Two comments caught my ears Monday as the St. Louis Blues introduced Ken Hitchcock as their new head coach. Hitchcock seemed rested and eager to return to the NHL, and for the most part, he seemed supremely confident he could step right in and take this young, talented group to the playoffs. But at a couple of points, he seemed humbled.
Hitchcock turns 60 on Dec. 17. Twice, he talked about growing older. He said as you get older, you learn that the game changes, and he is as current as anyone in understanding what changes have taken place "not only in the style of game, but in the dealing with the personnel." Later, after talking about how much he had studied NHL teams to prepare for his next gig, he also noted he had spent "a ton of time understanding how older guys coach younger kids."
We all know Hitch knows hockey. Blues general manager Doug Armstrong, who has a long history with Hitchcock, called him "one of the best coaches in the history of our game." That might be going a bit far for someone who has won one Stanley Cup, but Hitchcock is easily one of the 30 best coaches on the planet -- a master of X's and O's and in-game adjustments, a man with an accomplished resume, someone who should have an NHL job.
Listen to what Hitchcock said when asked how long it would take to address the power play: "One practice. We'll get that fixed quick." The Blues rank last in the league.
But if Hitchcock is such a great coach, why didn't he have a job? Why did he have to sit out so long after the Columbus Blue Jackets fired him in February 2010, just months after he led them to their first (and still only) playoff appearance? Why did he have so much time to get away from the stress, work on his fitness and diet, cut ruts into central Ohio golf courses and study his sport and profession from afar? Why did he interview with four NHL teams over the summer and find no takers? Why was he driving home from walking his dog at about 3 p.m. Sunday when, he said, he was shocked to get the call from Armstrong?
The trend toward young, up-and-coming coaches surely had something to do with it. But maybe Hitchcock's old my-way-or-the-highway approach had something to do with it, too. As affable and colorful as he can be in public, he can be difficult for a lot of players to handle in private. He has clashed with everyone from Brett Hull to Nikita Filatov(notes) with varying degrees of success. While he will continue to demand respect -- and he should -- it sounds like he knows he needs to adjust his approach to reach today's player.
"If sacrifice becomes a burden or it becomes … it feels like something that you're too demanding, it doesn't work," Hitchcock told reporters after his introductory press conference. "You look at any successful team, they embrace the sacrifice. That's my job, is to sell what I'm asking them to do, which is hard and difficult. I'm going to sell them on the fact that it's worthwhile. … I think I can help them understand that the hard work and the sacrifice and the way you have to play to win in the league now is worth it."
The game has changed since Hitchcock won the Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999 and came within two victories of repeating in 2000. That was the dead puck era. The Stars were a slow, veteran team. Hitchcock said Dallas played like an "old dog" -- sitting back, waiting for the other team to make a mistake, then pouncing.
Well, old dogs can learn new tricks. At least if they don’t, they get left behind. That old style of play won't work anymore. "If you're going to win in the National Hockey League right now, you've got to be a 200-foot team," Hitchcock said. "You've got to play really, really fast defensively, and then you've got to protect the puck like crazy offensively. … Fast and loose offensively ends up in losses; fast and tight defensively ends up in wins."
Hitchcock's old coaching approach won't work anymore, either. Hitchcock speaks often to Scotty Bowman, who won more games (1,244) and Cups (nine) than any other coach in NHL history. One of the secrets to Bowman's success is that he always stayed true to himself, yet he always evolved.
Someone once said of Bowman: "Most people that are in his status -- the Woody Hayeses, the Bobby Knights, the elite coaches that have won on a consistent basis with old-school techniques -- have not adjusted to new-school personalities. Scotty's kept the same ideas and the same principles, but he's adjusted with the times."
That someone was Hitchcock. He told me that back in November of 2000, when he was coaching the Stars and Bowman was on the verge of becoming the first man to coach 2,000 NHL games. Funny Hitchcock should mention Woody Hayes. Hitchcock would end up getting fired in Columbus, like the Ohio State football legend, and now his challenge is to show he can keep the same ideas but adjust with the times.
Another secret to Bowman's success: Being in the right places at the right times, knowing which jobs to take. Bowman tended to take over teams that were ready to reach another level with the right coach.
The Blues are such a team -- maybe not ready to win a Cup, but ready to make the playoffs. They weren't bad under outgoing coach Davis Payne; they dealt with an epidemic of injuries last season, then more injuries and a brutal road schedule early this season. But they need to turn flashes of ability into consistent performance. They have a young core that needs to be molded.
That's why Armstrong signed veterans Jason Arnott(notes) and Jamie Langenbrunner(notes) in the off-season. Langenbrunner, interestingly enough, won a Cup in Dallas when Armstrong was an assistant GM there and Hitch was the head coach. He represents a pre-installed conduit between the new coach and the others. No wonder after Hitchcock received that call from Armstrong at 3 p.m. Sunday, he was back in the car by 6:30, headed to St. Louis.
"I like potential," said Hitchcock, who will make subtle changes at first because he doesn't have time to upset the systems in place. "I think that my job is to get the best players here to play their best and get everybody to follow that suit. I think I can do that. I think I can provide the game plan and the structure and discipline that allows the top players to set the direction here."
There is a sense of urgency. A new ownership group is coming in that might want to bring in its own people. The Blues have made the playoffs only once the past six seasons, and they're 14th in the West. But they're not out of it by any means at 6-7-0 with five home games coming up. By hiring Hitchcock -- the teams' fourth coach in six years -- Armstrong is saying the pieces are in place.
"At what point do the players become responsible and not the coach? That time is today." Armstrong said. "The players are now responsible for their own actions. The players are now responsible for the success of this team. I know we have a great coach. I know we have a coach that has been there, has done that, has worked with superstars, has worked with grinders, has worked with young players. There's nothing that Ken Hitchcock is going to see that he hasn't already seen, and it's up to our players now to respond."
It's up to them to learn from Hitchcock, and it's up to Hitchcock to show he has learned from experience. He might never get another chance.
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- Ken Hitchcock