How ‘Bruno’ led the Panthers through Joel Quenneville’s resignation

His friends call him Bruno.

For 1,110 regular-season games over 16 NHL seasons, many called Andrew Brunette their teammate. After he retired in 2012, the Minnesota Wild called him by many titles — coach, assistant general manager, special assistant to the general manager and director of player personnel. In July 2019, Joel Quenneville called him up and asked him to join his staff, becoming an assistant coach with the Florida Panthers.

The same Joel Quenneville who coached Brunette as a Colorado Avalanche player for three seasons, and then again with the Chicago Blackhawks in Brunette’s last season as a player.

The same Joel Quenneville who resigned on Oct. 28 with the Panthers undefeated (7-0-0).

Now they call Andrew Brunette the interim head coach in Florida, charged with managing an unanticipated crisis that threatened to derail an otherwise promising season for the franchise.

“These are not the circumstances that I’d ever dream of, or ever want to step into. But in life, you just take what’s given to you, and just do the best job that you can do,” Brunette told ESPN recently.

Quenneville’s resignation came after the release of an investigation into how the Chicago Blackhawks handled claims by Kyle Beach that former video coach Brad Aldrich sexually assaulted him in 2010. Quenneville had participated in a meeting about the claims during the team’s run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and — like everyone else in a position of power in that meeting — took no immediate action. Aldrich remained on his staff, and celebrated with the other coaches when Chicago won the Stanley Cup.

When the investigation was released publicly in October, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman and senior vice president of hockey operations Al MacIsaac resigned. Quenneville tendered his own resignation after a meeting in New York with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Panthers owner Vincent Viola.

“Suffice it to say that whatever conversations I had with Joel, or I suppose Vinnie Viola had with Joel, Joel ultimately concluded that the most sensible course of action for him was to resign,” said Bettman.

It was a turn of events that left the Panthers organization shocked and scrambling. The players discussed internally how to handle the crisis, from captain Aleksander Barkov and other designated leaders to sage veterans like Patric Hornqvist and Joe Thornton. Their desire was clear: Continue doing what they had been doing under Quenneville, rather than changing the course sharply with someone from outside the organization.

“We just said we didn’t have to change anything. That’s kinda just how it went,” said defenseman MacKenzie Weegar.

Brunette seemed like a natural replacement. Someone the players knew. Someone they saw as a continuation of their success on the ice.

“He was a co-architect of a lot that was already happening here. He had a significant amount of input into the existing scheme. So, let’s keep it going and see what happens, right?” said Panthers GM Bill Zito. “When you analyze who the person is, and the skill set that this person has, then it makes perfect sense.”

The only thing the general manager had to figure out was if his new head coach actually wanted to be a head coach.

“That was the first question I asked him. I said, ‘Bruno, what are your goals?’ He said he wanted to be a head coach. And I asked him if he was just telling me that, and he said no, that he really did,” said Zito.

As Brunette recalled it: “I thought, ‘Let’s try this.’ And maybe going forward, I’ll give it a shot.”

When they were linemates in Colorado, Ian Laperriere didn’t look at Brunette as a future head coach. But he wasn’t surprised when the Panthers elevated him, because he’s among the smartest teammates Laperriere ever had.

“You see, he didn’t have any speed when he played. I don’t want to knock him down too much, but he wasn’t the fastest guy. So, he had to be smart. He had to know the game well,” said Laperriere, the head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers‘ AHL affiliate in Lehigh Valley. “He’s not the kind of guy who gets up and starts screaming in guys’ faces. He leads by example and makes adjustments.”

There wasn’t much to adjust tactically for the Panthers when Brunette took over. They’re the second-best offensive team in the NHL through 15 games (3.73 goals per game), behind only the Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl show in Edmonton. Watching them play under Brunette was like watching them play under Quenneville, right down to the defensemen activating offensively.

“[Brunette] hasn’t changed anything that Q had us doing. We’re all so familiar with the systems, that it’s a little bit of muscle memory,” said Weegar.

As a coach, Laperriere said maintaining those systems is the easy part.

“Systems are systems. Anybody who knows the game, it’s not hard to explain a system. But it’s the little things that matter, like making your players feel comfortable,” said Laperriere. “I’m sure that room was a little bit rattled. But he’s the right personality to calm them down. Bruno’s the perfect guy for that.”

Brunette wouldn’t chronicle his personal emotions in replacing Quenneville, his friend and former head coach. “I think we’re all aware of the difficult circumstances. There’s been a lot of sadness with everything that’s gone down,” he said.

But Laperriere said it had to have been difficult for his friend.

“He’s a huge fan of Q, and he learned a lot from Q, both playing for him and coaching with him,” Laperriere said.

Brunette said the key to managing the team’s emotions in the aftermath of Quenneville’s resignation was to stress that they were all in this together.

“You just try to be a good teammate. There’s been a little bit of rallying among us, trying to keep the team moving forward,” he said.

The Panthers keep collecting points under Brunette, going 3-2-3 since he took over. They’ve dealt with some injury adversity during that stretch, including one that sidelined Barkov for a game.

Florida’s fast start bought Brunette time to get settled into the gig without risking their lofty place in the standings. But Zito said he expects his interim head coach will start to put his own stamp on the team as the season progresses.

“At some point we’re going to get healthy and return to normalcy, and then he’ll have a bench to stand on of his own. He’s going to have to become his own coach,” said Zito.

Will Andrew Brunette be Florida’s head coach for the rest of the season?

“We’ll see. We’re just going to see how it goes,” said Zito, who told ESPN last week that he hasn’t spoken to any other coaching candidate about taking over the Panthers since Brunette was given the reins.

“Things were going pretty good, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to bring in a change for change’s sake, when quite possibly the best solution is right under our nose,” said Zito. “In this instance, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, but might breed comfort.”

In a time of crisis, the Panthers turned to someone with whom they were familiar.

They turned to Bruno. And Laperriere thinks it was the right call.

“He’s honest. And no matter what generation we’re talking about, we all just want a coach that’s going to be honest with you. Bruno is that kind of guy,” he said. “I can see him coaching there for a long time.”

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