Commentary

Quenneville in complete command

Originally Published: April 15, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPN.com

Joel Quenneville knows how to command a room.

[+] EnlargeJoel Quenneville
Noah Graham/NHLI/Getty ImagesJoel Quenneville was exactly the firm hand the Blackhawks needed.
Quenneville is not a bully or a blowhard. He's not loud or abrasive. He's not Iron Mike Keenan. The 50-year-old coach of the Chicago Blackhawks is trim, but not physically imposing. His hair is salt-and-pepper gray. His fantastic hockey mustache is more patriotic than Celine Dion singing "O Canada!" His mien is that of the archetypal coach, the guy who is in charge, no questions asked, and it doesn't really matter if he's talking to his assistant coaches, a bench full of sweaty players or a press room full of sweatier reporters.

And whether you're a defenseman from Thunder Bay or a radio reporter from Morton Grove, everyone respects (or fears) the coach who deserves respect, because we've all been coached in something before, and everyone can smell an impostor. Quenneville is no impostor.

After coaching the Blackhawks to a wild 3-2 victory Saturday night to go up 2-0 on Calgary in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Quenneville took his turn in front of what was left of the working media at the late hour of 11:15 p.m. As the questions came, he leaned forward, gripped the lectern with his massive, often-stick-wielding hands, tapped his foot and proffered his clipped take on the night's game. There was no spirited back-and-forth, no straying from his basic message. He was congratulatory toward his team, but he offered no real insight.

One reporter asked Quenneville what he said between the first and second periods, because it really woke them up. Here was Quenneville's nonanswer:

"Well, we had the power play to start; that helped. Scoring right away got everyone back in the game quickly. If we don't score, it can really change the whole complexion. You lose a lot of momentum and we didn't have any momentum at that time."

And so on. This continued until the last Russian reporter asked the last Nikolai Khabibulin question.

Some coaches, or managers, perform these media tasks with obvious rectitude, or in some cases, all-out loathing. Quenneville? He's fine with questions, as long as you're not looking for a sound bite. Simply put, he's in charge, and he knows it. He projects an aura of self-confidence, and a notion that his word is law.

"He's got a good presence about him, and as a head coach, that's what you want," Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith said.

Quenneville and general manager Dale Tallon weren't hired for their gift of gab. The fact that the Hawks are two wins from advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were 7 and 8, respectively, is a testament to both Quenneville's steady hand and Tallon's vision in assembling a young, cheap (he did have to start under Dollar Bill Wirtz and former GM Bob "Pully" Pulford) and exciting team.

It might have looked like the team was panicking when it canned popular coach Denis Savard just four games into the season.

No one will bad-mouth Savard (who is now a team "ambassador" and still a mainstay around the United Center), but the company line is that the young Hawks needed someone with more "experience." They didn't need a friend, or a coach still learning on the job. They needed a guy who knew how to win.

And while Savard might still prove to be a good coach, with 10,000 new season-ticket holders and expectations of making annual trips to the postseason, the team went in another direction very quickly. Quenneville, who had been scouting for the club since the fall and has advanced as far as the conference championships during his coaching career with St. Louis and Colorado, was an easy choice.

"The coaching change to Joel from Denis was very difficult, but we felt it was the right thing to do," Blackhawks president John McDonough said. "We have a young team and we needed somebody who was going to be the coach, and someone who could teach. We think we found the right guy."

Quenneville is known as a fundamentals-heavy coach who stresses defense and has a knack for creating advantageous matchups. He's not a "players' coach," but he's not an iron-fisted ogre, either.

"He lets guys be guys," Kane said last week. "He's not around the locker room too much, and that's a positive. On the ice, with line matchups, he always seems to get whatever matchup he wants. He's so good at it. He really reads things well. He knows how to push guys' buttons and when to lay off a little bit."

Keith pointed out that some players, like leading scorer Martin Havlat, have prospered in Quenneville's system.

"He's thrived under Quenneville," Keith said. "He's smart about identifying what roles guys can fill and about how to play guys in those roles."

Quenneville's reputation certainly didn't take a hit Saturday night. The Blackhawks trailed 2-0 after the first period, but had a power play to start the second. Toews scored less than a minute into the period, playing on a rejiggered line that featured Havlat and Patrick Sharp, and the Hawks wound up scoring two more goals, with Toews' second giving the Hawks the lead for good. In the third, behind Khabibulin's net play, Chicago fought to a period draw and skated away with the win.

