CHICAGO – Be honest.
If you wondered whether the Blackhawks needed to make a coaching change during a second-half tailspin last season, raise your hand.
If you spoke out, tuned out, or even quietly considered the possibility that it was time to replace Joel Quenneville with another leader, now is the time to admit it.
I’ll go first.
I was wrong.
The man with the mustache has led the Hawks into the history books. Nobody yet has been able to beat them in regulation time, including the gutless Vancouver Canucks, who knocked Marian Hossa out of Tuesday’s game with a dirty hit before departing the building as losers.
But this is about the Hawks, who improved to 13-0-3 with another hard-fought win. The Hawks are No. 1 in the league with exactly one-third of the shortened regular season complete, and every other team is battling for places No. 2 through 30.
The only team in NHL history to keep pace with the Hawks’ hot start is the 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks, who went on to win the Stanley Cup.
The Hawks have matched the Ducks’ all-time record by earning at least one point in 16 consecutive games. They have a chance to make history Friday against the San Jose Sharks, where a win or a trip to overtime will increase their point streak to 17 games.
Hawks’ players deserve plenty of credit – but not all of the credit – for the incredible start.
Don’t take it from me.
Attention, Blackhawks fans: This is your captain speaking.
“The feeling in our dressing room is right where it needs to be,” Hawks center Jonathan Toews said Tuesday morning, “and a lot of has to do with our coaches. They deserve the praise as much as they got the criticism last year.”
The criticism was as loud as Jim Cornelison’s anthem. So, too, should be the praise.
For almost a month last season, the Hawks did nothing but lose. They lost nine consecutive games, including eight on the road, to spoil a strong start and jeopardize their playoff hopes.
Other teams such as the Los Angeles Kings bailed on their coaches and surged.
Should the Hawks have done the same with Quenneville?
In retrospect, no, of course not.
I should have known better than to entertain the question at the time.
No matter the measurement, Quenneville is one of the top coaches in the game. His 637 career victories lead all active coaches in the NHL and are 54 more than the next-closest coach, Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues. Quenneville is seventh on the all-time win list, and he never has had a losing season in 15-plus seasons behind the bench.
So, yeah, that’s pretty good.
But statistics on paper say only so much.
Players have a complete picture when it comes to the value of a coach.
Take Andrew Shaw, a 21-year-old forward in his second season with the Hawks. Quenneville trusted Shaw with valuable playing time when he arrived from the minor leagues as a no-name player, and Shaw returned the favor with 23 points in 37 games.
To Shaw, Quenneville is like a teacher who pushes his students for all of the right reasons.
“He’s always on you, letting you know what you’ve got to do better and what you did great out there,” said Shaw, who anchors the checking line. “He builds your confidence, but he doesn’t let it get too high. He’s unbelievable that way.”
Toews never shared in those doubts, even as the losses piled up last winter.
“As a coach, you’re going to take a lot of criticism when your team is not playing well,” Toews said. “People tend to ask a lot of questions. It’s a nerve-wracking thing when you go through a losing streak and you go through a tough regular season like we did last year, and you try and do everything right, but everything seems to go wrong.
“Now, we’ve seemed to turn things around for the time being. We know we’ve got a lot of work left ahead of us, but our coaching staff has done a great job as far as getting us ready to have a great start this year.”
The Hawks are fully capable of a great finish.