It was 1991 and the Toronto Maple Leafs had just moved their minor-league squad to St. John’s, Newfoundland.
The team needed coaches, and Marc Crawford would get the head coach’s job. As for the assistant coach, Cliff Fletcher, Maple Leafs’ general manager at the time, had something specific in mind.
“We were looking for someone who would basically start off as coaching but at the same time end his playing career, where he could help the younger players, particularly the younger defensemen develop,” Fletcher recalled. “More importantly, he would have his introductory session into the coaching field.”
Fletcher knew the perfect man for the job: Joel Quenneville.
Twenty-five years, 783 victories and three Stanley Cups after accepting that player/coach job with St. John’s, Quenneville is among the NHL’s all-time great head coaches. He passed Al Arbour for the second-most coaching victories on Thursday night, when the Blackhawks beat the Montreal Canadiens 2-1. For Fletcher, currently a consultant for the Maple Leafs, the similarities between Quenneville and Arbour extend past their victory total.
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“The gentleman he tied [Tuesday] night was basically the same thing: a defenseman who was up and down between the NHL and AHL, was a student of the game,” Fletcher said. “[Joel] was by no stretch of the imagination an All-Star defenseman but he was a steady defenseman and an NHL player, for sure. He had to pay a big price to stay in the NHL, to be a good player and he really studied the game.”
Quenneville spent most of his playing career with the Hartford Whalers (1983-1990). Several players from those Hartford teams would continue their NHL careers in coaching or management. At the time, however, there was one guy Ray Ferraro couldn’t imagine being behind the bench.
“If you would’ve asked me at that time who would’ve been a coach, I would’ve said Brent Peterson, Doug Jarvis and Dave Tippett,” Ferraro said. “And Joel, he just wasn’t a loud, vocal guy which, when I see him behind the bench, that’s always a bit of a giggle for me on how emotional he is.”
Tippett, head coach of the Arizona Coyotes, said there was something about Quenneville that made him future coaching material.
“All those guys you just mentioned, we had the old penalty-kill meetings – this was before we had assistant coaches – and Joel was always in the middle of that,” Tippett said. “He had a coach’s mindset from the start.”
But Tippett and Ferraro, both still good friends of Quenneville’s, agree Quenneville is a student of the game and someone who’s always thinking about the game.
“Even when you talk to him, his brain is going a million miles an hour,” Ferraro said. “I’m always interested in what Joel is doing. Part of it is because I consider him a friend and he’s just a fabulous guy. And the other part is I’m really intrigued as a coach what he does. Look at how he’s moved wingers up and down and scrapes bottom defensemen together. He can just see things very clearly.”
Quenneville has come a long way from his AHL coaching start. He’s coming off his third Cup triumph as a head coach – he has another one as an assistant with the Colorado Avalanche. He’s now signed with the Blackhawks through 2019-20. Fletcher saw something in Quenneville that made him think Quenneville could be a good coach. He’s now one of the great ones.
“We thought that it was an easy decision to offer him an opportunity. We were thankful he accepted it,” Fletcher said. “When you look back to 1991, 25 years ago, and now being tied as the second winningest coach in the history of the NHL and soon to be second winningest with many years left if he chooses to, he’s had one hell of a career.”