We don’t take time to chat much about the NHL. That’s because we subscribe to the theory its regular season, much like that of the NBA, is a little too long and frankly it makes us drowsy.
But certain events demand immediate attention and it doesn’t get any bigger in the NHL than the news that the Chicago Blackhawks have fired coach Joel Quenneville.
Let’s try to put this into perspective for those of you who don’t follow the league: The dismissal of Quenneville is the NHL equivalent of the San Antonio Spurs firing Gregg Popovich or the New England Patriots ditching Bill Belichick.
Quenneville has been the Blackhawks coach since 2008, making him the longest-tenured coach in league. Only Scotty Bowman (1,244) has won more games than Quenneville, who has racked up 890 with the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and Blackhawks. And only Bowman has coached more games than Quenneville.
But more significantly, he led the Blackhawks to seven Western Conference finals and won three Stanley Cups (2010, 2013 and 2015). The Blackhawks had not been to the Cup finals since 1992 and had not won it since 1961. In fact, Quenneville, 60, is one of only three coaches in league history to win his only three Cup chances.
The task of replacing the certain first ballot Hall of Fame coach goes to Jeremy Colliton, who at 33 becomes the youngest coach in the NHL. He is younger than four of his current players.
Let’s hope he does a little better than Gene Bartow did when he succeeded John Wooden at UCLA or Phil Bengtson did after taking over for Vince Lombardi with the Green Bay Packers.
“As Chicago Blackhawks fans have seen over the last decade, this organization no longer shies away from making tough decisions or ones based on emotion,” owner Rocky Wirtz said in a statement. “Those days are long behind us. Of course, Joel’s was difficult, as it should have been. During his tenure as head coach to the Chicago Blackhawks, Joel brought the city of Chicago and our fans three Stanley Cups and an incredible era of hockey.”
What he hadn’t done lately was apparently the problem. The Blackhawks were eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2015-16 (St. Louis) and 2016-17 (Nashville) and missed playoffs last season for the first time in a decade.
Then this season has started at 6-6-3, including a slump during which they earned only one of a possible 10 points. They have lost five straight.
For fans of the Hartford Whalers, reincarnated in the late 1990s as the Carolina Hurricanes, it was a particularly sad day. Along with Queenville, assistants Kevin Dineen and Ulf Samuelsson, his longtime teammates in Hartford, were also let go.
“This is certainly a very difficult decision,” said general manager Stan Bowman in a statement. “But I believe it is in the best interests of the Blackhawks organization. We need to maximize each and every opportunity with our playoff goals in mind and create continued growth and development throughout our roster at the same time. After much deliberation the last several days, with great respect to what Joel has meant to the Blackhawks, we knew we had to make a change.”
The Athletic offered interesting insight into why this happened. The Blackhawks named Barry Smith to assist Colliton and he was someone whose presence in the organization Quenneville did not appreciate.
The Blackhawks hired Smith during the 2011-12 season against Quenneville’s wishes and the coach confronted Bowman after it was announced. The idea was to have Smith work with the power play unit.
Things regressed from there, beginning with the dismissal of assistant Mike Kitchen, Quenneville’s buddy, after the 2016-17 season and the trade of one of his favorite players, Niklas Hjalmarsson.
The NHL players association conducted a poll last season and Quenneville was selected as the coach most wanted to play for, receiving 16.5 percent of the votes.
If he wants to work again, there seems no doubt that he can have his choice of jobs, maybe as soon as later this season when other front offices grow frustrated.
At a fan festival in July, Quenneville seemed to anticipate what was coming.
“As a coach, it (being fired) can happen at any moment. That’s all part of our business and that’s the way it goes.”