Sharp, who tied the game on a pass from Kane, said it wasn't what Quenneville said between the first and second periods, but it was how he reacted. It was obvious from talking to the players that the coach's demeanor, coupled with the responsibilities he's placed on his young team, gave them the proper focus. He might not look calm behind the bench, Sharp said, but he projects that serenity to his players.

"He's been around for a long time," Sharp said. "He wasn't panicking too much. I don't think anybody in the room was. It's pretty neat to see the guys just kind of talk to each other and realize that we weren't playing our best hockey. We just needed to calm down with the puck and just skate. And that's what we did."

Dale's team

Tallon became the Hawks' director of player personnel in 1998, the assistant general manger in 2003, and the GM in 2005, all while working under Pulford, who was notorious for his old-school methods. Like any good GM, Tallon knows there is an "i" in organ-i-zation, but not in his title. He doesn't need the attention. He loves to scout and loves to develop players, and he's certainly enjoying the results he sees on the ice.

"You feel good, because you know the work the staff has put in, and the criticism they've taken," he said. "All those years you draft and tell everyone how good these guys are going to be, but they don't see them. Now everyone sees them and understands what we've worked so hard to achieve."

Tallon drafted 10 current Hawks, traded for seven others and signed six more as free agents. The young core group will return next season, with Havlat and Khabibulin the main free agents. Tallon said he drafts character first (they all say that), but you get the feeling he actually means it. Whatever he's done has paid off.

"The most important thing is that this group has fought hard together, they've been on the bus together and gotten to know each other as a group," Tallon said. "This has been an easier transition, them coming up together as a group."

And because Tallon had to work under Pulford for so many years, there's chatter that recently hired Scotty Bowman, now a special adviser, is a major voice in personnel matters. Tallon speaks of the elder Bowman (Bowman's son Stan is an assistant general manager) with reverence.

"I've had a relationship with him since I was a kid, 9, 10 years old. My father had a relationship with him," Tallon said. "I talk to Scott on a daily basis, and the information he gathers is invaluable. If you surround yourself with smarter people, you look smarter yourself. That's the goal."

Tallon, the unquestioned head of hockey last season, watched a young, banged-up team come within three points of making the playoffs. The stakes were much higher this season, and after the coaching moves and an in-season trade for Samuel Pahlsson, things were finally pointing up for a franchise that for so many years had its collective head facing skate-ward.

With all the playoff excitement, an important moment from earlier this season is almost forgotten. Remember the story that came out in early December about the entire team trekking from Toronto to Gravenhurst, Ontario, Tallon's hometown, for his father's wake? How Tallon didn't know about it until the entire team, from forwards to trainers, walked through the doors of the funeral home? It happened just before Thanksgiving and wasn't publicized at the time, but it illustrated how important the bonds of the team are.

"I've never been more pleased or proud to be around a group of athletes as I am with these kids," Tallon said, though not about that specific gesture. "They're special. They respect each other, they respect the organization and they care about each other. They're good people on and off the ice."

In a lot of ways, Tallon, 58, is a father figure to the players, from the ones he drafted as teenagers to the ones he's traded for as adults. But his work has gone beyond friendships or mentoring.

"He should get a lot of respect," Sharp said. "Dale's a guy who cares for every guy in locker room, for sure. I think you saw that early this season with his father's funeral. That was a bonding experience for all of us. He kind of opened up to us and let us know what it meant to him."

When I talked to Tallon on the phone Friday, I joked that he'd normally be golfing right now -- he was a club pro in Chicago for a bit and played in the Senior PGA Championship in 2003 -- but he didn't bite.

"No, I'd be scouting," he said.

Tallon was in Fargo, N.D., before the Hawks' first game last week to watch the Under-18 World Championships. Good hockey, he said, and you know he's the kind of guy who appreciates good hockey played in Fargo just as much as a standing O at the Madhouse on Madison. Because if it weren't for the days on the road scouting talent, there would be no Blackhawks resurgence, no season of sellouts, no reason to hire Quenneville, no game Monday in Calgary.

So, Tallon will keep making those trips, and then he'll find another tournament somewhere, because the draft is coming up soon and the future keeps coming up faster than you can expect it.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.