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Columnist
Smart move comes not a moment too soon
By Barry Rozner | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 10/16/2008 1:44 PM

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It would not be a stretch to say Denis Savard saved the franchise when the Blackhawks drafted him in 1980.

And I feel nothing but pride in admitting he was my favorite player ever.

But the truth is he never should have been the head coach of the Hawks.

He didn't earn the job, he didn't deserve the job, and he couldn't do the job.

It changes nothing about his place in Hawks history. It's merely a chapter to forget.

It might have been different had he gone to the minors to learn his craft, but Savard never wanted to make that commitment, and he only received the position because Bill Wirtz - a decade prior - had promised him a shot someday.

So when GM Dale Tallon panicked two years ago and fired Trent Yawney after only 14 months on the job, and despite a wretched roster, the Hawks compounded the mistake by handing the car keys to someone who thought he could drive because he watched someone else behind the wheel.

And what you witnessed Thursday was one more major difference between Bill and Rocky Wirtz.

Rocky is as serious about winning as he is about making money, and there'll be no more jobs handed out because someone's best friends with the owner or general manager.

Those days are over.

Furthermore, there's now a target painted on the back of Tallon, and there has been no shortage of pressure from team president John McDonough to win.

And win fast.

Stories are already emerging around the league, told by Hawks personnel, about how demanding McDonough has been in all phases of the operation, and that those who don't get the job done are summarily dismissed.

McDonough may still be learning hockey, but he can smell incompetence a mile away and Thursday's events are proof enough that he can tolerate such nonsense for only so long.

It's also evidence that Scotty Bowman - one of the greatest coaches in history - arrived here with opinions about Savard's ability, and needed only a few practices and games to see that Savard was not ready to lead an NHL team.

When Savard used his traditional, "We're tired from the tough schedule,'' as the reason for a terrible stretch of hockey last spring, 29 other coaches, all of whom play the same schedule, must have spit up in their coffee, wondering why in the world a coach would hand his players an excuse to quit.

While coaches around the league were unafraid to bench highly touted kids for selfish behavior, Savard rewarded his and held their hands, sending the worst possible message to his locker room.

The Hawks were destined to be in deep trouble by Thanksgiving, so this move had to be made now, and should have been made last spring.

Keep in mind that Joel Quenneville, the new Hawks coach, suffered with far worse difficulties than the Hawks - while in Colorado last year - but never once used injuries as an excuse or cried about his team's fate, even after losing Joe Sakic, Paul Stastny and Ryan Smyth all at the same time.

Instead of whining and offering his players a chance to quit and play only as individuals, which is what the Hawks did for long stretches, Quenneville challenged his players to change their game, commit to playing in their own end, and win a different way.

They did - and somehow made the playoffs.

He should have been coach of the year.

Quenneville has a long resume and has had much success, and so he knows how to make those adjustments, and send the right messages to his team.

That's genuine coaching that comes only through experienced decision-making.

Unlike Savard, who made Yawney look like a fool on his way out the door - another sign of inexperience - Quenneville will say the right things about Savard, and he'll be respectful.

The players will respect Quenneville and the young kids will finally get some legitimate coaching. Certain players on this squad, who only play when it suits their offensive numbers, are finally going to learn accountability, and that hockey is a two-way sport.

Youngsters who have been completely irresponsible with the puck will be forced to care for it, or they'll sit and learn through the embarrassment of benching.

Yes, it was an important move for the Hawks Thursday, and Wirtz, McDonough, Bowman and Tallon are to be commended for seeing the light, but it is only part of the solution.

The flip side is the Hawks are still small, soft, and less skilled than the propaganda would have you believe.

They're not going to sneak up on anyone this year, and the conference remains brutally strong - and physical.

Tallon still has much work to do, and if the Hawks don't win at least a playoff series next spring, he may find himself playing golf with Savard sooner than he thinks.

As for Savard, he's in immense pain right now, having lost the job he dreamed of for years, and for that I feel very bad, as do all Hawks fans.

No one wanted to see him go out like this, and he shouldn't have had to leave this way.

The unfortunate truth is, he never should have had the job in the first place.

brozner@dailyherald.com