville is commercial-free. He endorses nothing except winning. Moreover, he has earned three Stanley Cups with three different rosters and three different staffs. Kevin Dineen and Jimmy Waite joined Mike Kitchen as assistants last year. And the beat goes on.
“I played with Joel, and even then he had goals,” Dineen said. “He got his broker’s license (to sell securities) when he was still active. But watching him coach, it’s an education. He is a hockey savant. It’s almost scary. Misses nothing on the ice. Has the complete pulse of the team.”
After games, Matt Meacham, the Blackhawks’ extraordinary video coach, supplies tapes of recent events for instant replays and critiques.
“I can go over to Joel on the plane and mention a certain play,” Kitchen said. “I know that even if he hasn’t watched what I’ve watched yet, he will cite exactly what I’m talking about, what happened and when it happened. A photographic memory.”
Waite, who did a splendid job with goalies Corey Crawford and Scott Darling, cuts to the essence of Quenneville’s reign.
“He is very demanding,” Waite said. “But along with that, everybody is accountable. That is a huge part of what this team is about. Do it right, and do it now. Is it fun, though? It’s lots of fun. Winning it all is fun, but getting there is also fun.”
The coaches are inseparable on the road, though they might see each other more than they see their wives. As the weather warmed during the grueling postseason run, it was commonplace for Quenneville, Kitchen, Dineen, Waite and Meacham to locate an outdoor space beside their hotel after dinner to enjoy cigars and a bottle of wine. They know how to laugh, and they know how to relax.
“We try to get Joel to pay,” Kitchen cracked. “Actually, in all honesty, it’s hard to get a check away from Joel.”
Until this past summer’s massive United Center renovation, Quenneville occupied a tiny, windowless office—hardly reflective of coaching royalty. But he does not preside over an imperial administration. Assistants have their in-game specialties: Kitchen, the defense and penalty kill; Dineen, the power play. Quenneville handles the forwards. Unlike with some staffs, however, the suggestion box is always open.
“We all talk about everything,” Dineen said. “Of course, we know who has the final vote. How often does Joel use the hammer? Rarely.”
“Joel is a perfectionist, but not really all that hands-on,” Kitchen added. “The guys love that, and so do we. He doesn’t want us sitting there nodding in agreement to everything he does or says. We challenge him if we have a strong opinion. But if it involves a particular incident, you’d better have your facts ready. And he has a great quality for a head coach: He is unpredictable.”
In a locker room he tours sparingly, Quenneville commands and expresses respect. He never throws players under the bus; they are aware of who is driving the bus. More than one has voiced regret about being unable to face him on the bench, because Coach Q owns a wide array of spirited histrionics that officials see rather distinctly. Players, however, can hear Quenneville loud and clear, particularly when he tosses out his go-to epithet. (Someone offered that nobody uses that particular word with quite the same gusto Q does.)
“I am a players’ coach,” Quenneville said. “I think they appreciate that I don’t go around screaming and yelling. I think they like that we have relatively short practices, that I don’t call practice just to call practice. And I know they like time to rest, stay fresh. Sometimes you gotta get away from the rink.”
Indeed, the Blackhawks get more days off than a college professor. It’s about trust. Quenneville let them be between Games 1 and 2 of the Final in Tampa. Their hotel was not far from the beach. But on a shiny afternoon, Brad Richards, who had played there, borrowed wheels to take Jonathan Toews and a couple other teammates to a place that makes juice. A supply of greenish health liquids, heavy on spinach, was on their flight from Chicago. It was already exhausted, so the Blackhawks went searching for spinach juice.
On a day off.
With the beach right over there.
And the pool a slapshot away.
“Very dedicated and responsible group,” Q praised. “When I played, we didn’t go looking for health juice.”
As for the Blackhawks’ ineluctable up-tempo style, that is part of the indelible Quenneville brand.
“I’ve always coached that way,” he said. “We are not referees about our system. We don’t wear them out with film sessions. We’re not cops, telling guys you have to be in this exact quadrant of the ice, so many feet from wherever, you must be right there and no place else.
“We do have a rhyme and reason when we don’t have the puck. But when we do have the puck—and we like to think of ourselves as a puck-possession team—it’s ‘Let’s go. Create something.’”
Kitchen corroborates Quenneville’s approach.
“I would say that Joel is more rigid about what players are supposed to do in our end than elsewhere on the ice,” he said. “But you don’t tell a Patrick Kane what to do with the puck when he has it at the other end.”
OK, Coach Quenneville, what about this allegation that you don’t like young players?
“Oh, that is so untrue, such B.S.,” he said, getting his dander up now. “When Brandon Saad came to us a couple years ago, did we use him? Did he play big minutes on top lines? When Trevor van Riemsdyk showed up at training camp last year, was he still young? I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t know where he came from. I didn’t know how to spell his name. Did he earn a place on our roster? Did Teuvo Teravainen play big minutes during the playoffs? Is Scott Darling an old guy? I don’t know where that stuff gets started.
