Why the Blackhawks believe Colliton is ready for NHL

Updated 11/8/2018 6:44 AM
  • Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said he can make a difference in turning around the team's fortunes. He gets his first chance Thursday.

    Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said he can make a difference in turning around the team's fortunes. He gets his first chance Thursday. Associated Press

The thing you noticed first was the laughter.

Loud, riotous laughter.

The joyous sounds were coming from a group of giddy and loose Rockford IceHogs as they kicked a soccer ball around before a game last season against the Chicago Wolves at the Allstate Arena.

"I'd never really seen a group having that much enjoyment at the rink," Cody Franson said soon after the Blackhawks sent the defenseman to Rockford. "It wasn't like they were having the greatest seasons of their lives, but everybody was having fun.

"That's a testament to a good coach."

That coach was Jeremy Colliton, who is succeeding Joel Quenneville and will make his debut Thursday when the Hawks host Carolina at the United Center.

The fact Rocky Wirtz, John McDonough and Stan Bowman are turning over the keys to a 33-year-old with no NHL coaching experience certainly shocked some observers.

But he sports an awfully impressive resume, receives immense praise from former players and brings fresh ideas that might help the Hawks snap out of their funk.

Colliton's coaching career began in Sweden, where he led Mora IK to a league-best 35-13-4 record in 2016-17. The next season, the team earned a promotion to the Swedish Hockey League after defeating Leksands IF 4-2 in a best-of-seven series.

Last season, the IceHogs used a strong finish to qualify for the postseason and advanced to the third round of the Calder Cup playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

All of these factors played a huge role in Bowman believing that -- despite his age -- Colliton is ready to lead the Blackhawks.

"It's the experience I've had getting to know Jeremy the past year-and-a-half," Bowman said. "Watching the way his teams play and the way he handles the team and his strengths as a coach are things which are going to help our group get to the next level."

Great communicator

Many of the Hawks who were in Rockford last season lauded Colliton's communication skills. Whether it's one-on-one or in groups, he talks with players about their game, what he expects and what can make the team better. He's also not afraid to dole out criticism when necessary.

"I just want them to know we're in this together," Colliton said. "I'm going to give them feedback, and sometimes it's going to be positive and sometimes it's going to be negative. It all comes from a place where I'm trying to make them better so the team can win. If we're on the same page I can tell them a lot."

Erik Gustafsson and John Hayden definitely appreciate that hands-on approach. The risk-taking Gustafsson began last season in Rockford, then earned a call-up in January thanks to Colliton's tutelage.

"If you're on the first line or fourth line, he brings everything out of a guy," Gustafsson said. "That's what he did for me. Right off the bat when I came down, he took me in and said, 'I want to do everything I can to help you get up.' That helped my confidence."

Hayden scored 3 goals in 13 playoff games for the IceHogs as he tried to show the Hawks he was ready to become a full-time NHL player.

"My job was to get back here as soon as possible," Hayden said. "Throughout that process he was excellent with me from a development standpoint on the ice and from a mental standpoint off the ice."

Colliton has frank conversations because he wants players to know exactly where they stand. If somebody is going home in a bad mood or questioning why they aren't playing enough, it's going to affect their performance.

"We want them to go home happy (and) come to the rink in the morning happy because then they're going to be better players," Colliton said. "A big part of my job is create an environment where they can be their best every day and getting better every day."

Tall task ahead

Colliton's past success is all well and good.

But is he ready for the bright lights of the NHL? Ready to lead players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford and Chris Kunitz?

Gustafsson admitted it might be a tough transition at first, and perhaps even stranger when veterans realize almost no sound is coming from the bench during games.

"He doesn't scream or anything," Gustafsson said. "We're probably not going to hear anything from him."

They've obviously heard plenty the last two days as Colliton attempts to implement his style a little at a time. At practice Tuesday, the Hawks worked on the power play and defensive zone responsibilities and also watched some video beforehand.

There seemed to be more pace and attention to detail as everyone begins a new era.

Keith, Toews and Kane all said they'll have no problem listening to Colliton and doing whatever it takes to right the ship and try to climb back up the standings.

"For me it doesn't matter who's behind the bench," Keith said. "We put pressure on ourselves to perform at our best. … Jeremy's a bright guy. We always have respect for the coach and you try to do what he tells you to do.

"It's up to the players in the room. We're the ones on the ice, so it's us guys that have to execute. You can have a game plan, but if you don't execute what the coach wants, nothing's going to work."

Dream realized

Colliton, who hails from Blackie, Alberta, was selected by the New York Islanders with the 58th pick of the 2003 draft. Two years later, he was skating on a line with the Penguins' Sidney Crosby and the Bruins' Patrice Bergeron for the Canadian World Juniors team.

It seemed a promising NHL career was around the corner, but injuries -- and a bit too much self-doubt -- held him back. Colliton ended up playing in 57 NHL games over an eight-year career that was spent mostly in the AHL.

"I wish I'd have believed in myself a little bit more that I was good enough and just worry less about what other people think," Colliton said last April.

Now, thanks to a GM in Bowman who believes Colliton has what it takes, he's getting a second chance.

"I grew up wanting to be in the NHL, thought it was going to be as a player," Colliton said. "Yeah, I made it and I played some games but wasn't able to make it full time and had to retire early. … I feel grateful for the opportunity and now it's about making the most of it."

His reaction when the phone call came from Bowman was equal parts surprise and excitement.

With no self doubt.

"I do feel I can make a difference," Colliton said. "If I didn't I probably wouldn't be very good. A lot of it was just, 'OK, let's go. … There's not a lot of time.'

"I don't think I've had a chance to be too satisfied. It's more, 'OK we got a lot of work to do and let's get it done.' "

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