CHICAGO — On Nov. 5, Jeremy Colliton received a call from Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman. This itself was not uncommon. Colliton — then the coach of the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs — had steady communication with Bowman in his first 18 months on the job. But on this call, Bowman asked something unusual: “Can I come over?”
“When he told me he was going to my house,” Colliton said. “I knew something was going on.”
Bowman made the 90-plus-minute drive to Rockford and sat in Colliton’s kitchen. The team was going to fire legendary coach Joel Quenneville the next day. The Blackhawks wanted to promote Colliton. Was he prepared for the challenge?
“Of course,” Colliton told his boss.
In the nearly two months since, people have asked Colliton countless times to recount that conversation. “Were you shocked?” they have asked. “Happy? Nervous?”
Colliton hasn’t quite perfected his answer. As he sat in his kitchen that day, the only thing he could think was: “OK, there’s a lot of work to do. What’s next?”
After all, there has been little time for reflection in Colliton’s career. He went from seldom-used NHL player who needed to retire early because of concussions to head coach of an Original Six franchise in the span of five years, with a successful sojourn to Sweden sandwiched between. Colliton has found barely any time to appreciate the swift, and sometimes wild, journey this has been.
Replacing a legend
Quenneville’s firing, just 15 games into the season, sent shockwaves across the NHL. Sure, the team — strapped by the salary cap — had stalled. But fans adored Quenneville, the second-winningest coach in league history. The 60-year-old brought three Stanley Cups to Chicago in the city’s hockey renaissance. When Quenneville was introduced at the United Center after lineups, the crowd crooned “Quuuuue.”
When Colliton is introduced, there is polite silence. In part, this is because Colliton is still an unknown. Chicago assistant coaches have insisted that Colliton’s NHL ID card be expedited because the coach has been stopped by security at visiting rinks (it’s unclear if they are joking). Colliton, 33, looks his age, with spiky black hair and no noticeable wrinkles.
For a league obsessed with getting younger — and that spent most of the fall debating the merits of Fortnite as a team-bonding activity — the hiring of Colliton feels like a response to those who say reaching millennials and Generation Z is increasingly difficult.
“That’s not the only reason we made the change,” Bowman said before making note of the prevalence of younger players in the league (the Blackhawks have suited up 15 players under the age of 25 this season.). “They grew up in a society where they were faced with different things. In order to get the most out of them, I do think you need to speak their language a little bit. Jeremy is good at understanding people.”
Colliton is quick to praise Quenneville. “I’m never going to be Q,” he said. “He’s a legendary coach. I understand by the nature of following him that there’s going to be a comparison.”
Yet Colliton is trying to make his own imprint, which is difficult considering that the schedule has included very few practice days. The Blackhawks have gone a league worst 7-14-3 since Colliton was hired, including an eight-game losing streak. Things got worse when starting goaltender Corey Crawford sustained yet another concussion; he is sidelined indefinitely.
“In today’s NHL, for a team to have success, you need to play a little different,” Colliton said. “You need to play more direct, move the puck forward, use our speed, play aggressive, get on the forecheck. … I need to sell that to the team. If you’re changing things and getting guys to do things they haven’t done before, and they’re losing, it slows the process down. It’s easier to teach after you win — much easier — because they’re in a good mood, so they’re more receptive to your message.”
Added Bowman: “Right now we’re just trying to get our house in order. We’re not even trying to exploit the other team. We’ll get there. Over the next few weeks, I would expect our performance to increase. Even if we don’t make any personnel changes and even if nothing changes, the guys are going to be more familiar with it. The misconception might be that we’re way off from where we need to be. We are off, for sure, but it probably looks worse than it really is.”
To get there, the Blackhawks might not go through a full rebuild. Bowman says he hasn’t talked with any players about waiving no-movement clauses and doesn’t “anticipate having those conversations, though of course things can change.”
Rather, it’s going to be a retooling in Chicago. The Blackhawks have faith in Colliton getting them there because, despite his age and relative inexperience, he has shown remarkable precociousness at all of his stops. And he has done it before.
Western Canadian origins
Colliton grew up as the oldest of three children in Blackie, Alberta, a town of no more than 400 people about an hour south of Calgary. The family owned cattle and farmed grain. If Colliton didn’t make it in hockey, he surmises that he’d probably be farming.
Colliton the hockey coach is often praised as a superb communicator. But he wasn’t always that way. “I think I’m pretty shy. I’ve always been introverted,” he said. “I’m very happy to just be in the corner and not say anything. I like to be around people — I like that energy — but I’m just happy to listen. But in this job, it’s necessary to put yourself out there. I’ve been forced to get used to talking to people.”
He credits his junior coach, Peter Anholt, with pushing him out of his comfort zone. Before games, Colliton would sit on the bench and tape his stick alone, trying to get himself ready for the game. “[Anholt] was like, ‘That’s not going to work,'” Colliton said. “‘You’re wearing a letter. When you walk through those doors, you’re already ready. You don’t need more time. That’s time you need to get the team ready.'”
Anholt always had a feeling that Colliton would become a coach. Colliton had the reputation as a hockey nerd at a time before YouTube clips and out-of-town game film were readily available.
