Rozner: Juggling vets and kids will test Blackhawks' Colliton

  • Chicago Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton's job next season will be a blend of teaching young players and working with a core group of Hall of Fame players.

    Chicago Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton's job next season will be a blend of teaching young players and working with a core group of Hall of Fame players. Associated Press/Nov. 5, 2019

 
 
Updated 10/31/2020 12:46 PM

• Final in a series.

If you're a parent, the math is innate.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Once you go from a strict man coverage to zone -- from two children to three -- you might as well have six because there is no defense.

Cue the circus music.

This was Jeremy Colliton's world on Nov. 1, 2018, when wife Jen gave birth to their third child. Five days later, he became the 38th coach in Blackhawks history.

So yeah, good luck with all that. Don't get punched in the ear as you're packing your bags and leaving the house.

At 34 years old and the youngest coach in the NHL, Colliton was following a certain Hall of Famer in Joel Quenneville, who was extremely popular with the fans and even more so with the players.

Colliton walked in and began to make changes, which brought cockeyed looks from players, and criticism from fans and media stuck in a time warp, so many unable to see that the calendar was no longer on their side.

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Not the easiest way to begin an NHL coaching career. In fact, you could argue that there couldn't have been a more difficult situation.

"It's been a challenge, no question," Colliton said. "Early on, with three very young kids and all the family stuff, it's probably not how you would draw it up as far as coming in during the season and trying to change things.

"For me, what it comes down to is looking ahead to how we can win again. What does that look like?

"A lot of people describe the coach's role as, 'How can we win tonight?' That's part of it. But I view it as, 'What does that matter if we can't win long term?' That's what I'm interested in. That's what excites me.

"I want the Hawks to win a Stanley Cup. I want us to be an elite team. We want the Hawks to be back in the conversation to win a Cup every year.

"So every decision I make needs to be with that end in mind. That's hard because individual priorities are different than that sometimes.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I think I've developed a lot, and I need to continue to develop. It hasn't always been easy, but that's what we sign up for."

On the one hand, there is the teaching of young players, most of whom have been coddled since becoming stars at 10 years old. With every decade that passes, players become less willing to listen unless someone is holding their hand.

"We need to do more to show what needs to be done," Colliton said. "It's a different generation coming through. They need to know the why and the how and you have to show them, but that's making me do a better job."

And on the other hand is a core of Hall of Fame players who think they should have a say in player personnel decisions. This is also a relatively recent change in player entitlement, especially in hockey.

It led to GM Stan Bowman and Colliton having a Zoom call with the Hawks' leadership group, answering questions and explaining the direction the Hawks are moving in an uncertain economic environment.

"I think there was some recognition from them that, 'Yeah, OK, I kind of get it,' but they want to win now and I totally understand that," Colliton said. "We also need to do the right things so we can win consistently long term.

"In hockey, it's cap flexibility. We haven't had any. Stan has talked about that a lot. We need to get back to that, where we can do certain things instead of always just trying to survive.

"It's not a new message. We have been selling that for some time. We need more depth up and down the lineup and players who can make a difference. It can't all be on the shoulders of a small group. It's just not gonna work.

"There were times throughout the year when we put guys in situations and it was a risk from my perspective because I don't know how it's gonna turn out.

"It's not a battled-tested 30-year-old who has won multiple Cups. It's a 19-year-old or a 22-year-old who hasn't done it yet. In some situations it didn't work, but it's part of us trying to get to where we're going.

"Sometimes it did work and then you have a guy you can rely on in that situation and we need more of those guys."

One guy who was reliable for so very long was Brent Seabrook, a player integral to winning three Stanley Cups. Now 35 and coming off multiple surgeries, a healthy Seabrook would be an asset on the ice, especially given that he is the most important voice in the dressing room.

If truly healthy and back playing at a decent level, how would Colliton handle a very tricky situation?

"Absolutely, he can be an asset for our team," Colliton said. "Ultimately, every decision we make has to be what's best for the Blackhawks, period. We're trying to get back to being an elite team as quickly as possible.

"Everyone's got a part to play in that. I don't know how that's going to look come training camp, but we've said we're going to play young players if they're ready.

"We don't want to put them in situations they're not prepared for, but a 22-year-old in Game 5, if he's able to play and get feedback and take the feedback, that's a different player in Game 70. There's a transformation. That will help us next year and the year after that.

"That doesn't mean there's not a place for older players. We need them. We need the experience and their presence and they're going to help those young guys develop quicker.

"But at the end of the day, everyone needs to have as their first priority what's best for the Blackhawks, and I can't put other priorities and motivations ahead of that.

"So we won't."

Colliton has been here for two years and hasn't had a full season yet. Given the circumstances, it's hardly fair to judge. The upcoming season, if and when that begins, is also likely to be abnormal as we endure the pandemic.

Yet, Colliton's focus remains the same, juggling monster egos and fragile young players, all with an eye toward a day when the Hawks are contending again.

In the meantime, he's back with his family in Calgary, where his older children are in school and life is a bit less hectic than it is here, pandemicly speaking.

And he hasn't forgotten those first few months in Chicago, two years ago.

"The baby is born and I'm out the door," Colliton said via Zoom with a sheepish grin, one any new father would understand. "My wife was in Rockford with three young kids. The idea was I would get home a bit, but it didn't happen. She packed up all the kids and got to Chicago more than I got to Rockford.

"The first few months were tough, but we figured it out. It took some time, but we got there."

The plan for his hockey team is very much the same.

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