Jeremy Colliton’s eyes, two strikingly sky-blue topaz orbs, can’t help but penetrate through his otherwise unassuming look.
The young coach does everything else right to match the Wacker Drive financial associate vibe — carefully cropped stubble; hair non-aggressively slicked over, professorial glasses. You get the sense he wishes he was as recognizable in this city as any of those associates — as in, not at all.
But he can’t undo the Blackhawks’ popularity, he can’t escape his status as the NHL’s youngest head coach and those eyes just can’t help but occasionally sparkle — like when he’s reminded of the one place his me-second personality truly fit best.
“People in Sweden, they’re humble, happy to blend in, team-oriented, like structure. They appreciate being understated,” he said, tilting back in a chair in a rarely used office deep inside Fifth Third Arena.
A small, nostalgic smile surfaces.
“I like that.”
In bold, brassy Chicago, where slicked-over hair often requires an oversized dose of gel, Colliton’s quietness wasn’t as instant a hit as it was in Scandinavia, his home as recently as 2017.
It took the small-town Alberta native — not that he seemed to actually care about doing so — an uncomfortably long time to fill the publicly perceived void left by Joel Quenneville, who talked about himself just as little as Colliton does but sure yelled more.
Yet somehow, he’s done it: the only mentions of beloved Quenneville this summer came when the Hawks acquired Q’s younger cousin to bolster their forward depth. Somehow, in what seemed like a reality decades away when the Hawks were 9-18-5 last December, the franchise’s future seems bright.
And somehow — well actually, this one is rather believable — the spotlight has turned away from Colliton, just the way he likes it, allowing the 34-year-old to focus his attention exclusively toward guiding the Hawks back to the playoffs in 2020.
“It’s been nice to have that time [this summer] to evaluate what just happened and prepare going forward,” he said. “We’re just trying to make progress. We want to continually build, we want to keep getting better.”
• • •
The Blackhawks didn’t hire Colliton in 2017 because of the massive success he had in Sweden, where he led Mora IK — long a mediocre team in the country’s second division — to promotion to the top-flight SHL, the club’s first bump up in a decade.
They didn’t hire him because of his calm faux-Swedish personality, either, though general manager Stan Bowman said that his and Colliton’s likeness in that aspect was a plus.
No, they hired him because of his track record of effectively developing young players, a necessity given Mora’s minuscule payroll. After all, he was supposed to just be a minor-league coach.
But the sequence didn’t progress exactly as planned.
“It was not meant to be this quick,” said Mats Hallin, the Hawks’ European scouting director who originally introduced Bowman and Colliton. “It was meant to be that he had three or four years coaching in the AHL, and then took the step. It happened a little quicker than everybody thought.”
Colliton brought his magic touch with prospects to Rockford, where he especially aided the progression of players such as Matthew Highmore, Carl Dahlstrom, Collin Delia and Anthony Louis, according to Mark Bernard, the Hawks’ executive who oversees the IceHogs.
He also brought on-ice success, as Rockford — which had won only 25 games in the AHL’s 76-game schedule the season before — won 40 and swept through two rounds of postseason play in 2017-18, Colliton’s one full season.
“It’s really walking that tightrope, that thin line, because more often than not when you’re developing young players, they’re going to make young mistakes,” Bernard said. “Sometimes it can cost you in the wins and losses columns. But Jeremy, along with his entire staff, did a terrific job for us that year, working with the young players, developing them, and taking us to the conference finals.”
Had Colliton remained with the IceHogs for years, that success likely would have continued. Instead, the Hawks’ AHL affiliate took a step back last season, winning 35 games and missing the playoffs — because by early November, Colliton was moving 90 miles east to Chicago.
It has all happened quickly. So quickly that Colliton actually remains just five years removed from his playing days, a generally unprecedented phenomenon in the NHL’s somewhat oligarchic coaching club.
Much has been made of the fact that he’s younger than two of his players, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford. Perhaps even stranger now is that he’ll be coaching a former teammate once Calvin de Haan arrives for training camp. De Haan was an AHL rookie in 2011-12, when Colliton was captaining the Islanders’ affiliate in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
“I’m excited to play for him, it’s going to be cool and something different,” de Haan said recently in characteristically down-for-anything fashion. “Having a former teammate as your head coach might be a little bit of shock, but I think we have a good relationship.”
