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Hitchcock reaches benchmark behind the bench

Wednesday, 11.11.2009 / 1:00 AM / NHL Insider

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

"If you've been able to survive in the League, you've been able to do some things right over time. I look at this as significant for myself personally because once I got into the National Hockey League I wanted to be here for the rest of my life. I've enjoyed the people, enjoyed the three teams I've been with. I feel really proud that I've been a member of the National Hockey League since 1996." -- Ken Hitchcock

When Ken Hitchcock goes behind the Columbus Blue Jackets bench Wednesday night, the fact that he will coach in his 1,000th NHL game on Veterans/Remembrance Day won't be lost on him.

Hitchcock is a military history aficionado, has made personal visits to military landmarks, and he's taken his teams to military bases for bonding and training exercises.

"I want the players to observe what it's like to not talk about being a team, but observe what it's like when people are a team," he told NHL.com. "The coordination, the sacrifice, the commitment, the support, the friendship … I want those players to see how tight and cohesive and the camaraderie that goes on in those groups, because it has to be there. It has to be there for people to live. I want the players to see that so that they can see what it's like when it's really at its best.

"Whenever you go to Fort Bragg, or whenever you go to Fort Dix or West Point, or Annapolis, whenever you go to those places, you observe camaraderie and team work at its highest level. I want players to see what that looks like visually. So they can come back home and rely on it."

That togetherness and cohesiveness has long been a hallmark of Hitchcock's teams. It's what has helped him win 520 games, placing him 11th on the all-time list, and will make him the 16th coach in League history to reach the 1,000-game milestone. In February he'll serve as an assistant coach for the Canada's Olympic team for the third time.

"If you've been able to survive in the League, you've been able to do some things right over time," Hitchcock said. "I look at this as significant for myself personally because once I got into the National Hockey League I wanted to be here for the rest of my life. I've enjoyed the people, enjoyed the three teams I've been with. I feel really proud that I've been a member of the National Hockey League since 1996. To me, once you're a member of the League you want to be here forever. I feel really lucky to be able to do that."

Hitchcock had his most success in his first job, with the Dallas Stars. He replaced Bob Gainey during the 1995-96 season, and in five full seasons, he won five division titles, two Western Conference championships and the 1999 Stanley Cup.

He was fired after 50 games in 2001-02, but was hired the next season by the Philadelphia Flyers, where he won 40 games three straight seasons and guided the Flyers to the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals.

Fired after eight games in 2006-07, he was out of work for about a month when the Blue Jackets hired him. After two sub-.500 seasons, he guided the Blue Jackets to the franchise's first playoff berth. And at 9-5-2, the Jackets currently are sixth in the Western Conference, and their 20 points are tied with the Chicago Blackhawks for the Central Division lead.

Hitchcock said he has no plans for anything special to mark the day.

"I never look back very much," he said. "Game 1,001 comes Friday and I'll be ready for that one, too."

He did, though, say he hopes his 1,000th game, which will come against the visiting Detroit Red Wings -- goes better than his first game -- Jan. 10, 1996, also against Detroit.

"It was 4-0, could have been 14-0," Hitchcock said. "That's when Detroit was on a role. They were unbelievable. That one game set my coaching back career about 12 years."

That first game, however, helped teach Hitchcock a valuable lesson.

"I thought after the first season I had in Dallas I would be lucky to get to next October," he said. "I had to make changes; I had to adjust in a big way. The philosophy that I coached with, from the way I wanted the team to play, it wasn't working. It was a philosophy I had grown up with in Edmonton watching the '80s Oilers, carried into junior, carried it into minor pro. I really wanted the team to play that way, but when I got the NHL, we didn't have any success that way. That summer I had to adjust to the style that was needed for our team to win. I really believe that if I don't make that adjustment I don't last."

As hard as it is to believe now, Hitchcock once preached an all-out attacking system.

"It was like going from a system of full-court press, high-octane, really aggressive four-line tempo to a game that had more pressure with positional play," Hitchcock said. "I never worried about playing the positional play in my own end because 80 percent of the play was spent in the other end. I never spent a lot of time with those details. Then all of a sudden I played in a League where we didn't have the puck very much and we ended up chasing it all over the rink and it wasn't very successful. Had to change. I worked with people who lived and breathed the Montreal Canadiens style of play and even with all their high-octane teams they still played the game with the proper foundation. They taught me how to play the way that Montreal played in the '70s and '80s."

Hitchcock says he's still learning today.

"This is what I've learned in the last year -- the minute you sit back and admire your work, somebody goes right by you," he said. "The minute you sit back and you're not willing to embrace new ideas, new thoughts, you go right to the back of the bus in a hurry. This game is evolving and changing monthly. There are things that happen over the course of one month that dramatically changes the game every month. If you're not up to date and you're not alert and you don't observe those things and change with it, within one season, your whole way of coaching falls behind. It was really evident for me during the summer when we met as a staff for the Canadian Olympic team. I couldn't believe how many new ideas were being passed forward, how many different ideas were passed forward, and when I left there, I thought, 'Man, I need to be even more observant because this thing is changing monthly.'"

Hitchcock also admits to having changed. No longer as emotionally controlled by wins and losses, he said he's more concerned with the process that goes into building a team. And building it in Columbus has energized him.

"I knew exactly what I was doing when I came to Columbus," he said. "I wanted the challenge of the ground floor. I never had that challenge before. Even when I went to junior the team was good. I never had a ground-floor challenge."

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com



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