“You could see how analytical he was, how he approached things,” Anholt said. “Everything was really thought out in Jeremy’s world. There was a plan. As a coach, it was good to coach him. It made you accountable, too. Just because you said something didn’t mean he accepted it. There had to be a reason for it.”
Anholt even trusted Colliton on management decisions. Once, Anholt asked Colliton whether the team should acquire a player with some off-ice issues; how would he jell with the team? “Jeremy had the pulse on things,” Anholt said. “Without hesitation he said, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what we need.'”
At age 15, he was an All-Star in the AJHL, then went on to become one of the best players on the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders. Four years later, he played on a line with Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron on Team Canada’s infamously stacked 2005 World Junior Championship team.
A second-round pick of the New York Islanders in 2003, Colliton, a center, played 19 games in his rookie season (2005-06, the year Crosby debuted). But he could never stick, appearing in only 57 NHL games in five seasons, recording three goals and three assists. “When I was younger, I had a chance, and I wasn’t ready mentally to handle it,” he said. “I didn’t have the self-confidence in my own game to play in the NHL. You have to believe in yourself and believe you can make a difference. You can’t play to survive.”
Colliton spent a lot of time with the Islanders’ AHL team in Bridgeport. He was a fan favorite there and a leader. “Jeremy played a hard game,” Bridgeport coach Brent Thompson said. “He approached every game like it was a playoff game. He was also great with our young guys, especially Casey Cizikas.” An oft-retold story: the time Colliton and Cizikas overslept and were late to the team bus. Colliton, being the captain, shouldered all of the blame to cover for Cizikas.
However, Colliton felt he was becoming too appreciated in the minors. When he was 24, he became a restricted free agent and signed in Sweden.
“I didn’t feel like the organization rated me [properly]. They didn’t feel like I was an NHL player, and I kind of felt that I was being taken for granted in the minors as being a good older guy,” he said. “I felt I was still young. I wanted to still be a prospect.”
After one season with Rogle BK in 2009-10, Colliton felt better prepared for the NHL. He had his confidence back. He was ready to put it all together, finally — he was sure of it. Then his injuries caught up to him.
Concussions put a halt to his playing days
Colliton was diagnosed with his first concussion when he was 12 or 13. He remembers cutting across the middle of the ice. “I probably had my head down,” he said. “The guy caught me and hit the back of my head into the boards. I remember being scared, not knowing what was going on.”
Over the course of his playing career, which ended in 2013-14, he says he had five or six concussions. The incidents were spaced out, which Colliton believed helped him recover, but the symptoms each time could be crippling. Initially, it was “feeling scrambled and not feeling clear.” Sometimes he had trouble sleeping. “It was not as much headaches,” he said. “But depending on the day …”
When Colliton came back from Sweden in 2010, he was feeling good about his game and had a strong season, scoring 45 points in 53 AHL games and averaging a career-high 11:53 minutes per game in 15 NHL games. But he was injured during the next training camp, and when he came back, he sustained a concussion that put him out five weeks. He returned, played five weeks and suffered another concussion. “I just never got better,” he said.
Colliton took the entire 2012-13 season off. “I wanted to come back so bad,” he said. “But that pressure and stress doesn’t help you.” In 2013-14, he signed with Mora IK in Sweden. He played only two games — though the coach put him on the scoresheet for a third — before he knew he couldn’t play hockey anymore.
When you ask Colliton to recount his playing career, you can tell it’s still raw for him.
“I’m not really proud of my playing career,” he said. “I should have played more. I should have played longer. I should have had more success, and I didn’t.”
Seeds of success planted in Sweden
Colliton was a 28-year-old at a crossroad. His contract brought him to Sweden, specifically Mora, a small historic city (population: about 20,000) in the center of the country, perhaps best known for producing steel knives.
The year Colliton took off from playing hockey he spent as a volunteer assistant coach for a tier-two team in Calgary. He got to run the bench and liked the experience. When he could not play in Mora, he spent hours talking to Peter Hermodsson, the club’s director. Colliton was named a team captain just a few weeks after arriving. Hermodsson encouraged Colliton to stick around the team. In the middle of the season, Hermodsson made a coaching change: He took a chance on a 29-year-old Canadian with zero experience.
“I had been there all year, I knew the players, and I had an idea of what we could do to have a little more success,” Colliton said. “Of course I had nerves, but I felt like I could do it, or I wouldn’t have taken it.”
The beginning was rough. Mora was in 12th place in the 14-member league when Colliton took over. The team won the first game, then got shut out three games in a row.
“His hiring was seen as a huge risk,” said Adam Johansson, a Swedish journalist with Mittmedia who covered Mora that season. “Mora was struggling both financially and in the standings. I felt like Mora didn’t know what type of club they were at the moment.”
Said Tomas Ros, a journalist with Aftonbladet: “Everyone laughed at Mora because they chose to have a Canadian youngster who had never coached before.”
The Mora fans were unforgiving. A few weeks in, Colliton called for a town-hall-style meeting with about two dozen of the team’s most ardent supporters, most of them elderly. For three hours, he explained his hockey philosophy and fielded questions. After that, the criticism quieted. It helped when the team started winning.
