Q&A: Panthers HC Joel Quenneville on building a winner, coaching style, and legacy

Joel Quenneville is a former NHL player and current head coach of the Florida Panthers.

The Windsor, Ontario, native played 802 games in the NHL with the Maple Leafs, Rockies, Devils, Whalers, and Capitals before moving to the coaching ranks.

He won a Stanley Cup as an assistant with the Avalanche in 1996 before becoming the Blues’ head coach for eight seasons, followed by three years with Colorado.

In 2008, he was named coach of the Blackhawks and won Stanley Cups in 2010, ’13, and ’15. He has guided Florida to two postseason appearances.

Quenneville ranks second all-time with 962 coaching wins, trailing only Scotty Bowman (1,244).

Sports Section sat down with the 62-year-old Quenneville to discuss the Panthers’ growth, his coaching style, not being a “spring chicken,” his offseason plans, and much more.

SPORTS SECTION: The Panthers had the fourth-best regular-season record (37-14-5) before falling to the defending champion Lightning in the first round. How would you assess the season?
QUENNEVILLE: We’re happy organizationally. It was the kind of year when we’re happy with the progress and where we finished and how we played in the playoffs. We’re in a very good division, and our consistency and competitiveness were a big step in the right direction.

The way I look at it as the coach of this group, I think we made progress points-wise, playing-wise, consistency-wise, and depth-wise. We definitely got some good lessons on finding ways to get through some tough stretches and then staying with it.

Trying to get through the first round here has been the challenge. We got educated by the best, and we gave them something to think about at the same time.

How have you been able to achieve success at each stop of your coaching career?
Good players and timing. Coming to Florida, they had three, four, five top guys that are in stages of their career where they’re looking to go to that next step.

(General manager) Bill Zito did a good job adding some nice pieces to complement them this year. It’s their team — the (Aleksander) Barkovs, the (Jonathan) Huberdeaus, the (Aaron) Ekblads. It’s their time. Being around it and seeing it grow, seeing those guys accept some of that ownership, has been noticeable.

In St. Louis, we had an excellent team. With Chicago, I walked in and hit a sweet spot with the timing when they were sitting on “go.” I’m so fortunate to be around great players, great organizations, and good people.

How was the transition from coaching players who had won three Stanley Cups to a young Panthers squad still learning to win?
Everybody wants to win, everybody wants to be successful. This year we brought in a couple of guys who had experience winning. Patric Hornqvist came in with that type of a character, knowing what it takes, the challenges you have to go through, and how much fun it is when you finally get there.

There are different challenges you face as a team, and that can be healthy. Sometimes it’s not always sweet and perfect, and those are the bumps that are good to work your way through.

The one thing is, we keep it competitive as far as what (ice time) you earn and deserve based on competing and your play. I think that keeps everything moving in a positive direction, and reinforcing it with consistency can help make it work.

Has your coaching style changed at all over the years?
Not that much. We still have the same old, boring practice drills and the same morning skates. We like to go short and give days off when they’re appropriate. We try to keep things fresh and have a fun environment.

The guys feel like it’s their group and their team. The leaders share in the success of the group and provide the leadership that’s necessary to guide the team. As a staff we feel like, “Hey, we’re all in it together,” and with communication lines, simple is always the best way of approaching it.

I don’t think we’ve changed too much with systems. We tweak them from year to year, but nothing radical as far as how we play in our own end and how we play with the puck in the neutral zone.

At the end of the day, we want to play fast, we want to play quick, and we want to keep the puck. I don’t think those have changed much at all over the years.

Are you able to instill that winning attitude from the Blackhawks in the Panthers?
We like to think that winning is what it’s all about. The prior year we had a pretty good year and we had fun winning, but this year it seemed like we really enjoyed having success and finding ways to win. We had a lot of different guys contributing to the success. It all comes down to finding ways to win, and I thought that this year was a big step in the right direction for the group.

You’re second all-time in wins behind Scotty Bowman. Do you have your sights set on catching him?
I’m happy to win just one more game. It looks like there’s no chance of reaching him. I’ve probably said “no chance” forever, but it’s not like we’re spring chickens anymore.
I’m not looking too far down the road. That looks awfully bleak.

Speaking of not being a spring chicken, have you thought about how long you want to continue coaching?
Basically, I’m one year at a time. The last couple of years we had a lot of different things going on. We had 69 games (in 2020) and 58 this year. The way we worked through it as a league is pretty remarkable, but they did go by quickly. I think back to the day we started in Chicago and how fast the years go by. I just enjoy the year we’re in and basically don’t want to look too further ahead than that.

How difficult has it been to coach through the pandemic?
It was different. I have to commend our guys on how they handled it. With every little different thing that might have been annoying or challenging or tedious there were no complaints. Whether it was meetings, practices, preparation, games, wearing a mask, things on the bench, the guys said, “Hey, there are bigger problems out there. We’re very happy to be doing what we’re doing.”

The guys just grasped it and handled it, and there was no issue at all. I can’t say enough good things about how the players seamlessly handled the whole situation.

Have you thought about your legacy as a coach?
I like working with a group that’s competitive and wants to show up every night. That’s the best compliment you can get. Having that for basically every single game in Chicago was fun.

How do you spend your offseason?
It’s nice to sometimes get away from the game. I can never get enough horse racing. I’m playing a little bit of tennis, and I’m starting to play a little pickleball. I like being with family and enjoying life.

It’s not like I’m a general manager. Their summers are as busy as they are in the wintertime. As a coach, you can get away from the game a little bit. I’ve always found a way to separate the two.

Are you able to pinpoint a greatest memory of your career in hockey?
Winning the Stanley Cup for the first, second, third, or fourth time are all the greatest memories. They’re all unbelievable.

And part of the best memories I have are trying to win the Cup. You reflect on how challenging those four rides were, and how up-and-down they were, and how you got through it all. The road to winning a championship is the best memory.

Are you pulling for anyone in particular during the playoffs?
I root for (Canadiens GM) Marc Bergevin a little bit, but at the same time, I know all the other guys, too, so let it sort itself out. But the playoffs have been great.

Chris Kuc is a sportswriter who covered the NHL — along with a myriad of other sports — during his career with the Chicago Tribune, The Athletic, and the Chicago Blackhawks before joining Sports Section. You can reach out to Chris at ChrisKuc@thesportssection.com or on Twitter: @ChrisKuc.