When the whirlwind weekend had finally ended, Jeremy Colliton was ready to relax.
It was Nov. 5, an off-day for the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs and their 33-year-old head coach. Hours earlier, the team had returned from a three-game road trip spanning three states—Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa—in as many nights. On top of that, Colliton’s wife Jen had just given birth to a daughter named Olivia, their third child. Exhausted from the bus rides and thrilled to enjoy some quality family time, Colliton didn’t expect much else that Monday morning.
Then his phone rang. The boss was coming over.
“That was my first hint something was going on,” Colliton says. “He had never been to my house before.”
A little while later, Colliton was sitting alone in his kitchen alongside Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman, officially accepting the promotion of his dreams. Knowing that Colliton was already dealing with a full plate, Bowman had only driven from Chicago to Rockford because circumstances demanded a face-to-face meeting. “I needed to talk to him, to make sure this was going to work and he was ready for the challenge,” Bowman says. “In hindsight, it seems simplistic, but you have to cover a lot of ground. We’re entering into this thing together.”
As Bowman spelled out in the kitchen, the Blackhawks were firing longtime bench boss Joel Quenneville, the mustachioed future Hall-of-Famer who had presided over three Stanley Cups during the franchise’s dynastic heyday. Instead of seeking outside help from an established veteran, Bowman turned to Chicago’s minor-league affiliate, where Colliton was only one month into his second season. “It’s a comfort level in knowing what Jeremy can do and what I want,” Bowman says. “The concern I had with going external and interviewing people was, you don’t really know somebody until you work with them. I had that comfort level and gut instinct that Jeremy is a great coach. Not a good coach, but a great coach.”
And to think that Bowman only learned about Colliton by happenstance. A year and a half earlier, he and European scouting director Mats Hallin were headed to the under-18 Five Nations tournament in Sweden, prepping for the 2017 NHL draft. Making idle chitchat on the long drive from Stockholm, Bowman asked Hallin to name the best up-and-coming coach in the country. “Actually,” replied Hallin, “it’s this guy from Canada named Jeremy.”
At first, the name barely rang a bell. A second-round draft pick of the Islanders in 2003, Colliton had only appeared in 57 NHL games before ending his playing career overseas. It was there that Mora IK, a second-tier Swedish club, promptly hired him as interim head coach when Colliton retired due to lingering post-concussion symptoms. Upon reaching their destination, Hallin dialed Colliton, connecting him with Bowman. Though they only spoke for 10 minutes, a seed was planted. “A couple months later, we decided to make a change in Rockford, and he was the first guy I called,” Bowman says. “Sometimes you hit it off with somebody.”
After overseeing Mora’s first promotion to the Swedish Elite League in 2016-17, Colliton promptly led Rockford to the third round of the AHL’s playoffs last season. Now he is tasked with righting the ship in Chicago, where the Blackhawks enter Wednesday night’s tilt against Washington with an 8-8-5 record, three points back of the Western Conference wild card. “We need belief,” Colliton says. “We need to get a sense of hope that we’re going to turn this around. And we have good players in here. And we’re still doing that. It’s still a process right now. But we’ve got a little bit of positive feedback lately as far as results goes, and hopefully we can continue.”
During a brief break from the chaos of his new gig, Colliton spoke with SI.com about the benefits of working alongside Quenneville, the challenge of taking over midseason, the path that he took to become the NHL’s youngest active head coach, and more.
Sports Illustrated:So [Bowman] leaves your kitchen. What was the first thing you did after that?
Jeremy Colliton: Talked with my wife. What’s the next step? More so … what’s the word I’m looking for … practical steps. What’s going to happen? I’ve got two young kids. She’s just given birth to a baby girl. What’s the plan here? Then from there, obviously, things happened pretty fast?
SI:How about hockey-related? Watch film? Make calls?
JC: Talked to [assistant coach] Barry [Smith]. Yeah, I looked at a little bit of the last few games. Again, a lot of it was practical. My daughter, it was her first appointment with the doctor, so we went to that immediately after. That took a while. Then I got back to the house, packed up and left.
SI:Was this job even on the radar for you?
JC: No, it wasn’t. I try to live in the present. Of course I wanted to be an NHL coach at some point. But I was in Rockford, and I was just trying to make things better there, trying to help players become everyday NHLers or everyday pros. That’s what I was focused on.
I was aware of what was going on with the Blackhawks. I came in the organization, in large part, to be around Q. And so that’s what I was thinking about with regard to being around the team.
SI:What did you learn from being in [Quenneville]’s orbit?
JC: Just how he carries himself. [Quenneville is] a real presence. [He] treats the guys really well, cares about the players, protects the players whenever he can. Just a ton of experience. Everyone knows his reputation as far as running the bench, making the right adjustments, getting the right guys on the ice. I just really enjoyed watching him work, being around him.
At training camp, mostly, was when I was able to get the most exposure to him, seeing how his process was and talking about players and talking to his staff. It’s not any one thing. You see how someone else works and there’s always things you can learn from them.
JC: I love his presence—he commands a room. He commands a team, very confident in what he’s bringing. Just enjoyable talking hockey with him. When we had a run in Rockford in the playoffs, he was around quite a bit, came to a bunch of the games, giving feedback. We were texting back and forth, had a couple calls. Just able to give me his thoughts on things, and I was able to bounce some ideas off him, just to hear how he saw it. That was awesome. It was exactly why I came to the organization, to get that.
JC: Heh, no. No, I didn’t.
