New Florida Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville is ready to get the team to the playoffs next season.
As the NHL All-Star break ended and the playoff chase began heating up back home, Joel Quenneville was sitting in the stands at Melbourne Park, watching the finals of the Australian Open. It was one of many highlights during a vacation last January to visit daughter Lily, who was studying and working in Sydney after college. They toured wine country, lounged on beaches, and came across a troop of wild kangaroos on safari. An excursion into the outback was also scheduled, but bad weather scuttled those plans.
“I was looking forward to that one,” Quenneville says, only a slight trace of disappointment in his voice over the phone. “We didn’t go to the Great Barrier Reef either.”
No matter. In the months since he was fired by the Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 6, less than one-fifth of the way through his 11th season behind their bench, Quenneville enjoyed a bounty of what he dubs “nice, perfect days.” There were family ski trips to Colorado, countless tennis matches and the blissful freedom of watching hockey at home “like a fan” ... not to mention that viral video of the coach with the caterpillar ‘stache ripping a shotski at a Bears tailgate.
A horse racing enthusiast with small investments in several horses, Quenneville also hit up the tracks. That’s where he was last weekend, betting the ponies with buddies at the Blue Grass Stakes in Lexington, K.Y., when he received a cold call from an old friend. A decade ago it was GM Dale Tallon who had promoted Quenneville from pro scout to head coach in Chicago, where he ultimately steered the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups. And so Tallon, now occupying the same role for the Panthers, posed a simple question: How about a reunion in South Florida?
From there, the hiring process zipped along at a thoroughbred’s gait. “Very quickly,” Quenneville says. On Friday, the Panthers formally asked (and received) permission from Chicago to reach out. Phone conversations followed throughout Saturday with Tallon and team owner Vinnie Viola, who also owns a racing stable and once met Quenneville at the Kentucky Derby. A verbal agreement was reached. By Sunday night, all the paperwork had been signed and sent. At 11:20 a.m. Monday, a private jet carrying Quenneville landed at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, where a police escort whisked him to the rink for a 12 p.m. press conference.
The terms of the contract were obvious draws: $5.25 million per year for five years, laced with bonuses that could increase the annual salary to $7 million, in a tax-free state. But the biggest reasons that Quenneville chose Florida over pursuing any of the NHL’s six other current coaching vacancies—sunshine notwithstanding—became clear at the intro presser, when he scanned the room and addressed the Panthers players in attendance for the very first time. “I want every one of you guys to remember where you’re at right now, and remember the feeling that you have today,” Quenneville said, tapping the table for emphasis. “Next year we want to be, right now, coming off the ice with our skates on and we’re preparing for our first-round opponent.”
“Their eyes were glued on him, mouths open,” Tallon told SI.com later. “Really good sign.”
Quenneville had kept steady tabs on the league while unemployed, thinking ahead to the inevitable offseason coaching carousel. “I wouldn’t watch Hawk games, but I watched all the others,” he says. “You look at teams, you’ve got some ideas of where you want to be. I think this was the once place that … there are some real special players here that will get you excited.”
In Chicago he had inherited a roster headlined by 20-year-olds Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. The Panthers core is older, but not by much: Captain Aleksander Barkov and winger Jonathan Huberdeau both eclipsed 90 points for the first time at age 23 and 25, respectively. Tallon also compares the potential of Florida defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Mike Matheson to Blackhawks blueliners Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, hopeful that Quenneville can have a similar effect. “They’ve got some young kids that can go that one more step,” Quenneville says.
As the second-winningest coach in NHL history, Quenneville hardly needs anyone to vouch on his behalf. But it couldn’t have hurt that Florida employs a firsthand witness in its front office. Chris Pronger was 22 when Quenneville took over the Blues during the ‘96-97 season; four years later, the defenseman captured the Hart and Norris Trophies. “He was a big part,” says Pronger, now a senior advisor to Tallon. “The subtleties in practice, teaching how he wanted us to defend, staying out to work on positioning … I was very young, somewhat of a blank canvas, just turning the corner and coming into my own. I think he was excited to refine the type of player I was.”
Eight seasons under Quenneville means that Pronger has plenty of stories, but two scenes stick out. “Well, we’ve all seen the memes of Joel screaming and yelling and the crotch grabs,” Pronger begins. Caught up in an intense game against Colorado, a fiery Quenneville blurted from the bench, “Break his arm!” Hearing this Pronger obliged, tomahawking an Avalanche player and, naturally, earning a penalty. Upon returning to the bench, Quenneville was bewildered. “Prongs, what are you doing?” he asked.
“You told me to break his arm,” Pronger replied.
“I didn’t mean THAT!”
The second image is more personal. Late during one season, as Pronger recalls, the Blues were visiting Los Angeles and Quenneville walked around the entire locker room, asking which player needed bonuses and how far away they were to hit them. “Not every coach is going to take an interest,” Pronger says. “He certainly understands how to manage people.”
Tallon, meanwhile, looks forward to reigniting their battles of liar’s poker on the team plane, anteing up with per diem money. “He’s got a lot of energy,” Tallon says. “His enthusiasm rubs off on the players too.” The Panthers missed the playoffs for the third straight year, a dozen points back of the second wild card, though internal views of then-head coach Bob Boughner were generally positive. But then Tallon brought the idea of courting Quenneville to Viola, who greenlit the suspected price tag. As one team source put it, “Joel was transformative.”
In the Panthers’ dream scenario, Quenneville not only assists players on the ice but helps bring them there. The obvious target is soon-to-be UFA Artemi Panarin, who blossomed under Quenneville’s tutelage in Chicago and received his delightful nickname from the coach: Bread Man. Regardless, the Panthers will have cash to spend and authorization from Viola to spend to the cap. “We’re going to include him in everything,” Tallon says, speaking generally about how Quenneville will factor into free agency. “It’s going to be a huge role.” After all, the Panthers have never brought aboard a big name quite like Q. Who else could his pedigree help attract? “I think it makes us relevant,” Tallon says. “Puts us in a position that we’re legitimate now.”
Until then, Quenneville has plenty to stay busy. He needs to hire assistant coaches, plan the team’s prospect development camp, and hold face-to-face meetings with players who haven't left town. His message to them will be the same as at the presser. “All-out is what we’re looking for this summer,” he says. “It’s time that we all go together and find a way to get in the playoffs.”