Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton has left fear — and his doubters — in the rearview

Week by week, his presence is being further validated by a young, surprisingly good team he’d like to think is in his own image.

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Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton appears to be coming into his own.

Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton appears to be coming into his own.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Maybe you’ve noticed: The Blackhawks have gotten better.

Eye-test better. Smell-test better. Take-in-a-game-and-it’s-obvious better.

Some of us aren’t expert enough about hockey to break this improvement down for you in terms that would prevent an analytics nerd from chucking his pocket protector against the wall in protest. Me? With all the new faces around this season, I’m still trying to pass Hawks 101: memorizing all the names and jersey numbers. But even I can tell this team — as hot as any in the NHL over the last four weeks — is going places.

The Hawks aren’t too old and slow anymore, a reality that crashed down on them — suddenly and shockingly — in the first round of the 2017 playoffs. They aren’t awkwardly hedging their bets with a riding-the-brake rebuild, as they did for a few fruitless seasons after that. They’ve got rookies for days now, and those players are, by all signs, just clueless enough to believe they can go 60 minutes or longer with anybody.

And the key to it all? It just might be third-year coach Jeremy Colliton.

“You’ve got to play without fear,” Colliton tells them. “You can’t be passive. You can’t be on the backs of your feet. You can’t be scared of making a mistake. You need to believe in yourself, believe in what you bring to the team and believe that you belong at this level and can help the team win.”

At the heart of that approach is where Colliton, 36 — still the youngest coach in the NHL — believes the joy of playing is found. He only wishes he’d had it himself as a player. Before concussions cut his career short, he experienced a lot of self-doubt on the ice.

“One of the things that held me back was my self-confidence and believing that I belonged and just playing without fear and playing on the edge, playing in close, being aggressive,” he said as the Hawks prepared for Friday’s game at the Hurricanes. “That’s something that I’m keenly aware of, and so, as a coach, I do everything I can to avoid it. But it’s still part of my personality.”

It’s an odd time for pro coaches in Chicago in that, on the whole, they’re buried under a mountain of questions.

We question every move the Bears’ Matt Nagy makes. Who kidnapped the running game? How can he call that on third-and-1? Isn’t it time for him to shave again?

We like the Cubs’ warm-and-fuzzy David Ross, but we’re hardly convinced about his managerial chops. Why didn’t he do more to help his team hit its way out of that paper bag last season?

We’re going in with one eyebrow raised with the White Sox’ Tony La Russa. Just look at the results of this Sun-Times poll:

But Colliton probably was seen — before this season, that is — as the biggest unknown of all. His quiet nature and the fact he replaced all-time great Joel Quenneville didn’t help his cause publicly. But now look at him, would you? Week by week, his presence is being further validated by a young, surprisingly good team he’d like to think is in his own image. To clarify: in his own image as a coach. Whatever flaws he had as a player, they’re deep in the rearview now.

“Ultimately, I think I’ve been at my best when I believe in myself and trust my instincts,” Colliton said. “And I think that’s probably going to be true going forward.”

The Hawks clearly still need Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith to be their rudder. They’d be in trouble without the must-score mentalities of young vets Alex DeBrincat and Dominik Kubalik. But they’d be going nowhere fast without Kevin Lankinen, Pius Suter, Philipp Kurashev, Nicolas Beaudin, Ian Mitchell, Brandon Hagel — the rookie crew.

“There’s a culture in this room,” Hagel said. “The success we’ve been having is for a reason. It’s not just happening. It’s not luck.”

Colliton didn’t have the easiest time with criticism as a player. He hasn’t always been successful at blocking it out since taking over for the fired Quenneville in January of 2018. He knows he was doubted, taken lightly, overlooked by many. The more he digs into the job, though, the less he gives a skittering puck what anyone outside the team bubble has to say.

That goes for compliments, too.

“One of the big challenges is not to read too much, not to listen too much, to the positive things,” he said. “It was a point of pride to ignore the negative things that were said when people on the outside were evaluating us one way. We should take the same approach when people tell you how good you are.”

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