Joel Quenneville will forever be talked about as one of the greatest coaches in Chicago sports history after overseeing a Blackhawks dynasty that won three Stanley Cups during his 10-plus-year tenure. He was the perfect head coach to manage a well-oiled machine.
But with the Blackhawks in a retooling phase, the organization parted ways with Quenneville on Nov. 6, 2018. On Tuesday, he returns to the United Center for the first time as a member of the Florida Panthers.
In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with NBC Sports Chicago, Quenneville opened up about his firing from the Blackhawks, returning to Chicago, his new chapter and much more:
First off, Joel, it's good to have you back in the game of hockey. But it's a new team, new city, what has your transition been like in Florida?
It's been fun. It's been a good process here. I think as we've gone along this year, it's a whole different conference, a whole different division, different type of lifestyle. We've got beautiful weather, you go on a road trip and come back at two in the morning after being in the ice and snow and all of a sudden and you get off the plane and it's 75 degrees. So, it's different and there's some perks to it, there's some things that you could enjoy. And we got a team that we think that we're in that learning process of going to that next level.
We've had an interesting start to the season, which I thought was a good start. We've had an ordinary stretch here, we know that we want to go on the break here on a positive note but we're in a tough division. We think that we're doing everything we can. We want to be a playoff team in the worst way. We've got a lot of young guys that are learning and some guys are having some really big years as well. So we've got a lot of pieces with our team here. We think we're turning into a four-line team, we've got a defense that is maturing and improving, and I think offensively we think we're very comparable from when we were with Chicago. We never had to worry about scoring goals. We can score goals, it's now we got to defend and defend in all zones. But we've been getting some progress here and it's been a fun team to work with.
You mentioned at your press conference that there are a lot of similarities between the Blackhawks and Panthers now that they're rising. What sorts of parallels do you see?
Well, high-end players. Very privileged opportunity, you got a [Patrick Kane] or a [Jonathan Toews] and a [Duncan Keith] when you're starting there, so we had some really good players. [Marian] Hossa, we had some top players. Now you come here you got [Aleksander] Barkov, [Jonathan] Huberdeau, [Aaron] Eklbad's a nice player, we've got some guys that might be in that next level. A lot of guys are having some good years offensively, so I think by committee, a lot of guys can score goals on our team.
And then finding that balance where we got, it's not just a scoring line where everybody's got a purpose to it is what we're trying to get at. So there's depth on our team and we're trying to make sure that playing well without the puck is going to be one of our strengths. But going back to that team, it was a four-line team but we really did have some high-end players and the high-end players really responded at very memorable times.
You're obviously returning to Chicago for the first time on Tuesday, but it's weird because it's happening so late in the season — we're past the midway mark already. What will your emotions be like going back?
Going into it right now thinking about it, it's going to be a fun night. The memories are so great. The moments, the people, the staff, the organization, we got treated like, you couldn't ask for a better 10 years of our lives, our coaching experience or our families or the opportunity to work with some of the best players that ever played the game. There's a lot of good things, so looking forward to it and hey, the fans have been tremendous. We love Chicago, we loved everything about it and I'm looking forward to it.
When you got let go, you kind of faded from the spotlight and fans never got a chance to thank you for everything. What do you expect the fan support to be on that night?
Yeah, I never got to thank them much either though. But certainly, there's a great appreciation for what they meant and how important they were for our team as well. The support in Chicago was outstanding and I just think, special place to play. We had one of those memorable runs, privileged to be there. The franchise was the team of the decade and it was very deserving, and being a part of it, cause everybody's contribution was important and that was part of it as well.
Were you surprised by the timing of when you were let go? Obviously, you were there for 10-plus years and you accomplished a lot, but ... it was only one month into the season. What was your reaction when you found that out?
At the time surprised or not? Maybe not. But after what's going on this year [with the coaching firings across the NHL], I'm going to say not surprised at all. I think in our business, it happens. We're seeing a number of coaches lose their jobs and then you see what happened in St. Louis [last season] and all of a sudden you got a team that was in the toughest spot in the league and they turned out to be a champion, so I think that could be how things going now maybe moving forward, but hey, it happens. Especially in our business knowing that's one of the negative things that can happen in our game. But we took some time away and we're happy where we're at now.
I know hindsight is 20-20, but is there anything you would've done differently when you take a step back and reflect on it?
Coaching wise, I think you do everything the best you can to win. We had a tough year the year before, that start to the season, we had a decent start. The Calgary game was the last game, I could look back and say I wish I could've done this, I wish I could've done that, kind of like what we do after every game here. We're always looking, me or our staff, at things that I should've done differently, whether who we had on the ice at a certain time and sitting there, 'yeah I should've done this.' So we reflect like that. And I think that second guessing ourselves is something you can learn over the course of a season but the gut and the spontaneousness of coaching is what we enjoy and sometimes you can always second guess yourself on that type of stuff.
A lot has been made about it in Chicago — whether it's been overblown or not — about coach-GM relationship. What is the importance of that and what's your relationship like here with Dale Tallon?
