It hasn't been all smooth sailing, but Colliton has Blackhawks going in right direction

  • Chicago Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton stands behind his bench during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019.

    Chicago Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton stands behind his bench during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019.

Updated 8/11/2020 6:03 PM

Long is the list of Chicago coaches who ruled with an iron fist and held more than the occasional fiery news conference.

Mike Ditka. George Halas. Ozzie Guillen. Mike Keenan. Don Zimmer. Doug Collins. Scott Skiles. Tom Thibodeau.


Just to name a few.

While not completely extinct, the ranting-and-raving coach is definitely on the endangered-species list.

There are still Chicagoans who long for the passion that dripped from these men's veins, but for many modern athletes it's "goodbye and good riddance."

Give them empathy and understanding -- with a strong, pointed message when necessary -- and you're much more likely to get a player who will run through a wall for you. That's exactly how the Blackhawks' Jeremy Colliton has approached his role as coach since taking over Mora IK in January 2014.

He ended up succeeding overseas, then in Rockford and now -- after plenty of bumps in the road -- he's helped the Hawks emerge as one of the surprise teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Hawks eliminated Edmonton in four games and opened a best-of-seven series against top-seeded Vegas late Tuesday.

'Wants the best for you'

One of Colliton's strongest qualities has been to get the most out of every player on the roster. It happened in Sweden. It happened in Rockford. And, for the most part, it's happening in Chicago.

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Colliton's ability to connect with the young, modern-day athlete is one of the primary reasons general manager Stan Bowman named him the IceHogs' coach in May 2017.

"He did not have the most star-studded team in Sweden. He was on a very low-budget team," Bowman said. "He always had guys that were maybe overlooked a little bit, but he still had to find a way to get the most out of them."

Bowman also was impressed with how Colliton dealt with veterans Cody Franson and Lance Bouma when they were demoted to the AHL. The IceHogs ended up making a run to the Western Conference finals in the Calder Cup playoffs.

Once Colliton supplanted Joel Quenneville on Nov. 6, 2018, there was an entirely new landscape to navigate. One that definitely included plenty of young talent. But also one that included grizzled veterans such as Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Corey Crawford.


And the journey to this point hasn't been without bruised feelings and bumps in the road. To wit:

• Seabrook was not at all happy about being scratched three times this season.

• Henri Jokiharju -- since traded to Buffalo -- was totally miffed about being demoted to Rockford last season.

• Colliton's new defensive system took Keith and Toews quite awhile to adjust to. Keith went so far as to say the following on a podcast in October: "The way it is now, every little situation is already played out for you. ... You (need) to be able to read and react and think quickly and be natural out there."

Of course, when you are dealing with more than two dozen athletes, not everyone is going to be thrilled with their boss.

That certainly includes players who are constantly scratched, which is what happened to forward Zack Smith seven times in a nine-game span in October and November. Smith talked it out with Colliton, though, and became a mainstay in the lineup until a back injury ended his season in February.

"Jeremy's a great example of the direction coaching is going now," Smith said. "You don't have to feel like you're walking on eggshells in the room every day.

"I've had some coaches -- I'm not afraid to say it -- (who) were very arrogant. That's a very poor quality in a coach. That's a guy you don't want to play for, and I don't think you'd go to the wall for someone who's like that. ...

"Jeremy's definitely got his style and he's a guy you want to play for. He's a very positive guy, which is a nice change for a lot of guys. He obviously wants the best for you."

Fire is there

We're never going to hear a Lee Elia-style rant or witness a Ditka-like "see that -- that's your IQ buddy -- zero!" explosion out of Colliton.

But anyone who thinks the 35-year-old can't get riled up hasn't paid very close attention.

It often happens only behind closed doors, but he also picks his spots with the media.

Case in point: After the Hawks blew a 3-1 lead and lost 6-5 in St. Louis in February, a seething Colliton met the press in the hallway just outside the dressing room at Enterprise Center.

"They were jumping in (on the rush) -- their fourth guy kept beating our fourth guy and creating 4-on-3s," Colliton said. "(Also) we're changing on the backcheck, and I don't know how you win if you do those things."

You could feel the intensity. The exasperation. The bitterness.

And the words carried so much more weight because of how rarely we hear them.

"When there is a big game, you notice an inflection in his voice or the urgency that he talks with," Smith said. "When you hear that from him, it gets you pumped up. It doesn't take much since he's not doing it from Game 1 and for all 82 games."

Young guns

This season brought plenty of new challenges, not the least of which was figuring out the best path for Kirby Dach, who missed much of training camp with a concussion. The Hawks could have sent him to juniors but instead elected to keep him in the NHL.

Colliton eased Dach along, slowly giving him more responsibility as the season went on. The result has been a remarkable transformation, with Dach becoming one of the most talked-about players since training camp began in mid-July.

"Jeremy did a good job of catering to what I needed," said Dach, the third overall pick in the 2019 draft. "Early in the year, him and Stan had a plan for me, and he followed it through ... even though there were dark times, and (I) didn't really produce as much as I wanted to. ...

"Found a way to elevate my game and get to the spot I am right now. Obviously what they had in mind worked."

Colliton also watched Dominik Kubalik become a rookie-of-the-year finalist, Adam Boqvist develop into a top-pairing defenseman and David Kampf become a reliable bottom-six center.

As for Alex Nylander? Well, the jury's still out on the talented forward, and it will be interesting to see if the coaches can get him to reach his potential.

Coming together

The Hawks were all over the place this season, starting 5-7-4, then rattling off a four-game winning streak, then losing 10 of 13 to fall to 12-15-6 on Dec. 14.

From there, every step forward was met with a stumble.

Along the way, however, Colliton was adapting, learning the tendencies of other coaches and learning to trust his gut based on how a game was going.

"As we've gone along (he's seen) that one thing that stats can't really tell you is just having that instinct of how to coach the game during the game," Toews said. "He's improved at that. It's something Joel did really well as well. He's doing a really good job of adjusting at a really fast pace."

Toews has adjusted too. It wasn't easy at first -- change never is -- but the Hawks' captain seems more comfortable in Colliton's system and with Colliton behind the scenes.

"We talked about it for years with Joel -- we knew what to expect from him after a loss, after a win, whether we played good or bad," Toews said. "We knew the response he wanted. We're getting to that point with Jeremy and what we'll get out of him every game."

Colliton, too, is starting to get what he expects every game, which is everyone on the same page and playing for each other. It's a big reason the Hawks ousted the Edmonton Oilers and now face a big test in the Golden Knights.

"We talk a lot about playing for the next group," Colliton said. "You want to have success personally, but how can you set the table for the next group of guys who are coming on the ice and leave them in a good spot?

"You might not get any personal accolades for that. But if everyone does it for each other, then we're gonna have some success.

"And we're still not perfect. We've got a ways to go. But I thought we got better as the year went on after (mid-December). Grateful that we've been able to continue that process here in the summer."

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