SI:When you took over, you talked about giving players “little bites” of new information each day. What do you feel like has been fully digested so far, and what’s still on the menu?
JC: Any coach will say we’ve got to talk about our play away from the puck. Some defensive zone coverage has been different. We want the forwards to shoulder a heavier load as far as our team game. We want them to pressure the puck all over the ice and make sure we have numbers back through the neutral zone so we can defend a little more aggressively.
That was first-day stuff that we got in right away. I felt, as a staff, we all believed that was most important to give us a little bit of a boost, a quick fix, so to speak. And we’re getting better. It’s not perfect. But I think you can see, when you watch us play, there’s a little more structure in that way. And it makes it easier.
You have the puck more. When you don’t have the puck, you’re giving up less quality chances. We’re going to continue to give them more and more information as we go, but we can’t give them too much.
First game, first period, they were thinking out there. We were late to battles, late to races, late to coverages. And NHL players, they’re pretty good, so they’ll make plays. I want them reacting, and even though we’re asking them to change a few things as we go, they’ve got to be playing out there. They’ve got to be reacting. They can be overthinking it.
SI:What was the general tenor of those quick sit-down chats that you had with every player on day one?
JC: It was really positive as far as their general response to what I was selling. I think early on, right when I first walked in there, to the first meeting and before practice, a lot of guys are in shock. We did practice, but we weren’t trying to do too much. It’s really those conversations later on that you start learning how they think, what the plan is. I think the feedback from everyone has been really good. We’re in this together. We’re going to try to make this better, and that’s all you can ask for as a coach.
SI:Is age just a number when it comes to NHL coaching?
JC: Well, initially, probably. There’s an initial hurdle you’ve got to get over. But if you come in with a plan and it makes sense … it’s up to me to get them to trust me, and trust the staff that we’re going to make this better, that we have a plan to turn this around, and this is how we’re going to do it. If you do that, then it doesn’t matter how old you are.
SI:The 2003 NHL draft. Second round, 58th overall pick. What do you remember?
JC: It was a stressful day, and I wish I would’ve enjoyed it more. As all these guys go through these situations when they’re young, you realize when you get older, it was just one step. We’ve got to focus on what’s important right now. What was important right then was just enjoy the time I was there. But it was a big day, of course. You look ahead to that for a long time. Yeah, I don't have much more than that.
SI: Say hockey never worked out. What’s the alternate timeline for your life? What are you doing right now?
JC: I don't know. My family farms. We still farm. I guess that could’ve been an option. I love the farming idea. Not sure I love the farming reality.
SI:What did they farm?
JC: Grain, but we’ve had cattle for many years. We don’t have cattle anymore. I’m not sure. I’ve loved hockey forever. You go to school, think about what you might do otherwise, but I think i’m lucky. I’ve been able to transition. Even though I’m done playing, I’m still able to work in something that I love.
SI: I remember talking with other ex-players-turned-coaches like Rick Tocchet and Doug Weight. They both occasionally felt the urge to hop over the boards and skate a shift sometimes. You?
JC: I do wish I was still playing. Coaching’s great, but it sucks compared to playing. But that’s off the table for me—I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t stay healthy. We used to play 3-on-3 all the time in Rockford or Mora, and I love doing that. I love competing. But coaching, that’s my chance to contribute. That’s my chance to compete. I’m not in the battle, but just prepare these guys as best as I can.
SI:Was there a point where you mentally turned the page and fully poured yourself into coaching?
JC: I think it just happens over time. I did everything I could to come back. ... It was like 2-3 years, really, since I was able to play and be helpful for a full season before I finally retired. I exhausted every avenue. I probably went through that process already before I started coaching.
I miss it, but there’s no going back. It’s been a couple of years since I had a concussion, but [if I jumped] in, it’d only be a matter of time before I got another one, likely.
SI:Are you still dealing with any residual effects?
JC: I think it’s pretty good. I’m not testing myself. I’m not banging my head against anything. But exertion is pretty good overall. That’s a positive for me.
SI:What was that first win (a 1–0 win against the Blues on Nov. 14) like?
JC: It was a relief. For myself, a little bit, but for the team. We can sell, hey, guys, it’s coming. It’s on the right track. You need that reinforcement through results to help you sell it. If we had a couple more losses, it doesn’t change the process we’re going through, but it makes it harder for the guys to keep believing. It was needed.
SI: When you took over, you were also quoted as saying that the only thing that could get in the way of success is doubt. After losing three straight off the hop, did you feel any of that creeping into the locker room?
JC: No, but the longer it goes, the harder it gets, always. I think we played really well in Carolina and we didn’t get it. And so the more times that happens, it gets more difficult for the players. I watch the games. I know we’re on the right track. But for them, it’s tougher. And they went through a stretch before I got there. They’ve already been through the ringer a bit. It’s difficult. That was needed. Got that belief, reinforced that belief.
SI:The team’s shooting, like, 4.5% as a group at even strength since you got there. You can probably count on that improving over time, right?
JC: Yeah, it could. And we’ve got to do a better job of getting to the net. If we get to the net more, that number goes up, I guarantee it. Then you create those second and third chances that are naturally higher-percentage. Yeah, I agree, it will go up, but we can do more to raise that.
SI:Where are you living right now? Hotel?
JC: Yeah, I’m downtown right now. Only been back once [to Rockford] by nature of the schedule. ... For now, it’s hotel living.
SI:I guess that’s what happens when the GM shows up at your door.
JC: That’s what happens.