Ken Hitchcock should have been in the midst of one final Stanley Cup run with the St. Louis Blues right now before riding off into the sunset. After 20 seasons as a head coach, he was ready to say goodbye and hand the reins over the Mike Yeo for next season.
Despite his February dismissal, Hitchcock was still ready to walk away. He received the standard calls from colleagues around the game expressing their sympathy and saying how Blues general manager Doug Armstrong made a terrible decision. But then after a month when Hitchcock’s phone rang it was for a different reason. Coaches were still calling, but they were done expressing sympathy. They were needed help.
And so over a period of time, there were 10-15 coaches – from the NHL to AHL to college to junior hockey – all of whom were being advised by Hitchcock. He was to coaches what Adam Oates has now become with NHL players.
While he was providing help with X’s and O’s and, in some cases, saving jobs, the coaches on the other end were doing just as much for Hitchcock as he was doing for them: They were reigniting his spark.
“I was helping them become better coaches, but in the end what it did was really help me, and I told guys that,” Hitchcock said Thursday after officially being introduced as the new head coach of the Dallas Stars. “I had a couple of very emotional calls with a couple of NHL guys yesterday about how much they helped me. They thought I was helping them but they were helping me.”
The advisor role Hitchcock took on was just one part of what started to change his original plan of saying good-bye. He attended a leadership conference in New York featuring representatives from European sports teams discussing how they dealt with young athletes. He listened to the various philosophies and took in the different ideas he was hearing and the coaching juices started flowing again. Soon after, he got the call from Nill and was ready to jump back into the game refreshed and recharged.
According to Nill, Hitchcock signed a “multi-year” deal and whenever he’s done coaching he’ll have a consulting contract with the organization.
There’s familiarity throughout the organization for Hitchcock, and not just because he’s returning to the franchise that gave him his NHL start and where he won his only Stanley Cup. He was a guest coach during training camp in 2010 for the Detroit Red Wings, where Nill was the team’s assistant GM. That’s when the two got to know one another, and years later, when the opportunity was there to name a new coach, Nill reached out.
With alumni and current Stars players in attendance such as captain Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza and Dan Hamhuis, Hitchcock spoke glowingly about the roster and just how hard it was for his 2014-15 Blues team to play against Dallas during their second-round series which was won by St. Louis in seven games. He said he wasn’t concerned about the step back this season because he understands what their abilities can bring.
As Hitchcock looks to do what he does best – improve teams immediately – he’ll also make some history along the way. When he was fired by the Blues he was stuck on 781 NHL coaching wins, one behind Al Arbour for third all-time. He’ll reach that mark next season, likely around the 22nd anniversary of his first coaching win back in 1995.
“This is an emotional day for me because this is like coming home,” Hitchcock said. “This means the world to me.”
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