Blackhawks coach Quenneville quietly an all-time great
Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville talks during media day in the leadup to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena on June 2, 2015. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)
There was a joke in and around the Maple Leafs front office in 1992 that Cliff Fletcher still likes to laugh about.
“I used to tell people we’ve got two great prospects on our AHL team in Newfoundland — and both of them are coaches,” Fletcher said in a telephone interview. “And you know what, that’s been proven true over time.
“I thought Joel Quenneville was going to be a good coach when he came to work for us. I had no idea he was going to be this good.”
It is part of the Fletcher touch, being around and working for and with the best coaches in hockey history. He worked six years for the Montreal Canadiens — Toe Blake was the coach.
He went to St. Louis in expansion and worked for Scotty Bowman.
He took on the Atlanta expansion team and brought in Al Arbour as his assistant.
In Calgary, he made the unorthodox hire of Bob Johnson.
And in Toronto, he brought in Pat Burns to coach the Leafs. Before that, he hired Marc Crawford to coach St. John’s and wanted a playing assistant working beside him.
Blake, Bowman, Arbour, Badger Bob, Burns — all in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Quenneville, 56, is next.
“And to think, I had to entice him, sell him on the idea, of moving his family to Newfoundland. We wanted him to learn the coaching business and wanted him to a do a little playing for us. I think it worked out pretty well.”
Quenneville did both in his last professional playing season — all the way to Game 7 of the AHL final. And a rare thing happened that night: Quenneville’s team lost.
They don’t do a lot of losing anymore.
The Chicago Blackhawks are back in the Stanley Cup final for the third time in six seasons, and are as close to being a dynasty as any team can be in the salary-capped, parity-dominated world of the National Hockey League.
“Did you watch Game 7 against Anaheim?” Fletcher asked. “Did you see what Joel did? He did a great job coaching. The way he manipulated his lineup, getting the matchups, the way he had his team prepared, he’s good. He’s very, very good.”
It didn’t take long for Crawford and Quenneville to become close friends. The relationship started in St. John’s, with their wives becoming tight, their young children growing up together. They remain that close today.
“I met him at my brother’s wedding,” said Crawford, “and the next thing you know, we were coaching together in St. John’s. I was the experienced guy, I’d coached junior. Joel had never coached before, but it didn’t take me long to figure out how smart he was.
“There’s this thing about Joel that is totally amazing. He sees things no one else can see. Something would happen on the ice and, when you’re on the bench, you don’t always see it. I’d turn to him and say, ‘What happened?’ and he’d give you a total breakdown of what just happened. He’s got an instant-replay brain and a photographic memory.
“Great players have great vision. He has great vision from the bench. He’s got a video in his head.”
Quenneville has a racing mind. Sometimes it keeps him up at night. When he was fired as coach of the St. Louis Blues in 2004, it got to the point where he couldn’t sleep at all.
“I was really worried about him,” said Crawford. “I knew he was fatigued and exhausted. He had taken on so much himself. I know how much he was troubled by what happened.”
When Quenneville went to the world hockey championship that year, it was with the intention of coaching. He didn’t make it to Game 1. He was replaced as coach just days before the tournament — by a little-known NHL coach named Mike Babcock.
Crawford said, “There was so many things going on with him, but more than anything, it was a lack of sleep. He just broke down from it. I know how troubled he was by the whole thing.
“When you lose your job, it’s very, very humbling. Joel came back, got back in the league a year later, and look what’s happened. I’m really proud of everything he’s accomplished. You can’t help but be happy for his success.”
On the way to this season’s Stanley Cup final, the Blackhawks family was rocked with the December suicide of assistant equipment manager Clint Reif. And then that was followed by the stunning death of former Hawk Steve Montador. The team was deeply affected by the tragedies. Some teams wouldn’t have thrived under those complex and challenging circumstances.
“We’ve had some tough moments,” Quenneville admitted. “But this team finds a way to rely on each other through tough moments. We’ve got a way to get back on track.”
They have a coach they can rely on.
“When you have a guy on your side who has Joel’s experience and has been through these kind of things, it helps,” said Duncan Keith, the Hawks’ stalwart defenceman. “I was thinking about all this the other day, and how crazy it’s all been with the death of friends. You’ve got to be able to find strength through this. You need your leadership.”
“If anything,” said Patrick Sharp, “this has brought us closer together ... This still gets talked about a lot in our locker room. Joel helps us in a lot of different ways, whether it’s on the ice or off the ice. Whatever the situation. Joel is there to support us.”
The most success Crawford had as an NHL coach came in the five-and-a-half seasons he worked with Quenneville. They won a Stanley Cup together in Colorado. Should the favoured Blackhawks beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in this final, this will be Quenneville’s fourth Cup.
“When I look back,” said Crawford, “quite truthfully I never really properly replaced Joel. That was a problem for us. And that was my mistake.
“But he was ready to be a head coach. I couldn’t hold him back. I knew he was ready. He knew he was ready.”
Two weeks into Quenneville’s stint coaching the Blues, Crawford talked to the late Roger Neilson, then an assistant in St. Louis. “I remember Roger saying, ‘This guy’s got it.’ When Roger Neilson says something like that, you take notice.”
Joel Quenneville has more playoff victories as a coach — 111 — than the past 21 Maple Leaf coaches combined. All of them post-Punch Imlach.
Fletcher winces a little when told that.
He still works for Brendan Shanahan. Before that, he worked for Bowman and with Arbour and Quenneville. The record book will tell you they are the three winningest coaches in NHL history.
No one will ever catch Bowman’s record of 1,244 wins. But by next season, assuming he coaches, Quenneville should almost quietly move past Arbour into second place in all-time victories.
Like it snuck up on most of us. The same way it snuck up on Ray Ferraro, who played for Arbour, and played with Quenneville for years in Hartford, who never saw it coming.
“Joel is a great contradiction,” said Ferraro, the TSN analyst. “You see how emotional he is behind the bench. He was never like that as a player. He was really quiet, just went about his business quietly. You wouldn’t have thought he’d ever become a coach.
“The thing with Joel is, he has this mind for details. He’s a big horse-racing guy. He loves the ponies. Joel can recall details about a horse, a particular race, an event, things nobody could remember, like he’s an encyclopedia.
“When I look back, we had Joel, Kevin Dineen, Dave Tippett, Doug Jarvis, John Anderson, Dean Evason, a lot of guys who became coaches on that team.
“Maybe that was our problem with the Whalers. We had too many coaches, not enough players.”
Who will win the Stanley Cup final?