|Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean / Chicago Blackhawks
On most nights, a hockey coach might feel like an elevator operator. In either job, buttons are at your disposal to control ups and downs. But they are so repetitious that it is advisable to accept a certain sense of being powerless, go with the flow and keep the status of your emotions veering too far from quo.
On most nights, Joel Quenneville operates thusly as his Blackhawks seek to defend their 2013 Stanley Cup.
On most nights. There was a game at St. Louis in the opening playoff series when Quenneville became so enraged at officials that he was fined for a naughty gesture. He paid, and apologized profusely. In the opener of the Western Conference Final against the Los Angeles Kings, referees expunged an apparent goal by Jonathan Toews, and Coach Q erupted, as if someone had spilled coffee on his Racing Form.
Otherwise, Quenneville is a study in deep concentration behind the Blackhawks bench, beholden to the action, yet assimilating it in a fashion befitting the third-winningest head coach in National Hockey League annals. The fastest sport in the world is no match for Q, who doesn’t dally about, waiting to make changes between periods, not when he can press those buttons between shifts.
“But they always seem to be the right buttons,” noted Patrick Sharp, a core veteran on a roster of players who might occasionally wonder about the boss’ instincts, if not his history for achieving desired results. It’s uncanny. You can see what he’s trying to teach, but you can’t possibly try to teach what he sees.
Mike Kitchen, the Blackhawks’ assistant coach, says Quenneville is “the No. 99 of his profession…Like Wayne Gretzky, he misses nothing.” The Great One did not just react, he anticipated. Everybody knew where the puck was; Gretzky knew where it was going. Quenneville seems to possess that extra gear. Your financial advisor should be so prescient at picking stocks.
On Wednesday night, with the Blackhawks facing elimination in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final, Coach Q rearranged his defense pairings, then mixed forward lines. Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw lit up the United Center for three or so hours with an aggregate +10 rating. Saad had a goal and two assists, Kane four assists, and Shaw two. In lieu of a gimpy Shaw, Michal Handzus came on to take a faceoff early in the second overtime and backhanded the winning puck past Jonathan Quick for a 5-4 victory over the Los Angeles Kings.
A hunch player? Favorite show as a kid “What’s My Line?” Have a Scrabble board in the attic? Quenneville pleads guilty to none of the above. He calibrates according to current events, and real time dictates his maneuvers. If his stars aren’t starring, he will rearrange them on the fly. Denis Savard, Coach Q’s Hall-of-Fame predecessor, marvels at the machinations.
“I didn’t do what Joel does,” said Savard. “If my top guys weren’t playing well, I stayed with them, hoping they’d figure it out. Joel processes what’s happening and responds right on the spot. Boom.”
Quenneville returned serve. Four games into the 2008-09 season, he replaced Savard, an icon in Chicago.
“I hurt for Savy because I’d been there,” said Quenneville. “He took it great, though. And he had everything in the right place. He teed it up for me. He had a tremendous captain, Jonathan Toews, another special player in Patrick Kane, and a great roster of young players he taught well. I inherited a talented group, and I feel very fortunate.”
Quenneville, a reliable defenseman in his day, has evolved into a player’s coach during an era when athletes are more independent and less malleable. He isn’t a tired listen because he admittedly is weak at motivational speeches. He might recall Tommy Lasorda’s line about how “contented cows give better milk,” but more significantly, Quenneville oozes passion as religiously as he eschews panic. In both departments, the Blackhawks reflect his platform: compete with composure and confidence.
If practice makes perfect, Quenneville opts for small sample sizes. After the Blackhawks returned from a vile road trip in late March with three straight losses, a less secure coach could have thought about drilling his men back to form. He gave them two days off. Stay away from rink. Hug your wife and kids, pat the dog. See you Wednesday and not before.
Only two of 164 coaches and managers for Chicago’s five major franchises since 1900 have overseen more championships—George Halas of the Bears and Phil Jackson of the Bulls, with six each. Quenneville has two Stanley Cup rings with the Blackhawks, but no restaurants in his name, no books about his life and no great quotations for the Library of Congress.
Press conference? Coach Q is not about sound bites. Press buttons? There, he’s in a league of his own.