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The murky side of the Blackhawks firing of Joel Quenneville

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Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Phoenix Coyotes v Anaheim Mighty Ducks Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

It was buried in the middle of the Chicago Blackhawks’ press release Tuesday morning, sandwiched between the news that they fired coach Joel Quenneville and named Jeremy Colliton as his successor.

One of Colliton’s assistant coaches will be Barry Smith, who was entering his ninth season as part of the Blackhawks hockey operations staff.

On the surface, this seems like the logical move: pairing a rookie NHL head coach with a veteran assistant. But digging a little deeper reveals something a little more nefarious, a little more shady and, for those who’ve followed the Blackhawks for a long time, a little more familiar — and uncomfortably so.

It’s all because of Bob Pulford

For 30 years, Pulford always seemed to be around the Blackhawks in some manner. He was a coach three different times in the 1970s and 1980s, was named senior vice president in 1990 and was also the general manager for three different stints between 1992 and 2005. He also had a brief run taking on two roles as the GM and head coach in the 1999-2000 season.

Pulford was the right-hand man of then-team owner Bill Wirtz, which is why Pulford always seemed to get the nod when the team had a job opening. As much vitriol as Wirtz received for his hand in the Blackhawks’ descent into anonymity during the late 1990s and early 2000s, Pulford’s constant presence in the organization was another source of disdain for Hawks fans. Pulford had his hockey credentials — he played 1,079 NHL games between 1956 and 1972 — but he felt like a relic from an era that had long since passed. According to former Hawks GM Mike Smith, Pulford once called Dustin Byfuglien the second worst player the Blackhawks ever drafted. The worst? Duncan Keith.

So, Pulford was tight with the Blackhawks ownership and seemingly turned that relationship into multiple jobs with the team.

Back to Barry Smith

Smith, like Pulford, has impressive hockey credentials. He’s been an assistant for more than 30 years and won five Stanley Cups: two with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1990s and three more with the Detroit Red Wings between 1997 and 2002. The head coach of those teams? Scotty Bowman, who’s the Hawks senior advisor for hockey operations and the father of general manager Stan Bowman.

You may see where this is going.

Although Stan Bowman said during Tuesday’s press conference that there was never a power struggle between he and Quenneville, there is significant evidence to the contrary.

One of the more well-known incidents occurred back in 2012, while the Hawks were afflicted with an awful power play during another subpar season (sound familiar?). In March, a member of the Hakws hockey operations staff started appearing at practices, focusing on work with the Chicago power play. It’s been widely reported that this led to a furious Quenneville confronting Stan Bowman, because Quenneville was never informed of this practice addition and did not approve of it.

Who was that staff member? None other than Smith.

And, now, Smith is an assistant coach. The person the Hawks brass tried to force on their former coach is now an assistant for a 33-year-old man making his NHL head coaching debut in only his second season coaching in North America. It feels awfully convenient that Smith was handed this job when it became available.

Former Hawks forward Daniel Carcillo mentioned this multiple times Tuesday. He went on 670 The Score in Chicago and said Smith was Scotty Bowman’s “best friend.” Later, Carcillo elaborated more on Twitter:

In so many ways, the Rocky Wirtz regime has been a complete departure from that of Bill Wirtz. But here we are again, 20 years later, with the Hawks front office finding a way to sneak one of “their” guys into a prominent position with the team.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.