How the Maple Leafs missed out on hiring Joel Quenneville

Joel Quenneville talks after the Hawks beat the Predators 3-2 about picking up his 782nd coaching win, plus his contract extension and how well the team is playing.

With Joel Quenneville tying Al Arbour for second on the all-time career record for most regular season wins by an NHL coach this past week at 782 victories, it made me think of his ties to the Toronto Maple Leafs that existed and how the club narrowly missed an opportunity to hire him.

As the Pat Burns era in Toronto began in 1992, two mercurial, young coaching prospects also emerged from within the organization. Both would win a Stanley Cup coaching another NHL team. Both would win the Jack Adams award as the NHL’s coach of the year with another NHL team. Both coached the Canadian team on the international stage.

Mark Crawford was hired as the first ever coach of the St. John’s Maple Leafs in 1991, Crawford would not get a chance to join the Toronto coaching staff because of the success Pat Burns was having. In 1994, he was hired as the head coach of the Quebec Nordiques. He won the Jack Adams that first year and won a Stanley Cup the first year the Nordiques moved to Denver and became the Colorado Avalanche in 1997. He coached the Canadian Olympic team in 1998 in Nagano.

He wanted to become the Leafs’ coach in 1996 but Colorado would not let him out of his contract and Toronto instead hired Mike Murphy. He wanted to be the Leafs’ coach in 2006 but general manager John Ferguson Jr. hired Paul Maurice and Crawford subsequently became head coach of the Los Angeles Kings.

Joel Quenneville was not viewed within the Leafs organization as a top head coaching prospect of the future. Originally drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs, he soon became the lesser known Leafs name in the controversial trade that sent Lanny McDonald to the Colorado Rockies on Dec. 28, 1979. Pat Hickey and Wilf Paiement came to Toronto in exchange for McDonald and Quenneville.

His playing career saw its last season that first year in St. John’s and he became a player/assistant coach under Crawford. The team made it all the way to game seven of the Calder Cup final before losing to Adirondack on the very day Pat Burns was announced as the new Leafs coach. In 1992-93, he would retire as a player and became Crawford’s full-time assistant in St. John’s. Early on, a bitter union work stoppage meant that the St. John’s team had to play all their regular season games on the road for the majority of the season. Crawford and Quenneville would bond extensively both on and off the ice during this highly unusual set of circumstances.

As a reward for their excellent work in keeping the St. John’s team thriving both on and off the ice, Crawford and Quenneville joined the Leafs for the last part of their great playoff run in 1993. While Pat Burns and his assistants Murphy, Mike Kitchen and Rick Wamsley led the Leafs to that great playoff drive with 21 games in 42 nights, the two future NHL coaches were along for the ride as they stayed in the background and helped with the extra players.

Quenneville was rewarded with a head coaching job with Springfield for the 1993-94 season. When Crawford was hired by Quebec in 1994, Quenneville would follow him as an assistant coach both in Quebec and Colorado. While the Leafs continued to covet Crawford as a possible future head coach, they viewed Quenneville as an old school type, an excellent assistant coach. He was never on their head coaching radar.

Larry Pleau — the general manager of the St. Louis Blues — saw the potential in Quenneville and sought permission from Colorado to hire him as the head coach. He was never an assistant coach again. He arguably did his best coaching with the Blues as he turned them into a team with a much improved winning record, though usually with underwhelming playoff results. He won the Jack Adams in 1999-00.

Being fired by the Blues in 2004 allowed him to become the head coach of Team Canada for the World Hockey Championships in Prague that spring. Quenneville would find his emotional world come crashing down while in Prague and would step down for the head coaching duties due to emotional and physical exhaustion. While he flew home from Prague, his assistant took over the head coaching reins. That assistant was Mike Babcock.

In 2008, the Toronto Maple Leafs had fired Paul Maurice as their head coach and Cliff Fletcher was back in his second turn as the Leafs’ general manager. He was the GM who initially placed Crawford and Quenneville together in St. John’s in 1991. Though it is often assumed that it was Brian Burke who hired his old Providence College teammate Ron Wilson as the Leafs’ head coach in 2008, it was actually Cliff Fletcher. If Burke had been hired a few months earlier, his first choice for the Leafs’ coaching job was Joel Quenneville.

In winning three Stanley Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks, Quenneville has had his fair share of battles off the ice. After the first Cup victory, he fought off a challenge from his assistant coaches. A change was made among his team-appointed assistants as Mike Kitchen was brought in to be his right hand man. He then later faced a challenge from above as Hawks advisor Scotty Bowman championed more involvement from the American Hockey League coaches in their system.

The Leafs provided Quenneville with one final assist. The person who replaced Quenneville as the head coach of Team Canada was the hottest free agent head coach in the NHL last spring. The Leafs landed Mike Babcock but would significantly raise the bar in NHL coaching salaries with Babcock’s averaging over $6 million per season. That precedent from the team that originally drafted Quenneville as a player, and gave him a start as a coach, would also give him the bargaining power and leverage to become the NHL’s second $6 million bench boss.

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