A few decades ago, Colliton’s age would have been viewed by the aforementioned oligarchy as incompatible with the position. Now, it’s hardly a factor. Even fan criticism during the rough transition period last season more often mentioned Colliton’s lack of intensity than his youthfulness.
The coach himself sees it as an advantage, having that personal connection to the highs and lows of a professional playing career in the post-2005 lockout era.
His own career struggles — he was called up only occasionally over the course of five NHL seasons and suffered numerous concussions that eventually forced his retirement — now provide him credibility when players come for advice.
So does his eventful path to this position, which now gives him insight into players who follow similar routes up from the AHL or over from Europe (like 2019 newcomers Dominik Kubalik and Anton Wedin) to the Hawks.
“As a coach, you’re just trying to help them through,” he said. “Certain things come up, and if you’ve been through something similar, it might help you to communicate with them and help them get the results they want.”
He has keyed on finding coaches with complementing realms of personal experience for the Hawks’ coaching staff, hoping to cover as many bases as possible.
Sheldon Brookbank, similarly young and closely removed from his playing days, became a close friend in Rockford in 2017-18 and made Colliton feel “more like myself” when he was promoted to the Hawks in January.
Brookbank will be joined next season by Marc Crawford — whose age (58), vast experience and old-school perspective should serve as a foil to Colliton and Brookbank in many ways — and fellow 2016-17 Mora IK coaching staff member Tomas Mitell, both hired by the Hawks this summer.
“I’ve been to Europe, been to Sweden, played overseas, coached overseas, been to the minors, played in the Western League, but that’s not the full range,” Colliton said. “Marc Crawford, he’s coached in several different organizations, he’s won a Stanley Cup, he’s played in the NHL, he’s been to Europe — another country, Switzerland, so we cover a different base. Sheldon’s played in Russia, played in Finland, played Tier II [junior hockey], came up through the low minors.”
“We have a wide range of things to draw from.”
• • •
If the revamped, diverse selection of assistants he has assembled represents Colliton’s biggest source of optimism for the 2019-20 Hawks, his second-biggest source interestingly traces back to the most catastrophic weekend of their 2018-19 season.
Considering the fickleness of hockey, perhaps that’s fitting.
In the coach’s eyes, the Hawks were playing some of their worst hockey since his November takeover in mid-February, yet scoring their way out of those problems — 5-2 over the Devils, 8-7 over the Senators, 5-4 over the Red Wings — and into playoff contention.
They then dropped a crucial pair of weekend home games to the Stars and Avalanche, and never again pushed so close to a wild-card spot. Yet Colliton saw a light flash on.
“I didn’t like how we were playing, and I was very interested to see how we would react to those big games,” he said. “I thought we played really well, thought we deserved a better fate. I was happy to see our team turn it on. It didn’t work out, and the results went against us, and it still wasn’t perfect, but that gave me a lot of hope going forward. It looked more like a playoff game, how we competed.”
Pondering last season now, Colliton sheepishly admits he gave up trying to get the woefully deficient Hawks to play competent defense.
He laughs when he thinks about it, if only because of the absurdity that decision created. That aforementioned 8-7 game likely will be cited for years as the epitome of the 2018-19 Hawks. But his topaz eyes don’t twinkle for this. It was certainly necessary and it improved the team, but it clearly was excruciating nonetheless.
“Instead of trying to keep the goals down, matching to defend, we started matching to score, and tried to optimize our top-end players,” Colliton said, chuckling. “If we would’ve been stubborn and just stuck to trying to win 2-1 or 3-2 when we clearly weren’t defending well enough to do that, we would’ve had a month or two of playing games that didn’t mean anything.”
The confidence to even make such a wholehearted commitment to 1980s-style hockey speaks not only to the unfortunate lack of practice time early in Colliton’s tenure — with 33 games in the first 67 days, off days without travel proved even scarcer than shutouts for the Hawks — but also to the young coach’s self-belief.
Lindy Ruff notably tried the all-out-attack approach with the Stars a few years ago, with mixed results. Ruff, however, is a 1,500-game NHL coaching veteran; Colliton is not.