Dale's fine. We've been with Dale before. I think as long as you're well aware of what's going on with the team, where we're at, the game's different, there's a business side of it, there's a hockey side of it. And Stan [Bowman], we had a good relationship. It was fine. We were respectful for each other's jobs and roles and how we did our things, and that's kind of the way it was or is. I probably see Dale more. We're always talking hockey and you're talking about this or that so that's just the way it is. I'm respectful for their position and the jobs they're doing and what they've done.
When you look back at your 10-plus years, what do you remember most about your time in Chicago?
Obviously, the championships were significant achievements. And then when you look back how each one was accomplished and how hard they were and all the things, the ups and downs of winning each one were things that stand out the most. And the thrills that we had at the games and the city, the celebrations were cool, I thought the parades were extremely cool. But going through it with the guys was probably the part that'd be most memorable.
This is the 10-year anniversary of the 2010 Stanley Cup team for the Blackhawks. Can you believe it's been that long?
2010, man. It's almost like, where's the puck now? Do we know where the puck is? I can't believe it's already been 10 years.
At what point in the season did you feel, 'OK, this is a special group, we could go all the way'?
The year before we got a good education when we played Detroit and getting to the Conference Finals was pretty impressive with that group, young group, a lot of talent, a lot of ability, competitive bunch. And so we learned, had some valuable lessons in that series and throughout those first couple rounds, so that helped us. A young team learning how to win and that exposure the following year. You get that close and you're thinking you got a chance, a real chance, the following year.
A lot of things got to go right though. You need goaltending, you need health, you need your best players to be great and you need four lines and you need your D to be solid, so we had a lot of those things happen and fortunate in a lot of ways. Sometimes the matchups work out in your favor, but some amazing series' and some things that turned it around, you think about that Nashville game, you think about Game 6 against Philly and then you can go on and on — some series' are not as vivid as others — but it was pretty amazing each one, they stand out.
The Patrick Kane Game 5 goal against Nashville where does that rank among biggest goals in playoff history? It's weird to think about the alternative, whether there is a Game 7 back in Chicago.
That was unbelievable. I mean, when I think back about it, you take a five-minute major, down a goal, late in the game and you got Hoss in the box. Now we're getting down late, we've got to use Kaner on the kill — I don't even know if we used him once that whole year killing penalties, I don't even think we did. But he knows what he's out there to do and then we get a break and we scored and we still had to kill it, and then we got into overtime.
That was a huge goal and the crowd, that might've been the loudest we heard the building in certain times. We've had some moments that stood out, the Vancouver game when Kaner might've gotten a hat trick that night, that might've been louder. Seabs scoring against Detroit, that was loud, that was noticeable, memorable. Duncs scoring against Tampa. Certain goals stand out but that was definitely a huge, huge goal. Don't expect to score shorthanded like that very often.
How big of an impact did Marian Hossa have on the franchise? Because when he did leave, they really haven't been the same since.
One of those players that really, really set the table of playing the right way. And as a coach, you couldn't ask for a guy that demonstrates exactly what your message is of how we want to play structurally, in all zones, in all situations. Protects the puck, keeps the puck, tough to take it away from him. It was almost like it was like, 'OK, this the perfect player' and does everything you want. Playing without the puck is something we always try to instill, and checking is a part of our game and he was perfect in that area, so he was ideal for our team and quietly went about his business. Good teammate, one of those guys that guys would rely upon and every game he was key to what we were trying to do in our team game and it was noticeable. We used him in all situations, all times of the game. Very important player.
Dustin Byfuglien, I have to ask. What went into the decision to move him from defenseman to forward and where does that rank among your coaching decisions?
I don't know if I [should] get credit for that. I think a lot of guys might've tried it in different parts of their career. And even if he was playing D, you could put him in front of the net to be a distraction because he's a big guy, he can screen and he's tough to move, he's got good hands and he could still find pucks in tight areas. So it was almost like, hey, I know Buff would rather play D but it's a lot of work. It's a lot more skating and getting to the front of the net.
But as a defenseman, he is a handful in front of the net or for goalies. He brought that element, that versatility, you could use him in either situation and of course in the middle of the game, so I think he brought a unique aspect to our team. Fun guy to be around and coach and privileged to coach him as well. Wish him nothing but the best, I still see him around and hopefully we see him in the game soon. But, The Buff, I remember the series with Vancouver and San Jose where he was very, very disruptive at the net.
Last one for you: Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith. You've coached these guys, they're winners, three-time Stanley Cup champions. What's it going to be like now going against them when you come back to Chicago?
Great appreciation and respect for these guys as players, knowing let's be aware. Let's try to deny Kaner the puck, be aware of Jonny. He can beat you a number of ways, starting right off the puck drop. Duncs, he's just going to be out there half the game or almost half the game and he's going to up in the play and he's going to be killing plays and he's going to be around the puck. He's one of those guys that you got a lot appreciation for what he brings your team.
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