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Florida Panthers historic start, success overshadowed by Joel Quenneville controversy

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Florida panthers quenneville
Florida Panthers coach Joel Quenneville, left, works the bench alongside assistant coaches Derek MacKenzie and Andrew Brunette during Wednesday’s 4-1 win over the Boston Bruins. // Photo by @ColbyDGuy

Florida Panthers captain Sasha Barkov strode into the team’s makeshift interview room with a smile on his face ready to talk about his team’s record-building 7-0 start following a 4-1 win over the Boston Bruins. Everyone else wanted to talk about Joel Quenneville.

The Panthers do not get much local coverage, that much everyone knows.

Wednesday, the lead columnist for Broward County’s paper of record sat in the room hoping to get some answers.

“I wanted to cover hockey tonight,” Dave Hyde of the Sun-Sentinel said in passing.

Everyone there did.

Hyde did not write much about hockey.

He was not alone.

The packed media in the room were not there to talk about the power play or how good Sergei Bobrovsky has looked in five starts this season.

They were there for what is now the biggest story in the NHL — and it definitely involves the Panthers.

It is not involve their seven wins to start this season.

The Florida Panthers, perhaps the best team in hockey right now, is embroiled in a scandal 11 years in the making that they had absolutely nothing to do with.

When the Panthers hired Joel Quenneville, the three-time Stanley Cup champion coach of the Chicago Blackhawks, they envisioned headlines.

Just not like this.

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Back in 2010, the Blackhawks were on the verge of history, winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1961.

Quenneville, apparently, did not want anything to affect his team’s run to the Cup so when an alleged sexual assault involving one of his assistants (Blackhawks’ video coach Brad Aldrich) and a minor league player who was with the team for postseason practice, it was pushed under the rug.

Now, with the Panthers off to their best start by far in franchise history, it appears the bill is coming due on the lack of action of the Blackhawks.

And it’s sucking the Panthers down into the muck.

The investigation into the sexual assault has now cost the team’s president and general manager their jobs. Perhaps other high-profile Blackhawks staffers as well.

Quenneville, despite moving on to South Florida, may very well be next.

The Panthers’ braintrust met late in the night following Wednesday’s bombshell in which the before-unnamed player — his name is Kyle Beach as he announced to the world that he was the victim of this sexual attack — held an emotional interview on Canadian sports channel TSN.

Aldrich, who was never fired by the Blackhawks, ended up moving on to coach college and high school hockey where he was convicted of sexual assault in Michigan and served prison time.

Quenneville was behind the bench as usual Wednesday night, Florida running to 7-0 with an impressive win over the Bruins.

The team’s unprecedented hot start should have been the focus.

They should be the talk of South Florida.

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And, perhaps they are. Only for all the wrong reasons.

Barkov came into the interview room ready to talk to the large crowd about the game, about his team’s start, the best hockey he has been a part of with the Panthers since landing here in 2013.

Sure, there were questions about Florida’s lackluster first period (“we had Bob in the net and started playing our game in the second”) and eventual comeback.

Yet everything now has Quenneville’s shadow cast over them like storm clouds rolling in from the Everglades on a humid summer afternoon.

On Wednesday morning, Quenneville said he met with his team to try and smooth things over, keep their eyes on the prize and not get sucked into the distractions of what had happened with the Blackhawks more than a decade ago.

It all sounded good.

Kind of.

But as more information came out, the more uncertain Florida’s championship coach’s future with the team is despite the three-plus years remaining on his contract at a price thought to be close to $6 million per season.

Barkov spoke about how close this team was, something helped along last season when players and coaches hung out more than ever since they weren’t allowed to mingle outside their hotel when on the road.

The players and coaches shared beers and stories. They loved hearing Quenneville spin a tale.

The Panthers certainly got to know Quenneville and their other coaches a lot more than perhaps in any other situation.

General manager Bill Zito made sure he signed as many of last year’s players to new contracts this summer.

Keep the band together.

The Panthers had a good thing and Zito wanted to keep it intact.

Quenneville is a big part of that.

So the past few days have not been easy — and they may not be getting any better for the Panthers.