Then again, Colliton wouldn’t have sniffed a head-coaching job — possibly not even a North American opportunity at all — without such an unwavering compass. He also wouldn’t have sniffed the job without an understanding of the modern-day game, which is trending toward speed, skill and higher scores, and an emphasis on puck possession that he first embraced in Sweden.
Combined, those traits were what initially caught the Hawks’ attention and what Bowman counted on when replacing Quenneville.
“He did a very good job of staying even-keel,” Bowman said. “He realizes your team can sometimes take on your personality — if you’re a volatile coach, your team can sometimes go that way as well — so I felt like he gave our group some confidence.”
Still, the Ruff approach was never the long-term plan. That was clear at the time, and it’s even clearer now.
The winds that kept Chicago cool in late June? Those were triggered by constant exhaling at the Colliton household as Olli Maatta, then de Haan, then Robin Lehner hopped on board (and by the old playbook being hurled into the recycling bin).
“We’re not throwing all that [offense] out, but you have to be able to win games in different ways,” Colliton said. “We might have a few 7-6 games this year, but we need to be able to win 2-1 also, or 1-0.”
“Ultimately, we want playoff success, and for the most part, you see a lot more 2-1 games in the playoffs than 7-6.”
• • •
Mark Bernard remembers vividly one of the first questions Colliton approached him with before the start of his brief IceHogs reign.
“You don’t care if, after a loss, we put the music on, do you?” the young coach asked.
Bernard didn’t care in that sense — he immediately approved the new policy — but he was intrigued.
He soon saw why Colliton wanted to do it.
“The music was on, the TVs were on. ‘We’ll come back tomorrow morning, we’ll make our adjustments and we’ll go forward’ — that was the message to the players,” Bernard said. “Little things like that go a long way. When it’s made to feel like a death march every loss, it’s hard for players to want to come in the next morning with a positive attitude, wanting to get better.”
In a sport where the margin between winning and losing is so slim, defeats can’t be devastating. Even the best teams lose on a weekly basis.
And through that upbeat philosophy, Colliton made the IceHogs one of those teams: they went 18-14-3 in games immediately following losses.
Whether the music and TVs remain on in the Hawks’ locker room after losses is no longer up to Colliton. He’s not so directly involved in such logistics at the NHL level. But he has found other ways to deliver that omnipresent positivity.
“We can’t let what’s already happened affect how you’re going to perform in the future,” he said. “It’s not like I want it to be a party in there, far from it: We hate to lose, and you’ve got to love to win, and it has to matter to you. But at the same time, we have to turn the page.”
Organizationally, the Hawks have tried to do just that this offseason. No other franchise executed as many player trades this summer as they did.
When Bowman and Colliton sat down together at the start of development camp to review the blueprint for such changes that they together plotted in April, they came away largely satisfied.
“We were both remarking about how we were able to get almost everything done,” Bowman said.
There’s also the much-welcomed existence of training camp, now just over a month away. Bowman estimated the Hawks will hold more practices between the September camp and their home-heavy October schedule than they did during all of Colliton’s time last season, and the loose math checks out.
There’s real optimism that the 2019-20 Hawks will be much improved.
So Colliton isn’t entirely unjustified when he slyly redirects every introspective question into an analysis of the Hawks overall. When it comes to public speaking, that’s his comfort zone, and unlike his prior such zones in Bridgeport, Mora and Rockford, there’s no pressing reason to push outside this one.
Yet behind those professorial glasses and striking eyes, Colliton’s own philosophy and personality are tightly intertwined with the fate of this team, even if he hates to admit it.
Entering Year 2 on the job, he has coached in 26 NHL arenas, developed relationships with his returning players and helped choose the newcomers, fleshed out the coaching staff around him and survived the initial tsunami of pressure from the Chicago media.
Much has changed. He’s undeniably matured.
Yet his core coaching philosophy hasn’t.
For most 34-year-old coaches with eight months of job experience, that would be imprudently stubborn. For Colliton, it isn’t.
“You have to believe in what you’re doing. You have to be confident in your plan,” he said, leaning forward in his chair again.
“Certainly, accept input and be flexible and take the information as it comes in, and then adapt. But you’ve got to trust your gut and believe in what you’re doing. And that will come across when you deliver your message.”