They say that animals can smell fear. If the cliché is true, it would go a long way towards explaining any strange behavior by animals in the Chicago area lately. What’s emanating from the United Center these days is closer to panic than fear. The Chicago Blackhawks showed panic this week when they decided to fire Coach Denis Savard only four games into the season and replace him with Joel Quenneville.
This is not a knock on Quenneville, who is one of the league’s quality coaches. He has a career winning percentage of .592 in parts of 11 seasons behind the bench with St. Louis and Colorado. He’s a hard working, no-nonsense coach who has been a winner wherever he’s gone.
But the question remains, why fire Denis Savard after just four games? Granted, the Blackhawks were off to a slow start at 1-2-1. And for the first time in recent memory, the ‘Hawks were dealing with high expectations. There was a buzz surrounding the Blackhawks this season and the sports fans of Chicago were enthused about their NHL team again after a decade or more of acute indifference.
Savard took over a sad-sack franchise in November 2006, and helped turn the team around. Last season, Chicago finished 40-34-8, the team’s first winning season since 2002. They missed the playoffs by all of three points. Overall, Savard compiled a 65-67-15 record behind the bench for Chicago, not bad when you consider the sorry state the franchise was in when he started on the job. Savard gave the team’s remaining fans hope and was a tie to their winning heritage.
The team’s young stars and enthusiastic play last season had the city of Chicago thinking hockey again. The team reconnected with its storied past, bringing icons like Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull and Tony Esposito back into the fold. Some home games were televised locally and the city remembered that it had a hockey team. Savard was a key to that reawakening. A link to winning teams of the past and an inspiration the young players that represented the team’s future.
That was April of this year. Nothing had fundamentally changed with Savard since then. Yet after four games, or barely five percent of the schedule, he was gone.
When he fired Savard, GM Dale Tallon said, “We felt we needed a more experienced person in [this] position and that’s why we made the decision. [Joel’s] the right man for the right time.”
This makes no sense. Savard didn’t suddenly lose experience over the past week. If he was experienced enough to keep his job when the season opened, nothing that happened in the first four games could have changed that.
Tallon also claimed that one of the main causes for Savard’s dismissal was the “flat” play from the Hawks this year, dating back to the beginning of the preseason.
“We thought we needed to send a message and invigorate this team,” he said.
But the Hawks are rebuilding with youth. Their best players are Patrick Kane, 19, and Jonathan Toews, 20. Other important building blocks include 25-year-old defenseman Duncan Keith and forwards Patrick Sharp, 26, and Dustin Byfuglien, 23. Young players tend to be inconsistent. A slow start after four games as they adjust to new teammates should not come as a shock.
Tallon added veterans Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet to try to put the team over the top this season, to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and maybe even win a series for the first time since 1996. But even veteran players need more than four games to adjust to a new team and a new system. Logically speaking, if there was a problem with Savard’s coaching, the time to dismiss him was the offseason, so a new coach would have an entire training camp to introduce his new system and let both the players and the coach get acclimated to each other.
“This is a bittersweet day,” said Tallon, “but if you want to be a championship-caliber organization, you have to make tough decisions. It’s about moving forward, and achieving and winning and developing a consistent approach.”
But firing the coach after four games is anything but a consistent approach. It’s micromanaging, worrying about every little bump on the long of an 82-game season. It reeks more of George Steinbrenner at his meddling worst, firing Bob Lemon after only 14 games as Yankees manager in 1982 and then dismissing Yogi Berra after just 16 games in 1985. Anybody remember how many World Series the Yankees won in the 80s? Just checking (it was none).
This move reeks of panic. Panic that the buzz the team finally got going after all these years of being ignored would quickly vanish if the team got off to a slow start. Management should give hockey fans in Chicago a little more credit than that. And they should give their coach a little more than four games before dismissing him for cause. Joel Quenneville may be successful as coach of the Blackhawks, in fact, I expect he will be based on his track record and the team’s level of talent. But the timing and reasoning behind this move make very little sense, and a classy man like Denis Savard certainly deserved to be treated better than this.