Being hired by Blackhawks affirms Luke Richardson’s self-belief in coaching abilities
After paying his dues as a player and longtime assistant coach, Richardson will test his “calm demeanor” and patient approach in a tough situation.
New Blackhawks coach Luke Richardson long had believed he had the necessary skills to be an NHL head coach someday.
But amid the chaos of the 2021 playoffs, he got confirmation he did.
Entering Game 3 of the Canadiens’ Stanley Cup semifinal series against the Golden Knights — a matchup made possible only by COVID-19 and the restructured playoff format — then-Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme fell ill and later tested positive for the virus, thrusting then-assistant Richardson into the head-coaching role for the last four games of the series.
Against the odds, Richardson navigated the underdog Canadiens to victories in Games 3, 5 and 6 to upset one of the best teams in the league and advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
‘‘To have the confidence in myself at the most pressured time of the year and to succeed and have a good relationship with the players that allowed that to happen, it really resonated with me that I’m ready for a head-coaching job,’’ Richardson said at his introductory news conference Wednesday.
‘‘It starts with communication and trust and honesty with the players, and it resonates when you put your game plan around them. Making adjustments with them on the fly is huge, and there’s no quicker time you have to do that than at that time of the year. . . . I always wanted to do it and I thought I could do it, but that solidified that I know I can.’’
Richardson’s ability to relate to, adapt with and develop players will be tested to the max in his new job because the Hawks’ roster will feature a revolving door of largely inexperienced young players in the coming years.
The 53-year-old Richardson, who is still muscular enough to pass as a veteran player himself, seemed to grasp that reality while sitting side-by-side with general manager Kyle Davidson, who already has spent hours discussing everything with his handpicked coach.
‘‘I am an optimist and I want to go win every game, and I’m going to approach every game like that,’’ Richardson said. ‘‘But, realistically, we have to take steps. We want to cut the lows to a shorter time, and our highs, we want to lengthen them out as far as we can. In doing that, we’re going to have to take those steps: One, two, three, four. We can’t go one [to] 10. We can’t skip anything.’’
Richardson and Davidson first met during a 4 1/2-hour initial interview several weeks ago in Chicago, bringing Richardson back to the city where he played the first of his 1,417 career NHL games — as Eddie Olczyk’s roommate with the Maple Leafs — in 1987.
He flew back last week for another interview, during which he dived deeper into the topics he had discussed the first time. He then a casual dinner with Davidson, during which they watched a Stanley Cup Final game and dissected the Avalanche’s and Lightning’s tactics.
‘‘It was great for them to see and have discussions about certain situations on the ice, what I thought and how [I’d] deal with it,’’ Richardson said. ‘‘Kyle said, ‘We’re going to meet one more time tomorrow morning.’ I walked back to the hotel thinking, ‘Well, that’s got to be good.’ Then I started overthinking, and I [thought], ‘Maybe they’re going to call me in and say, ‘Thanks very much for coming, see you next time.’ But it worked out, and Kyle presented [the job] to me in a way that I felt was the right fit.’’
Added Davidson: ‘‘Nobody has a bad word to say about [Luke]. Everyone has had a great experience with him. So that was one of the first things that put him on our radar. Then once we got into the room with Luke, something intangible just felt like it clicked.’’
Richardson hasn’t yet talked with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews or Seth Jones, but he called it his first priority to start building a rapport with those core guys. As far as the rest of the lineup, he admitted he’ll just ‘‘have to work with what’’ he’s given, which might not be much.
Stories abound from Richardson’s previous coaching stops — particularly with the AHL’s Binghamton Senators — of him skating and participating in drills alongside his players. He might not do that quite as much in his new role, but his reputation as a calm, down-to-earth coach likely will hold true.
That unflappability might prove crucial to surviving the adversity that lies ahead.
‘‘A calm demeanor on the bench leads to the players feeling calmness on the bench, but [it also gives them] awareness of their job and what they have to do,’’ Richardson said. ‘‘[I’m] not tense or yelling and screaming at the ref. . . . That filters into the players in front of you, and they lose track of the game plan and get off-track. If you have to make a point, you pick the time to make that point. Then you don’t lose the players.’’