When the Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes and Anaheim Ducks decided to fire their coaches this week, each team hoped to enjoy the kind of swift turnaround that the St. Louis Blues have enjoyed under Ken Hitchcock.
Not all mid-season coaching modifications have this sort of success. But it is difficult to ignore what Hitchcock has accomplished in leading the Blues to an 8-1-2 record and a move from 14th to fifth in the Western Conference standings since he took over.
While time will tell what sort of impact Dale Hunter will have with the Capitals, Kirk Muller in Carolina and Bruce Boudreau with the Ducks, maybe they can learn from what Hitchcock has done in St. Louis.
He entered a situation in that the Blues had plenty of talent, but saw inconsistent results because they were loose defensively. Hitchcock came in and installed his defensive blueprint, in which he emphasizes checking and skating, skating and checking. Hitchcock always has believed that if you check effectively, the offensive chances will materialize.
Blues assistant coach Brad Shaw has coached in the minors and at the NHL level (including a 40-game stint at the helm of the 2005-06 New York Islanders) in every season since his playing days ended in 1999. What has impressed him the most about working alongside Hitchcock is the veteran coach's confidence in his system.
"The first thing I noticed was his belief in the way the game should be played," Shaw said. "It is very deep rooted. He can watch a game either live or on video and he can pick out things that were done well and not so well on how he thinks the game should be played. In that way he's very black and white and that has helped us play faster and has taken away some of the grey areas.
"He comes with a ton of respect and is quite a story if you consider where he has come from."
Hitchcock, who turns 60 on Dec. 17, got his start running the minor system in the Edmonton suburb of Sherwood Park. He advanced to junior hockey and won a pair of WHL titles with the Kamloops Blazers, which prompted the Philadelphia Flyers to hire him as an assistant coach in 1990.
Before he knew it, Hitchcock was lured over to run the Dallas Stars minor-league affiliate in Kalamazoo, Mich. and midway through his third year with the Stars organization he was promoted as the NHL club's head coach.
Dallas won the 1998-99 Stanley Cup under Hitchcock and nearly again the following year. But then New Jersey Devils centre Jason Arnott scored the Cup-clinching goal in double overtime of Game 6 at Reunion Arena in Dallas. Now when Hitchcock looks down the Blues bench, wearing No. 44 is Arnott.
"It's been OK," said Hitchcock, when asked about his relationship with Arnott. "I like Arnie. But every time I look at him I see that goal. I know the place in the rink, I know the feeling and I don't want to go back there. I'm going to have to learn how to get over that."
After stops as a head coach with the Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets, Hitchcock stayed on with Columbus and worked as a consultant. He tutored the coaching staff of the Blue Jackets minor-league team in Springfield and he attended some of the Blue Jacket games in Columbus to scout the opposing teams.
"My ship had sailed there," said Hitchcock, when asked whether he was relieved that he didn't return to coach Columbus as rumours suggested. "I was really happy in Columbus working with those American Hockey League guys in Springfield. It was great. I was having a lot of fun. It was like old school hockey. You were in a little coach's room with six guys crowded around a little table and watching a little TV. It was like I was back in junior or the [IHL].
"For me to go back and coach the [Blue Jackets] was the wrong thing to do. Everybody who made an issue of me at their games, well, I was there for one reason: to look at the opposition for management for potential player movement."
The 18-month absence from behind an NHL bench has seemed to relax Hitchcock. He admits he is different in his fourth go-around in the NHL.
"You don't sweat the small stuff," he said. "If you're comfortable, and I've been comfortable for a long time, you understand that you coach people to play hockey. You don't coach hockey. I think when you're comfortable in Xs and Os, and you're comfortable in accountability you get into that support phase as a coach.
"When you get older you don't worry about whether you're going to stay or whether you have to prove yourself. You're there to help the players get better. I like a lot of the things around the people part of the game. I enjoy it more. I don't need to look at how many wins or how many games I've coached. I just live everyday and enjoy it more."
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