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The Verdict: 600 is just a number for Coach Q

Monday, 12.26.2011 / 4:28 PM / The Verdict
By Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian
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The Verdict: 600 is just a number for Coach Q

After Joel Quenneville registered his 600th NHL regular season coaching victory the other night, back slappers at the United Center descended upon him en masse. Cards, letters and tweets extended congratulations. Jonathan Toews, captain of the Blackhawks, presented his boss with the game puck.

A good time was had by all, although upon interrogating this man of the hour, you realized that the crowd estimate of Q worshipers had to be reduced by one.

“Impressed?” said Quenneville. “Am I impressed by this? I’ll tell you who’s impressive. Scotty Bowman. That’s impressive. All this commotion about 600, and I’m not even halfway to him.”

THE VERDICT

Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. He authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001, was the featured contributor in "One Goal Achieved: The Inside Story of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks," and has co-authored biographies on Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.

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Indeed, Bowman, the Blackhawks’ Hall of Fame senior advisor for hockey operations, lapped the field as a coach with 1,244 regular season wins (not to mention 223 in playoffs, a pretty fancy career in itself.) But Quenneville, with that 4-2 triumph over Calgary, did become the second fastest to reach 600, thus placing him in elite company, whether he cherishes it or not.

Not. Steve Konroyd, a Blackhawks’ broadcaster whose family is friendly with the Quennevilles out there in the high-rent district, tells of meeting up with Dylan, Joel’s son, on that Friday evening. Dylan, says Konroyd, knew nothing about his father’s landmark occasion. Obviously, Coach Q did not post a chart on his suburban refrigerator to celebrate the countdown. In this department, Quenneville and Toews share a bond of selective amnesia when it comes to self-absorption.

“I am the luckiest guy in this building,” said Coach Q. “We have a tremendous team and a great organization. Every possible variable for a coach—from front office to fan base to the city to the quality of talent—is as near to perfect as it could be. Couldn’t ask for more.”

It’s as though Quenneville is the calm and confident keeper of the keys to a Rolls Royce. His players compete and succeed in seamless fashion. If there are “issues” within, that’s where they stay. A “goalie controversy” regarding Corey Crawford and Ray Emery? If that’s the worst of the Blackhawks’ problems, they are in fine shape. Goalie inventory better describes the situation. (The Bears wish they had such depth at quarterback, nominally a co-equal as most important position in sports.)

Quenneville’s Blackhawks play hard, but out of commitment, not fear. Coaches can’t rule by intimidation anymore, not that he ever did. He does not appropriate ice time according to payroll, nor does he reinforce his authority by suffocating creativity. And, like Bowman, Quenneville has adjusted since debuting as a head coach with St. Louis in 1996—to eras, roster composition, the pace of each game, the essence of that evening’s opponent. He tinkers with that Rolls Royce, true, but only to fine tune. And he operates from a platform of experience, not exasperation.

“We don’t coach to entertain, but to allow our players to do what they do best,” said Quenneville. “Pressure defense, puck possession, speed, up-tempo. More structure in our end than the their end. It’s really simple, if it’s done right, and we are fortunate to have this group. These assistants. This management team. And we don’t coach to make friends. We coach to win. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when you don’t win, you let it go. You don’t take it home with you. Although my wife might think differently.”

Another Konroyd anecdote. Marc Crawford coached Colorado to a Stanley Cup in 1996 with Quenneville as an assistant.

“Crawford talked about times when he would turn to Joel after a play in the heat of the action and say, ‘what happened there?’’’ Konroyd recounted. “Joel would tell him exactly what he saw. Then they’d go watch the video after a game, and what Joel saw was exactly what happened. In detail. From the worst seat in the house.”

Upon hearing that, Quenneville uses his timeout.

“It’s the perfect vantage point, the bench,” he said. “You see what the players see. Up above, it looks easy. Ice level, you see openings, angles, bounces.”

That sixth sense extends beyond the rink. Quenneville, a decent defenseman in his day, knows what it feels like to be a healthy scratch.

“I sat out half the games in Hartford at the end,” he says. “You have to deal with it. Everybody takes it differently. I’ll tell you what’s amazing, speaking of Hartford. How many players from the Whalers became coaches. Or broadcasters. You saw one (coach) here the other night with Montreal. Randy Cunneyworth. My first coach there was Jack Evans. Tough. You take something from all of them. Don Cherry, in Colorado, I played there in 1980 and put him out of business. He never coached again. But look at him now. A television star in Canada. Probably the best thing that ever happened to him.”

Winning 600 games means you are driving that Rolls in the fast lane, even if, like Coach Q, you choose to eschew vanity plates. George Halas won 324 with the Bears, and he owned the team. Mike Ditka, certified legend, won 112. Granted, football schedules are vastly shorter than hockey schedules, but Quenneville stacks up quite well in his own sport, thank you.

You are hired in this business to be fired. I just hope that this is my last stop and that I’m here for a while longer. - Joel Quenneville

Quennville next will pass Jacques Martin, who had 613 when his term with the Canadiens ended recently. Q’s 601st came against Les Habitants Wednesday night. The only other active NHL coach with more victories is Ron Wilson of the Toronto Maple Leafs; he is at 637, and counting, with his fourth different team. Montreal was Martin’s fourth tour of duty. Moral to the story: you don’t win 600 games without changing addresses.

“I’ve been there,” says Quenneville. “The Blues. Colorado. But, hey, Barry Trotz (Nashville) is still in the same place he started. And Scotty was never let go. He just left. But, absolutely, you are hired in this business to be fired. I just hope that this is my last stop and that I’m here for a while longer.”

Quenneville, if he cares, might take note that there are a number of decorated coaches in the Hockey Hall of Fame who never achieved 600 victories. A few of them did not even come close. Among the luminaries inducted into the Hall as “builders” are Punch Imlach, Glen Sather, Tommy Ivan, Fred Shero, Roger Neilson and Bob Johnson. None approached 600. The great Toe Blake won exactly 500 while bringing Les Canadiens to eight Stanley Cups, although he rightly was voted in as a player. Rudy Pilous (162), who led the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup in 1961, is a Hall of Famer. So is Tom Gorman, who coached the Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup in 1934, yet won only 28 games in Chicago.

But Gorman overcame a significant handicap. In his crazed an misguided youth, Gorman was a sportswriter.