An Ode to Joel Quenneville

I haven’t updated this blog in over 6 months.  Part of it has been on account of the fact that I haven’t been able to think of anything to write, and part of it has been because I’ve been incredibly busy—working during the summer, seeking a job for the following one, and trying to keep my grades up in what is my second semester as a college undergrad.  But seeing Joel Quenneville relieved of his duties as the Head Coach of the Chicago Blackhawks today spurred me into action.

My dad grew up playing hockey; he played competitively all the way through college, and continued to play recreationally as he moved into adulthood.  But I never found myself interested in hockey—for one, I couldn’t skate to save my life, and hated falling on my butt so consistently.  The main reason, though, might have been because my hometown team, the Blackhawks, were pretty bad, and didn’t broadcast any of their games on local television.  The team had made the postseason once in the past decade, and that, combined with their archaic media policies, made them a laughingstock throughout the sports world.

After President John McDonough was brought into the organization in 2007, a massive culture shift began within the organization.  McDonough, along with owner Rocky Wirtz, who took over the team after the death of his father, Bill, knew they needed to undertake some drastic changes in order to get a moribund team back on track.    So when Coach Q was first brought into the Blackhawks organization as a scout back in 2008, many suspected that it would only be a matter of time before he replaced the team’s head coach at the time, the legendary Denis Savard.  Despite Savard’s solid relationship with youngsters Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the organization didn’t seem to believe they, and the rest of the team’s core, were progressing as fast as they could have.  And so, four games into the 2008/2009 season, Savard was let go, and Quenneville was installed as the head man.

Of course, in hindsight it was easy to see that the roster that GM Dale Tallon had established was destined for something special.  Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook led the team in average minutes per game the prior two seasons.  Patrick Kane led the team in points.  Savard had the foresight to name Toews captain.  But nobody could have possibly anticipated the incredible run that the team went on, and that was spurred on by Quenneville.

The first full season with Q behind the bench made that especially clear.  It was Quenneville’s decision to give more playing time to Niklas Hjalmarsson, sticking him next to wily veteran Brian Campbell to form the team’s shutdown defensive pairing.  It was Quenneville’s decision to start rookie Antti Niemi in the playoffs over the more experienced (and more expensive) Cristobal Huet, and his decision to move defenseman Dustin Byfuglien into a forward role, often on the first line with Kane and Toews.  Both of those decisions were instrumental to the team winning their first Stanley Cup since 1961.

Quenneville’s impact on the squad’s success reached its peak in his efforts across the next two seasons.  After Niemi and Huet were forced to leave due to cap constraints, Quenneville and his staff helped develop youngster Corey Crawford into the stud that he is today, in addition to continuing to provide an environment for guys like Toews, Kane, and Keith to become internationally recognized superstars.  Players like Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, and Kris Versteeg left within that timeframe, as well, but Quenneville made due by providing increased roles to guys like Nick Leddy and the duo of Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland, who became household names in Chicago after their contributions to the team’s win over the Bruins in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final.  He helped work in multiple mid-season acquisitions, including Michael Frolik, Johnny Oduya, and Michal Handzus, almost flawlessly.

As the salary cap continued to dog the ‘Hawks, Quenneville continued to work his magic.  Important depth pieces like Leddy, Bickell, Bolland, and Ray Emery were all forced out the door; Handzus retired.  But Quenneville gave big roles to guys like Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw, who were critical cogs of the roster for the next couple seasons and were unable to find anywhere near the level of success they did in Chicago after they, too, were forced to depart.  He lit a fire under Crawford by starting hometown-hero Scott Darling in five of the first six playoff games in 2015; upon his return to the lineup in Game 7, Crow turned in a virtuoso performance to lead the team on to the next round.

Off the ice, Coach Q was a perfect fit for the Chicago sports environment.  His mustache made him somewhat of a fashion icon, spurring multiple social media pages.  His passion to see the game succeed in the city after decades of poor performance was evident in every game he coached, but also in every press conference he gave, every camp he led, and every community event he attended.  He, along with also-fired assistant Kevin Dineen, established their homes in Hinsdale, a Chicago suburb, and fully integrated themselves into that community.  It became almost commonplace to see him at his favorite diner, Page’s, and in the annual Fourth of July parade, hoisting the Stanley Cup above his head as the community looked on in awe and appreciation.  He made hockey fans out of so many people, myself included—I can safely say that I wouldn’t be as passionate, or know as much, about this team if it weren’t for Q.

Quenneville certainly had his flaws—regardless of people’s thoughts on Q’s firing, the organization had some rationale to relieve the coach of his duties.  His relationship with Stan Bowman was not fantastic, and the two disagreed often as to the type of players that the team should be acquiring and playing on a regular basis (Brandon Manning is the best example this season). While his reputation for being difficult on younger players is largely unfounded—though the struggles of guys like Tyler Motte and Nick Schmaltz can support that claim—the one he gained for messing with lines so much, which largely stems from his disconnect with Bowman, that it effected team morale and performance was warranted; Toews, normally silent on issues within the team, even admitted as much. The team missed the playoffs last season, and is currently on a five game losing streak.  The power play, helmed by Quenneville and Dineen, has been atrocious, and the penalty kill hasn’t been much better.

With that said, it is undeniable that Quenneville is one of the greatest coaches in the history of the Blackhawks, the city of Chicago, and the game of hockey.  His legacy of three Stanley Cups will never be forgotten in this city; the image of his mustachioed-face lit up in a massive smile, looking down over a championship celebration with a sea of red-clad fans that he helped created, won’t either.  He deserves the greatest possible honors that the franchise could bestow upon him; he will be sorely missed behind the Blackhawks’ bench.

Come back next week for my analysis on why this decision was made and how the team will move forward

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