Blackhawks’ Jeremy Colliton doing just fine in first-impressions department
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Now this was good to see: a Blackhawks player using his size and strength to plant himself in front of the net in the offensive zone, ready to stir up a little chaos.
It was merely a team practice at MB Ice Arena, but 6-2, 202-pound Brandon Saad was turning up the physicality, as former Hawks coach Joel Quenneville had often wished he would. Only Saad was now doing it on Jeremy Colliton’s watch, a day after the revered Quenneville was fired and replaced by a 33-year-old virtual unknown.
Colliton will make his debut on the Hawks bench Thursday night against the Hurricanes at the United Center, a dream opportunity for a man who didn’t land his first coaching job until 2014 — in Sweden — and joined the Hawks organization only a year and a half ago, when he signed on to coach the AHL Rockford IceHogs.
Oh, and Saad? Well, he took a puck to the face for his trouble. Unwittingly, though, his mug happened to redirect the puck (not to be callous, but wasn’t that the whole point?) past goalie Cam Ward. Without having seen the puck cross the goal line, Saad was doubled over on his skates and headed to the locker room. A visit to the dentist beckoned.
“He was going to the net, which is good, caught a puck in the face, puck went in the net, so that’s a positive,” Colliton said afterward, revealing a deadpan sense of humor that won’t hurt his cause as he attempts to win over players — and a dubious Hawks fan base.
We’re all just beginning to get to know Colliton, a Western Canadian who was unable to stick in the NHL with the Islanders and hung up the skates in Sweden due to post-concussion symptoms. Weeks and months will pass and stories with more detail and depth will be written, but Colliton seems to be making positive first impressions on those around him. Here’s some of what’s being said.
Communication is key
Before he left the ice Wednesday toward the end of practice, Colliton made sure to “bump into” Jonathan Toews. That’s what Colliton calls the one-on-one meetings he’s attempting to have with players as often as he can squeeze them in until everyone has been met — and heard — and together the Hawks can move on to the nitty-gritty of the regular season that awaits them.
For about five minutes, captain and coach stood next to the Hawks logo at center ice and talked. When they finished, Colliton skated over to Duncan Keith and engaged the veteran defenseman in conversation.
“Right away, we’re seeing he’s a great communicator and he already wants to take time to get to know each player and figure out what makes that individual best,” Toews said. “He doesn’t want there to be any doubt or misunderstandings, not only with the system but [also] what guys’ roles are and what’s expected out of everybody in the room. I think that speaks volumes to his understanding how a hockey team works.”
Almost right away this season, Saad found himself in Quenneville’s doghouse. As if that weren’t problem enough, there was a disconnect between Quenneville’s frustrations and Saad’s understanding of them.
“Nothing was said to me,” Saad said at the time when asked why he’d been practicing in a white jersey signifying a potential lineup scratch from the next game.
“I guess I don’t really know where the coaches are coming from,” Toews said at the time.
Quenneville, a three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Hawks and the second-winningest coach in NHL history, has an elite résumé that speaks for itself. But maybe Colliton’s communication style — one of the biggest factors in his hiring — will be a breath of fresh air.
“I just want them to know we’re in this together,” Colliton said. “We’re working together on it. I’m going to give them feedback, and sometimes it’s going to be positive and sometimes it’s going to be negative, but it all comes from a place where I’m just trying to make them better.”
Age is just a number
Colliton is the youngest coach in the NHL. He’s younger than four current Hawks players and — so sue him — barely half Quenneville’s age.
What’s he supposed to do, apologize?
Already, it seems, half the questions he’s fielding from the media are age-related. It’s roughly the same with the questions his players are being asked.
Maybe by the thousandth such question, it’ll dawn on people that Quenneville and the sport’s top winner, Scotty Bowman, became first-time NHL head coaches in their 30s, too.
“I think the challenge is not so much different if I were 20 years older,” Colliton said. “I’ve got to come in with a plan and show them I can help them win. [If], as a team, we have success, then they’re all going to look good and they’re not going to worry about how old I am.”
If Hawks players are worried about it, they’re doing a fine job of hiding it.
“I think [his age is] a side story,” Patrick Kane said. “He’s had a pretty quick rise to the top, if you want to say, from being in Sweden, one year in the minors and all of a sudden he’s a head coach in the NHL. So he’s obviously doing something right, and you’ve got to listen to him.”
That’s not to say players have no concerns about how things might change and feel no pain on Quenneville’s behalf.
“But it’s a business,” Kane said. “You’ve got to put that stuff aside and move on and put all our trust in Jeremy.”
On to the next
The two most prominent themes about Colliton, other than his age: he’s (1) a terrific communicator and (2) smart as a whip. We should all be so lucky as to be described that way.
“He seems like a bright hockey mind, so we have all the confidence in him,” Kane said.
Said Keith: “He’s here for a reason, and you can tell he’s a smart guy.”
That’s just a light sampling. Then again, don’t pretty much all new coaches find themselves on the receiving end of compliments from within the organization?
It’s more than fair for everyone to watch what develops with a degree of skepticism. We aren’t suckers, after all. Will Colliton’s shuffled line combinations and power-play units make a darn bit of difference? Will his revamped approach to the Hawks’ special teams do anything to solve longstanding problems?
Boos might rain down on Colliton from the UC stands someday. On the other hand, a statue could be built in his honor. Or something in between.
Regardless, here he goes in another pursuit of his NHL dreams.
“I grew up wanting to be in the NHL,” he said. “I thought it was going to be as a player. Yeah, I made it and I played some games, but wasn’t able to make it full-time and had to retire early.
“So this is like a second crack at it. I feel grateful and appreciative for the opportunity, and now it’s about making the most of it.”