“He had a lot of players who came to Mora that were stars in lower divisions in other countries but didn’t want to work hard,” Ros said. “He managed to get the players to understand the system and work hard for the team.”
Mora finished the season in sixth place. Over the next three seasons, Colliton developed a reputation as a coach who could speak to players. “He knows what he wants from everyone,” said Emil Bejmo, a winger who played under Colliton for three-and-a-half seasons. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a fourth-line player, he makes you feel as you are just as important as a guy playing the most minutes a night.”
Colliton was committed to building Mora back up and building a career there. His wife took a course called “Swedish for Foreigners.” Although Colliton coached in English — “because it was all about details for him,” Bejmo said — the coach picked up Swedish by being around the rink. He knows more Swedish than he lets on, his players say, which earned him respect. His legend only grew from there.
“They might build a statue of him one day”
Mora IK was founded in 1935, and since the 1944-45 seasons, the team has played in one of Sweden’s top two divisions. However, most of those years were spent in the second tier, including when Colliton took over. All of those years were spent with the team feeling inferior to the other club in town, Leksands IF, which has more on-ice success, more resources and, according to Ros, “makes Mora feel like the little brother.”
After a first-place finish in the second tier in 2016-17, Mora played Leksands in a qualification series. If Mora won, they would level up to Sweden’s top division and bump Leksands down.
“The country stopped for two or three weeks, and everyone was talking about hockey,” Johanssen said. “The build-up before the game was insane.”
Mora won in six games, and Colliton was all anyone could talk about. “Everyone in the community respected him, even Leksand supporters,” Johansson said. “In Mora, he is a god. A lot of people wouldn’t mind a statue [of him] built there.”
Bejmo echoed the statue-building sentiment: “He had us all believing. We knew we were playing for something bigger than hockey. He is a legend. You hear they might build a statue of him one day, and that’s not even a joke.”
Colliton began receiving interest from other Swedish teams, though he was committed to staying the course with Mora. But he caught the attention of everyone in Sweden’s hockey community. That included Mats Hallin, the Blackhawks’ director of European scouting.
“In that series, Jeremy outcoached Leksand. He outsmarted them,” Hallin said. “Some Swedish coaches, they play the four lines, and they keep going — they like to trust their players. This guy, he just mixed it up a little bit more. It was interesting for everybody here because not often do you see that from a North American coach.”
In 2017, Hallin was escorting his boss, Bowman, on a scouting trip. Bowman casually asked Hallin who the top coach in Sweden was. Hallin replied, “Actually, it’s this guy from Canada.” Hallin connected the two. “I think Stan was just looking for something different,” Hallin said. Over the phone, Bowman asked Colliton about his team, vice versa, and they shared their thoughts on hockey philosophy.
“He was 31 at the time, and I remember walking away from it thinking, ‘Wow, we have a lot of guys on our team that age, and I could never have that conversation with them,'” Bowman said. “Jeremy doesn’t use a lot of eloquent or fancy words. But he paints a vivid picture in ways that everyone can understand.”
The tough task ahead
The first two months of Colliton’s Blackhawks tenure were taxing. It wasn’t just the results on the ice that were tough. Colliton and his wife, Jen, welcomed their third child (a daughter, Olivia) less than a week before his promotion. He spent most of his time shuttling between temporary housing in a downtown hotel and the arena. “I thought I could make it back to Rockford more,” he said. “I think I only made it twice.” That expedited the family’s move; they settled into a Chicago-area house shortly before Christmas.
Colliton had relationships with some Blackhawks players who suited up for Rockford last season. He has also been known to sit next to any given player at lunch or after a skate and strike up a conversation. “How are things?” he asks. “What did you think of that game?”
“Players aren’t used to it, when the coach comes to talk to you,” Bowman said. “He was in their shoes not long ago. There’s no mystery. He says, ‘I don’t have all the answers. Let’s talk about it. I want to listen to you. It doesn’t mean I’m going to do what you say. But if you bring up something that’s a good idea …'”
Colliton has a track record of reaching younger players. Many people interviewed for this story brought up Jacob Nilsson, who didn’t have much of a reputation when he joined Mora IK in 2015. Two years later, he earned an entry-level contract with the Blackhawks. Last week, he was called up to the NHL for the first time.
Defenseman Erik Gustafsson says his “confidence wasn’t great” last season when he was sent down to Rockford. “I guess you could say I had a hard time,” Gustafsson said. “[Colliton] talked me through it.” This season, Gustafsson is back to being an NHL regular, with eight goals and 10 assists while averaging 21:49 per game in 35 games.
Colliton knows his biggest challenge is reaching the players who have been around longer. As Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said, “It’s always a challenge when you have an accomplished, veteran core group. It’s a matter of trying to instill your beliefs and your convictions. That’s the challenge when you take that type of team over.”
Said Colliton: “I know it’s a challenge. I have to sell it to them. ‘Guys, I know you’ve won before, but we want to win again.’ That’s gotta be what drives them — the want to win again. And it’s up to me to sell that plan of, ‘This is how we do it.'”