During a game, with the aid of hyphens, Joel Quenneville can say all he wants to say in 10 words. During a press conference, without embellishing or misinforming, he can say nothing in 10 minutes. He is proud of both faculties.
It’s the in between that tests the Blackhawks’ popular head coach. Like talking about himself.
“Very fortunate,” he says, over and over. “And Scotty’s safe.”
Quenneville’s reference is to Scotty Bowman, the organization’s Hall of Fame Senior Advisor to Hockey Operations and the only coach in National Hockey League history to preside over more victories. Coach Q is at 785 after Sunday night’s 5-2 conquest of the Montreal Canadiens, the 11th straight for the Blackhawks. Bowman is at 1,244. (Imagine, with the teams he had, what that number might be had those 314 ties been played to a resolution.)
So yes, Scotty is probably safe. But with three Stanley Cups in Chicago on his resume, so is Quenneville’s place as the most successful coach in Blackhawks history and among the uber-elite in the city’s professional sports annals, below only George Halas and Phil Jackson.
Chicago fans vary on preferences. Some idolize Mike Ditka, a Halas acolyte and the flammable pulse of the Super Bowl XX Bears who, 31 years later, still dispenses juicy quotations as a TV expert. Others hail the erudite Jackson, who beckoned stars to examine their inner selves, gave them books to read on the road and collected championship jewelry.
Quenneville represents an amalgam of leadership skills, including the ability to suppress one’s ego and get out of the way. Al Arbour, whom Coach Q just passed on the list, was much the same. He played for three Stanley Cup champions, including the 1961 Blackhawks, blocked shots despite wearing glasses and commanded respect without seeking it. As head coach of the dynastic New York Islanders—four consecutive Cups—he managed great players and let them be great.
When Arbour was hired, the young Islanders presumed they were in for a drill sergeant, a throwback, a martinet who would attempt to reenact the 1960s mentality. They were wrong. Arbour understood the contemporary athlete. He got it. How revered was Arbour? In 2007, 13 years after he retired, Arbour was brought back to round off his career at 1,500 games at the suggestion of Islanders coach Ted Nolan. Arbour, 75, was the oldest coach in NHL history. The Islanders won 3-2.
“Two of a kind,” noted Hall of Fame builder Cliff Fletcher the other night in Toronto, where he is a senior advisor with the Maple Leafs. “Al and Joel were both defensemen, not stars, who built nice careers and, from their view of the game before them, studied the game. Joel adjusts, improvises, has a terrific knack of reading what’s happening at the moment and reacting. All stuff you can’t teach.”
It was Fletcher who, as president and general manager with Toronto in 1991, tabbed Quenneville as an assistant coach for the Maple Leafs’ minor league affiliate in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Just a hunch, but Fletcher theorized that Quenneville would be a calming influence to the head man there, Marc Crawford. (Run that one past current Blackhawk players, who have a front-row earful of Q’s reviews of suspect officiating.)
“But you never really know how things will turn out,” Fletcher continued, smiling now.
What the Blackhawks know is that this “perfect situation” frequently cited by Quenneville would not exist without the perfect man to oversee it. While espousing a none-against mode, Quenneville encourages creativity when the Blackhawks have the puck. The byproduct is a group that cherishes preventing goals, yet is royally entertaining when attacking. There are nights when the Blackhawks perform at such a high level that they appear almost to be toying with the opposition.
If we aren’t beyond the Quenneville myths by now, we should be. He does bestow minutes on young players if they are playing the right way. He does not coach according to who is making what on the payroll, what language a guy speaks or whether a prized free agent has joined the roster.
Antoine Vermette was the huge catch last spring, but didn’t catch on right away. Humbled, Vermette was a professional in a room full of them. After he evolved into a vital component of the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup run, Quenneville heaped praise on the rental and accepted no credit whatsoever for tough love. Vermette knew he was going to get a nice contract somewhere, but he didn’t pout.
With all the fireworks attendant to modern sports teams, the Blackhawks under Quenneville are the well-oiled machine that keeps squeaks private. It can’t possibly be all that smooth, but if he is vexed by a player, all he’ll impart is a clipped “we need more from him” and leave it at that. Then he gives the guys yet another day off. Get away from the rink. Insecure coaches call a practice.
“What a team this is,” Fletcher concluded. “Can you imagine what Joel would have if there was no salary cap? All the players they’ve had to cut loose, and they’re still doing what they’re doing? Think about that.”
If at age 75, Quenneville is summoned to the bench from his ski villa in the Swiss Alps for one more game, to jot those notes after the enemy scores, to windmill those arms at a referee’s whistle, to chase a milestone for posterity’s sake…
“Scotty is safe,” he said, again.