Coach writing his own story

TERRY JONES, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:41 AM ET

CHICAGO -- There's the story. And then there's the rest of the story.

There's the story of Joel Quenneville being hired four games into the season to take over as head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks, leading the team to a 104-point season and returning here yesterday tied 1-1 in the Western Conference semifinal series with the Vancouver Canucks.

That's the story.

The rest of the story is how Quenneville, five years ago at this time, had just been fired from his first NHL head-coaching job and had been chosen to coach Canada at the World Hockey Championships in Prague.

The trip began with an exhibition game in Budapest, Hungary, where he called the Czech Republic "Czechoslovakia" and made a few other minor international hockey gaffes at a press conference where he clearly did not look comfortable.

In a mixed zone with myself and two other Canadian scribes in Prague he was very upset before excusing himself after about two minutes. He ended up in hospital that night where he stayed for two days before being sent home after having suffered a mental breakdown, leaving assistant coach Mike Babcock to take over and coach the team to a gold medal.

It was explained that he'd never been to Europe before, couldn't sleep and combined with coaching Canada on the big ice in a foreign environment, was overwhelmed by the stress.

"It was stress, but it was job-to-job stress," he said in a one-on-one interview with Sun Media, agreeing to speak to a subject he's avoided speaking to before.

"It was the first time I'd been let go. Coaching is a tough business. I didn't have a contract. I was with St. Louis for eight years in my first NHL head-coaching job and it was a great stretch.

"I learned from that. I feel great. I learned you have to let the air out."

Something like that can queer a career. But Quenne-ville got another chance with Colorado. Fired there last year, he was sitting back at the start of this year doing exactly what he had learned to do - let the air out - when four games into the Chicago Blackhawks season GM Dale Tallon called and gave him this job replacing Denis Savard.

"It was a great opportunity, especially at that time of year. I talked to Dale. It happened real quick."

It's not often you fire a coach four games into a season but Tallon did it. And Quenneville being available was part of the reason why.

"He's a good coach," said Tallon. "The job he's done with this team this year has been phenomenal. He's done a great job.

"The players respect him and he respects them. He's no nonsense. There was no question about him as a coach. I knew his history on the human side. He's an intense guy. That's what I love about him. He's a solid guy and honest right to the bone."

However this series turns out, Quenneville has had a wonderful experience coaching the young Chicago team he calls "a work in progress", which when you're the Vancouver Canucks and have just lost 6-3 at home to them, is a bit disarming.

"It's on-the-job training right now and everything is progressing in the right fashion. I feel so fortunate to coach this type of team with this kind of talent and skill level. It's been a very enjoyable experience with this group of guys. Everybody is enjoying the process."

To be part of turning Chicago back into a hockey town has made it even better and Quenneville has his team back here where they won all three games in the Calgary series.

He used to love playing in Chicago Stadium.

"It was always my favourite building. The fans were on top of you and you could smell the beer," he said of the fabulous old barn where the tiny hairs on the back of your neck used to stand at attention during the national anthem, especially in the playoffs.

With the organ moved across the street to the United Centre a similar atmosphere is expected for Chicago's first second-round playoff series appearance since 1996.

"The buzz is there," says Quenneville. "We have to take advantage of it now that we're back here."


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