Some within the organization cannot believe everything in Chicago fell apart due to a video coach the Blackhawks could have, and should have, thrown out the door the minute any impropriety was brought up.

Yet that didn’t happen. Quenneville allegedly didn’t want to deal with it, not with the Cup Finals days away.

Now that has reached the Panthers in a big way.

”I just had a game, I don’t know much about what’s going on,” Barkov said when asked if Florida’s slow start Wednesday could be attributed to the uncertainty surrounding Quenneville.

No one mentioned the Beach interview, but by his answer, it appears someone brought it up in the room after the game. Zito, one would think, gathered the team and talked about it.

“I feel bad about what happened there, stuff like that. Today, I tried to concentrate on the game. For sure, I’ll probably look up more on that. But I was trying to concentrate on the game and that’s it. … We know what happened during the game on the ice, not off the ice.”

Aaron Ekblad, the Panthers’ star defenseman who came into the room with at least five stitches on his cheek after taking a puck to his face early on Wednesday, only wanted to talk about hockey.

When asked about Quenneville, the guy who has been dealing with the media since he was a pre-teen growing up in Canada reverted back to stock answers.

“I don’t know much about it,” Ekblad said. “I don’t want to comment on it.’’

Quenneville’s future with the Panthers has been on everyone’s mind and all over social media since the in-depth, independent investigation into what happened back in 2010 was released Tuesday.

When the Panthers hopped onto the ice for Wednesday’s morning skate, Quenneville was there.

He later addressed the media, pulling on clear-framed glasses to read a prepared statement to a smaller gathering inside that interview room just steps from the team locker room.

He would not answer any more questions, he said, until he met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in New York on Thursday.

Then came the game.

Not long before the Panthers and Bruins went at it, Beach’s interview from his place in Germany — where he continues to play at the age of 31 — hit the airwaves and social media.

Beach had a lot to say.

For good reason.

Quenneville said in July he only heard about the alleged sexual assault through the media. The intense investigation showed that wasn’t necessarily true.

Beach’s interview, in which he said he witnessed meetings in Quenneville’s office likely talking about his situation, made it clear there was no way Quenneville did not know what happened — or, at least, that something did happen.

“I’ve witnessed meetings, right after I reported it to James Gary, that were held in Joel Quenneville’s office,’’ Beach said. “There’s absolutely no way that he can deny knowing it.’’

The whole team, Beach said, knew something happened.

Maybe not the sordid details (it’s not clear Quenneville ever knew the exact nature of the assault) but everyone knew.

Beach was mocked by teammates and others in the Blackhawks organization. He said he felt like he had nowhere to turn.

The NHLPA put out a statement Wednesday night that the “system” failed Kyle Beach.

Quenneville, as part of the Chicago Blackhawks hierarchy, was part of that system.

Now, Quenneville may be out of a job.

The Panthers hired Quenneville in 2019, a few months after he was fired in Chicago following a slow start and a power struggle with Stan Bowman — the same guy who kicked Dale Tallon to the curb in 2009 eventually did the same to Quenneville.

Bowman, the son of legendary coach Scotty, is the team president who was allowed to resign Tuesday instead of being fired.

Scotty Bowman is the NHL’s all-time winningest coach. Quenneville is second.

After the past few days, it looks like both could be out of the game they love so much.

The Panthers, at least on the surface, appear to be allowing Bettman to make the decision for them.

But after Wednesday, the Panthers may be done with this as well.

As Hyde wrote, ‘Chicago’s stink was allowed to rub off on the Panthers.’

Right now, it doesn’t smell too good that’s for sure.

“As an organization we commend Kyle Beach for his courage in coming forward this evening to bring to light the pain he endured in his time in Chicago,’’ said Zito, who spoke to the packed crowd Wednesday night instead of Quenneville.

“The information that has become available is deeply troubling. There is no question that the events described in yesterday’s report are serious and severe.

”We are working closely with the National Hockey League to assist with the ongoing process. With respect to that, we won’t comment further until after the commissioner’s meeting with Joel.”

That meeting is Thursday afternoon.

Who will coach the Panthers on Friday in Detroit is not known right now.

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