The memories haven’t exactly been repressed, but they have sort of blurred together over the years — mere flashes of the glare, the flailing arms, the twitching mustache and the endlessly creative string of obscenities that tumble out from beneath it.
Yes, Marcus Kruger knows the feeling. The brief bouts of fear that come with being a 20-year-old rookie, making his North American debut in the NHL, for the defending Stanley Cup champions, in the middle of a frantic playoff push. The dread that shrouds you as you skate back to the bench after a costly turnover or a blown coverage. The ire of one Joel Quenneville.
“He still gets like that sometimes,” Kruger said with a laugh. “You’re never going to get away with everything.”
At 26, it’s a lot easier now for Kruger to shake off the tirades, to take the pointed comments as the constructive criticism they’re intended to be. And as one of the Blackhawks’ most reliable defensive-minded players, Kruger is rarely the target of Quenneville’s famed glare.
But it can be difficult — and borderline intimidating — to be a young player under Quenneville. His fiery persona and imposing presence can get in a young player’s head. There’s a reason why talented players such as Brandon Pirri and Jeremy Morin found their way into Quenneville’s doghouse, and never found their way out.
But it’s a myth that Quenneville doesn’t like rookies — the meteoric rises of the likes of Kruger, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, and Trevor van Riemsdyk, just to name a handful, disprove the theory. It’s not that Quenneville doesn’t like young players. He just doesn’t like bad players. Inconsistent players. One-dimensional players.
Play the way he wants you to play, and you’ll be fine, no matter your age. But the leash is short for everyone, and yes, shorter for unproven players who have yet to earn the benefit of the doubt. As Quenneville always says, the Hawks are “in the winning business.” And there’s little time for growing pains and learning curves.
“He’s a really fair guy,” van Riemsdyk said. “He’ll let you know exactly what he expects. Obviously, he knows you can handle it. He’s watched you play for a while. He wouldn’t ask you to do things he didn’t think you were capable of. The coaching staff holds you to a high standard, but everyone in here wants to meet that standard. And it’s worked really well for them.”
Quenneville smiled broadly when asked if he thought his reputation for disliking young players was fair.
“I never had a problem with young guys,” he said. “I don’t mind young guys at all.”
Well, this season will be the ultimate test of that. Quenneville made his final cuts on Monday, sending Brandon Mashinter and Mark McNeill back to Rockford (pending waivers); Alexandre Fortin back to the QMJHL; and goalie Ivan Nalimov back to the KHL. With Andrew Desjardins out for four to six weeks with a lower-body injury, that means a whopping six rookies will be in the lineup Wednesday night when the Hawks open the 2016-17 season against the St. Louis Blues, the team that eliminated the Hawks in the first round of the playoffs in April.
Tyler Motte, Nick Schmaltz, Vinnie Hinostroza and Ryan Hartman will be in the Hawks’ bottom six. And 20-year-old Gustav Forsling and 26-year-old Michal Kempny will be on the back end. Of those six, only Hinostroza and Hartman have even played in a single NHL game, with a meager 15 between them
It’s by far the most rookies to make the team out of camp in Quenneville’s tenure. And unless those rookies meet Quenneville’s high standards, and unless Quenneville shows a little more patience than maybe he’s used to, it could be a tumultuous start to the season.
“That’s something you’ve got to be aware of when you get here,” Kruger said. “He’s got to be able to trust you. He expects you to play the right way from the beginning. If you don’t, you’re going to hear about it.”
The trick is being able to handle it when you hear about it. It never really bothered Dennis Rasmussen, who rarely drew Quenneville’s ire last season as a rookie. Rasmussen said he’d much rather be told exactly what he did wrong — and how to do better the next time — than to sit in uncomfortable silence in front of a glowering coach.
“If you’re doing something that you’re not supposed to do, they let you know,” said Rasmussen, who appears to be the 13th forward to start the season. “That’s one thing I really like. You don’t have to wonder if you’re playing good or bad, or if you did something good or something wrong. If you do something wrong, they let you know.”
Steeling yourself for the inevitable tongue-lashings — even Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane found themselves in the crosshairs from time to time as 20-year-olds when Quenneville first took over for the far more laid-back Denis Savard four games into the 2008-09 season — is the key to survival. If that fear and dread get in your head, you’ll be back in Rockford in no time.
“You’ve got to get adjusted to their systems really quickly,” Schmaltz said. “There’s a reason they’ve won Stanley Cups in the last six years. They play the right way. … You have to be able to play without fear. Because when you’re playing tentatively, and you’re scared, and you’re scared to make plays because you think you might turn it over — that’s when you make more turnovers. The key is to come in confident. I’m making the plays I know I can make it. If it’s there, make it. If it’s not, live to fight another day.”
But no rookie is ever fully prepared for the speed, the physical nature, the pressure, and the relentless grind of the NHL. There will be nerves. There will be mistakes. There will be benchings — maybe for a shift, maybe for a period, maybe for a game or two. There might even be some more shuttling between Rockford and Chicago.
But in the salary-cap hell the Hawks have found themselves in, these guys have to play immediately, and they have to contribute immediately. Whether they — or Quenneville — are truly ready.
“The new players are going to need to play and they get better through playing,” Quenneville said. “That’s the situation we’re in. I don’t mind it at all.”