One of the key parts of operating any major business is establishing a structure of power. People need to know where they sit in the chain of command to understand where to exert their influence and where to defer to other people who might know better.
In the case of the Chicago Blackhawks, that structure hasn’t always been obvious. Usually ownership hires a president of hockey operations or a general manager to run the show, and things trickle down from there. The GM decides who his head coach is, the head coach decides who is on his staff, and so on.
Joel Quenneville always seemed to wield a bit more power than that, however. Nobody would admit it in the Blackhawks’ organization, but you got the sense from the way the team operated. They regularly brought back players Quenneville liked in the past, and jettisoned guys who didn’t fit his system. Instead of forcing Quenneville to work within management’s desires, they tried to find players to work within his.
Sometimes it worked, but on the whole, you can see where the Blackhawks have been taken. They’re now an aging, cap-strapped team badly in need of a shakeup but without the flexibility to easily do it. That’s why Quenneville’s right-hand man, Mike Kitchen, got fired Monday.
The move apparently won’t go quietly. Quenneville is “upset and surprised” by Kitchen’s firing, according to the Chicago Tribune, which signals the move came above him without his approval. Bowman and Quenneville have butted heads in the past — most notably in 2012 when management wanted Barry Smith joining practices. But Q seemed to be winning those battles, right up until the 2017 trade deadline when Bowman acquired Johnny Oduya in an attempt to rediscover past glory.
Now Bowman seems to be moving in a different direction. Maybe he didn’t have approval from the Wirtz family until now to go after the coaching staff given the franchise’s immense success since 2010, but two straight first-round exits presumably added some pressure to make changes. And while the Hawks didn’t opt to make the aggressive move to fire Quenneville, the GM still sent the message that this is no longer business as usual.
And Bowman is totally right here. You can question some of his moves over the years, but he’s the Blackhawks’ top hockey operations executive. He’s the one who is tasked with building the roster and shaping the team’s larger vision. He hires the coaches. Quenneville might be one of the best coaches, but he hasn’t exactly shown that he’s the best evaluator of talent.
That’s supposed to be Bowman’s job, and he’s tasked with providing the head coach with the best roster possible. They’re supposed to work together. In the past, everyone involved said this was happening, but now you get the sense that Bowman is making way for a larger seat at the table. Basically, he wants to ensure his voice in the organization is commensurate to his job title.
Now we’ll just have to see how Quenneville responds. He’s a great coach and a great manager of egos. Will he understand the need for accountability after what just happened, and get on board with the changes Bowman makes? Or is this the beginning of a fracture that could lead to bigger conflicts?
Bowman seems to be getting more power in the organization to turn the ship around, and it’s not hard to see why. Quenneville might be upset that he’s lost his “best friend,” as reports put it, but he’s not the GM or president of hockey operations. He’s the head coach, and it seems like Bowman is trying to establish the boundaries of that so everyone can do their jobs to the best of their abilities going forward.