Why Blackhawks' McDonough has faith in Colliton, Bowman
Challenging, yet optimistic.
With more ups and downs than any roller coaster you've ever been on.
That's how the Blackhawks' John McDonough summed up a 2018-19 campaign that has looked nothing like the previous 11 during his tenure as President and CEO.
After all, it's not every day you fire a three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach destined for the Hall of Fame and replace him with a 33-year-old no-name.
A bevy of losses -- many of them extremely ugly -- followed. Then came another concussion to Corey Crawford. Seven more defeats in eight games to start this calendar year.
A playoff berth -- something McDonough expected before the season -- seemed completely out of reach.
But just as it appeared the free-falling Hawks would unceremoniously thud into the Western Conference basement, coach Jeremy Colliton's squad started winning, and now sit just 2 points out of the final wild-card spot with 27 games remaining.
McDonough, who called firing Joel Quenneville "the most difficult decision I've ever been a part of in 38 years," heaped praise upon Colliton for his steady hand in helping guide the Hawks to this point.
"When you have seven or eight games where you hit a bit of a bumpy patch, you find out a lot about people," McDonough said during a lengthy interview Thursday. "But we got through it. We weathered it. Proud of the way he handled it.
"We put him in a tough situation. He didn't really have any of his own assistants at the time. But composed, measured, up for the task and excited about our future."
McDonough and I hit on many subjects, including how long of a leash GM Stan Bowman has, what else impresses him about Colliton, whether he second-guessed the decision to fire Quenneville, and his thoughts about Crawford.
Q: Did you have sleepless nights in the day or two before you decided to make the seismic change to the organization? What was going through your mind?
A: This was made over a period of time, and I don't want to recount all of it because it's not pleasant to recall. There were sleepless nights. You want us to succeed. You want (Joel) to succeed. He's a terrific person and a major reason we won three Stanley Cups. … Very candid (and) direct conversations. But we made the decision to move on.
Q: Did you believe deep down that making a coaching change could lead you to a playoff berth?
A: Yeah. Or I wouldn't have said that. I believe in this roster. And here we sit (Thursday), we're 3 points out, but we would have to hurdle five teams. It's possible. I don't know the probability, but my expectations are for this to be a perennial playoff team.
I have faith in Jeremy. There's a learning curve. I watched how he handled extremely challenging times and I'm watching how he's handling a five-game (winning) streak -- and winning and losing looks the same. I'm very impressed by that.
Q: What led you to believe he was the right coach at this time? Thirty-three years old. No NHL experience. Four years overseas. Barely over a year at Rockford. And Stan comes to you and says, "This is the guy we're going to hire."
A: I had a chance to spend a fair amount of time with him in Rockford and he would come here periodically. He's very impressive. He's got the right makeup to be a head coach. He's very, very bright. He understands the importance of coaching younger players. He understands the importance of analytics. He's personable. He's engaging. He's a very good listener.
It wasn't really about, "OK, can a 33-year-old fit in?" It was about, "Is he capable of doing this right now?" I thought he was and so did Stan.
Q: The Hawks won three times out of Jeremy's first 17 games. Did you ever second-guess yourself?
A: No. Not once. Because a lot of time went into making this decision. There was a sense from the get-go that this could get worse before it gets better. There's going to be an acclimation period. We did go through a really challenging -- really challenging -- period where for eight or nine games you're down two or three goals.
But it was one of the most interesting learning experiences I've ever had. We started the Cubs season in 1997 we were 0-14. This was challenging because there was a pattern -- you'd see the same thing night after night.
But when you believe in somebody, you've got to stick by them -- high tide, low tide -- and they've got to feel that love. They've got to feel you really, really support them. I knew he felt that from me. He felt that from Stan. There was no panic here at all.
I would like to think when we make these decisions they are extremely well though out. This franchise has been about continuity. But, no, there was no second-guessing.
Q: You've stood by Stan through all of this. In your opinion, what makes him a good general manager?
A: Very smart. Tireless worker. Understands the task at hand, understands the urgency, yet understands the big picture. And no general manager is going to get everything right. But there's never a point in time where he's walked in here and said, "If we don't have this done by 4 o'clock today, we've got to make a decision on it."
He's very thorough. Nobody is going to outwork him. He always has the best interest of the franchise in mind. I'm proud he's our general manager.
Q: This was his first chance to hire a head coach. Is it safe to say his leash is long and he has the ability to shape this roster in the coming years?
A: Of course. This was the first head coach he hired. … It's not about the leash. We're cognizant of the fact that not every trade works. Body of work has been exceptional.
We've won three Stanley Cups, almost four. A lot of people get the credit for that. There were people who predated us. I think Stan has played a primary role in the reason that we've won.
Q: Corey Crawford has had two major concussions in the last 14 months. A lot of people wonder, why risk further injury? Why risk your long-term health? How do you guys determine his future?
A: We leave it up to him. Corey's going to be ready to come back when Corey's ready on his timetable. There's no urgency, there's no rush. When he's ready to play, arms wide open from a Blackhawks standpoint.
But when you go through that, only you know when you're ready. So I care about him as a person, I care about him professionally. I want it to be the right time and he would know. We really miss him, but I look at the big picture and I just want him to be happy, I want him to be healthy, I want him to be a part of the Blackhawks. When the time is right to come back … that's when he'll come back.
Q: Would you understand it if he came to you and said, "My long-term health is more important. I'm going to retire."
A: Well, I haven't even contemplated that. I haven't thought about that. Again, we go back to the fact I'm concerned about Corey personally and I just want to make sure when he comes back he's ready. Jeremy's had experience with (concussions) and he's answered it the same way. You're going to know when you know. You can't encourage somebody to get back quicker. They're ready when they're ready. We miss him, but his health is of paramount importance.
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As for the health of the franchise, it seems to be heading in the right direction once again. And in the end, that's all McDonough cares about.
"Plans change. Process doesn't," McDonough said. "So if you've got a really good process in place -- which we do here on decision-making and not knee-jerking and really distilling things through and making sure that a lot of voices are heard -- you've got a better chance of getting it right."
• Twitter: @johndietzdh