“As a coach, you have one kind of leverage. How many minutes does a guy play, and what kind of minutes, in what situations? I don’t care how much money a guy makes, what age he is, what country he comes from, what language he speaks or who his agent is. Just play. And play hard. Period.”
At the trade deadline in March, the Blackhawks acquired the premier available forward in Antoine Vermette. He scored just one shootout goal in 19 regular-season contests and was a healthy scratch for the first two playoff games in Nashville. Coach?
“It took awhile for him to transition,” Quenneville said. “Same with Kimmo Timonen, although he hadn’t been playing at all. Goes back to minutes. They both wanted more minutes. I understand that. Vermette winds up playing great in the postseason. I tip my hat to him. He could have gone away and hid. He could have pouted, although that would have been tough in our locker room with our leadership group. But he was very professional about the whole thing. Did I tear him down to build him back up? I take absolutely no credit for how he came through it.”
Quenneville’s line machinations are a source of wonderment to not only observers, but his assistants. Again, they often partake in decisions—in games, during intermissions or between games—but as Waite commended, “The worst thing you can do when things aren’t working is to do nothing, and Joel never just sits back and waits. He processes what he’s seeing and reacts.”
Denis Savard, the Hall of Fame ambassador whom Quenneville succeeded as head coach just four games into the 2008-09 schedule, is an unabashed admirer.
“Sometimes I scratch my head at what Joel does with his lines,” Savard said. “But tell me, how many times has he screwed up? I’m already on record admitting that I could never coach the way he coaches. If our main guys weren’t going on any given night, I would just hope that they got going as the game went on. Joel doesn’t operate like that, and the way he puts guys in different situations, on different lines, it’s incredible.
“And let me tell you something about Game 7 in Anaheim. Duncan Keith was our most valuable player in the postseason, hands down. I would put Corey Crawford a close second. But the way Q ran that bench in Anaheim when he didn’t even have the last change, it was crazy good. He had his top guys on when he wanted them, Tazer scores two quick goals, we go up 4-0, and the Ducks are done. Toast. Coach Q was the MVP that game. Like he was conducting an orchestra.”
Only James Bond closes a deal like the Blackhawks. In 117 playoff games since Quenneville took over, they are 30-30 over the front part of a series, but a ridiculous 43-14 from Games 4 through 7. Even in series they have lost, they finish strong. Witness the 2011 Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Vancouver Canucks, who won the first three games, then hung on before winning Game 7 in overtime. In the fateful 2014 Western Conference Final against the Los Angeles Kings, the Blackhawks rallied from being down 3-1 in the series to force a Game 7 and lost on a freakish overtime carom that nobody around Chicago likes to discuss. The Blackhawks have played 20 playoff series under Quenneville and won 16.
Kitchen, without revealing any state secrets, points to “adjustments” and how “our guys buy into them.” In Game 3 of the Final at the United Center, Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman threaded a masterful 100-foot pass to Ryan Callahan for the Lightning’s first goal in a 3-2 victory. Tampa Bay espouses pressure and possession, like the Blackhawks. “They were rink-widing us to death,” recalled Kitchen, referring to long stretch passes to the far blue line and board-to-board exchanges in the neutral zone. Coach Q and staff altered the coverage. The Blackhawks did not lose another game.
“Our guys, their record for finishing, it’s like dreaming in color,” Quenneville said. “They have a lot of experience, they’re poised, and they have that ability to figure out what they’re up against. It’s amazing, and it requires a certain hockey intelligence, a hockey IQ. But again, I take absolutely no credit for the way, time after time, our guys come through in tough situations. That Anaheim series, it was epic. Tampa Bay, close, every bounce mattered. But the guys got it done.”
On March 29, about three weeks after Quenneville’s call to arms at practice, the Blackhawks won 4-3 at Winnipeg on Toews’ tip-in with 31 seconds left. Coach Q called it the “most important victory” of the season. One night later, the Blackhawks squelched the desperate Kings 4-1 with a superlative effort at the United Center.
There was a special guest that evening. Chairman Rocky Wirtz and wife, Marilyn, love beagles. So they invited Miss P, “Best in Show” winner at the annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show in New York. The handsome beagle got the red carpet treatment, then sat on the glass in the arms of handler William Alexander.
“This will tell you how focused Joel is,” Dineen recounted. “After the game, we were talking about how we played. I mentioned to Joel, ‘And how about that dog sitting right beside our bench?’ After all, it isn’t often that you see a dog watching a hockey game. He had no idea what I was talking about. He looked at me like I was nuts.”
Quenneville can no more provide details about Miss P than he can about that Saturday morning in March when he vaguely remembers being angry.
“I remember Kevin saying there was a dog at the game,” Coach Q concluded. “But I never saw it. Our family, Boo and our three kids, we have two dogs. Miggy and Zarley. Dogs are nice. But I never saw a dog that night. We won a huge game, though. I saw that.”