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Right on Q: Challenge of restoring Blackhawks’ greatness drives Joel Quenneville

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is in his 11th season with the team. | Getty Images

The mere mention of tennis seemed to excite Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville.

So it was no surprise to see that his quick scan of his team’s locker room inside the MB Ice Arena ended on John Steinmiller, the Hawks’ media relations director who was seated in a far corner and on his phone.

“Did you know that he’s a high school champ?” Quenneville said.

No, but, of course, Quenneville did.

“I got Steiny over here that’s already offered me a butt-kicking,” Quenneville said.

Not that Quenneville would roll over and take it lightly. That’s not in his character. The hockey world certainly knows that well.

“I like winning at hockey, but I hate losing at tennis,” Quenneville said with a hearty, gruff laugh. “I don’t know if that makes sense.”

Quenneville’s love of tennis began late in high school. In the NHL, it turned into matches against assistants and staff members. Ex-Hawk Martin Lapointe and hockey agent Justin Duberman make up his current competition.

“I was a street player, a late starter,” Quenneville said. “I’m just a hacker. That’s basically all I am. This summer I played probably more than I ever have. It was my conditioning.”

Quenneville had more time to play than usual. In a stunning fall from grace – or a full plate of “humble pie” as Quenneville put it – the Hawks missed the playoffs for first time since he took over four games into the 2008-09 season. They were last in the Central Division with 76 points.

As Quenneville sat down and spoke with the Sun-Times, how much this season means to him became apparent. The first question about the past quickly returned to the present. If this really is the start of Quenneville’s final chapter in Chicago, he’s the one who will write it.

“[The years] go by fast, very fast,” Quenneville said. “Time flies when you’re having fun. I guess that’s one way of probably putting it. But last year was just the complete opposite of what we’ve been doing here, and that certainly gets your attention to a different level.”

* * *

When Marc Crawford thinks of Quenneville, he sees his longtime friend multitasking in a very Quenneville-like way.

“Drinking a glass of wine, having a nice cigar, reading a racing form and watching an NHL playoff game,” Crawford said. “He’s got the ability to multitask like nobody else. That’s why he’s so good with this generation now.”

It’s one of the many reasons that Quenneville should be considered the greatest coach of his generation, according to Crawford, who won a Stanley Cup as the Avalanche’s head coach in 1996 and with Quenneville as his assistant.

“Scotty [Bowman] was a great coach in his era,” said Crawford, now an associate coach with the Senators. “In our era, Joel is at the top.”

And Quenneville has the résumé to back that up: three Stanley Cups, 18 playoff appearances in 21 years of being a head coach and his 884 career wins, which trails only Bowman. But it’s also how he has adjusted throughout all of his success.

“What he excels at is his vision of the game is that Gretzky-like level,” Crawford said. “Where [Wayne] Gretzky had that anticipation and that ability to do it as a player, Joel’s ability to see the game [as a coach] is unsurpassed in our game.”

* * *

Some numbers are the same, but the names are different. Championships and change have defined Quenneville’s run with the Hawks. It’s the same this season. The salary cap has been a relentless opponent for the organization.

“We did have a lot of young guys [last season],” he said. “We had a lot of first-year guys. But our play last year was inconsistent for the latter part, where it wasn’t really representative of how we played in the past. And that’s got to get better.”

Through it all, Quenneville considers himself lucky to have coached some of the best to play in recent history. Going over them one by one is a detour down memory lane that makes Quenneville grin.

Jonathan Toews: “A Warrior. A Leader.”

Patrick Kane: “The wow factor is off the charts.”

Duncan Keith: “Competitor.”

Brent Seabrook: “Clutch.”

Marian Hossa: “The perfect hockey player.”

Patrick Sharp: “Sharpy was clutch, too.”

Dustin Byfuglien: “I loved Buff.”

David Bolland: “Bolly, I think of him dropping the gloves, and the game is still on.”

Andrew Ladd: “A warrior.”

Niklas Hjalmarsson: “He was amazing.”

Corey Crawford: “Underrated.”

It’s a list that goes on and on, too. The Hawks’ three Cup runs featured many heroes. But only four of them remain from their first Cup in 2010: Toews, Kane, Seabrook and Keith. Similar to Quenneville, they’re not done. It’s obvious that his fight is their fight.

“They all had amazing runs in all the years,” Quenneville said. “But to me, those guys, man, the bigger the game, these guys were just like, ‘Wow.’

“[It’s] the ‘wow’ factor of these guys in big games with all the scrutiny and the attention from the opponents. The bigger the stage, man, they wanted to be out there. And they proved it.”

Quenneville did, too.

* * *

Quenneville and Eddie Olczyk talk about horses all of the time. Of course, they do. They might be Chicago’s two most popular handicappers.

“At least I can say, we have kind of put it together and put a few more shekels in my pocket to pay my wife’s credit card bill,” Olczyk joked. “We team up every once in a while.”

It’s a mutual respect based on their expertise, but also instincts.

“You go, ‘You know what? If I’m going to go down, I’m going to go down my way,’ ” said Olczyk, the former Hawk and current broadcaster. “And certainly Joel lives by that 110 percent when it comes to pucks and ponies.”

It’s part of what makes Quenneville special.

“It’s having the confidence that [goalie] Scott Darling is going to be able to go in there against the Nashville and right the ship — and then I’m going to go back to ‘Crow,’ and we’re going to go on and win a Stanley Cup,” Olczyk said. “It’s that type of stuff. He’s not afraid to shake the tree up.”

The Chicagoan in Olczyk knows where Quenneville stands in town, too. He’s on its Mount Rushmore of coaches.

“He’s the greatest coach the Blackhawks have ever seen,” Olczyk said. “The impact he’s had on this community, on this sport and on this team will last. The legacy will be there forever.”

* * *

For nine years, the Quenneville family rented in Hinsdale. It was a decision that Quenneville would say defines an NHL coach’s life.

It’s not only fluid but momentary.

“We went through it basically because we know the business, we know longevity and we know that a coach’s shelf life is not forever,” Quenneville said.

But a year ago, the Quennevilles decided to put down their roots. The Chicago area was their home so they built one. He said his family of five has always felt “spoiled” by the city.

“We love everything about Chicago,” he said. “We like the other sports teams, but we really do like horse-racing.”

Quenneville said that with a laugh, but he’s ready to bet on himself again. He believes in his defensive system and his proven stars and that his young players will take important steps in their development.

Of course, he still believes in himself.

“I know how competitive our business is,” Quenneville said. “I know how tough it is staying where we’re at or where we were. And that drives you.”

A summer spent playing plenty of tennis has Quenneville eager to return serve on the ice.

“Finding ways to get back where we want to be has been an ongoing thought process over the course of the summer,” he said. “Whether it’s motivating guys, challenging guys, getting the most out of them or being the best you can to collectively make us better is my job. How we push or go about it is the challenge, and we welcome that as a staff and me, too. I look forward to that.”