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Building Up a Team: The Hitchcock Way

by David DiCenzo / Columbus Blue Jackets

In Ken Hitchcock's world, there is no time for kudos or pats on the back. While supporters of the Columbus Blue Jackets are applauding one of the best stretches in the franchise's history, the man in charge of the bench is concerned with one thing – more progress.

Nevermind the boatload of impressive victories over elite teams with a depleted lineup that features players more familiar to the people of Syracuse than Columbus. It means little to Hitchcock, simply because there's so much more work to do.

"I don't consider this to be a leap forward," the coach says of his team's recent success, which has propelled the playoff-starved franchise into legitimate post-season contention. "A leap forward is when you win eight or nine in a row.

"This is survival."

Those who spend any amount of regular time around the CBJ boss know that Hitchcock is an incredibly intelligent, analytical leader who is very much a big picture kind of guy. He often speaks of one of the most important decisions coaches have to make – to win immediately or to build. The latter requires sacrifice that will inevitably involve bumps in the road but if the whole team buys in and believes, it surely leads to the former.

The Jackets are starting to prove the theory correct. Hitchcock says that the concept of building a team is more important for coaches because they know that if the players don't take care of the details that are involved in creating a cohesive unit, then at the end of the day, they're never going to win enough to have success. The idea, he says, is to build a team in every aspect and the victories come.

His young roster is receptive to that philosophy. And for good reason. They've endured the pain of failure.

"I think the receptive part of it comes from adversity," says Hitchcock. "When you lose enough, you start to decide whether you want to win. I think this team and franchise has lost enough that there's a resiliency in our group right now where we're sick and tired of losing. We want to start winning and I think we're seeing a real sense of cooperation from whoever is in the lineup.

"I don't think many teams could absorb what we're absorbing right now and win. We're still maintaining a competitive team on the ice, which is because the players here don't want to go back to what it was before.

"Guys are really digging in and that's a good sign."

Hitchcock has had no choice but to build in Columbus because of the youth throughout the roster. He says his approach to the profession hasn't really changed since he entered the NHL as a head coach with the Dallas Stars part way through the 1995-96 season. What changes is how he deals with each particular group each season, depending on the experience level.

The age of the roster dictates whether or not he "sweats the small stuff."

"In Dallas, because it was an experienced team, we sweated the small stuff," says Hitchcock. "The players knew how to get themselves ready so there was a lot of detail.

"Younger players can get overwhelmed by small stuff. Your idea is just to keep their enthusiasm and nurture them through the errors that happen with youth. When you have an older team that really plays an error free game, you can get into the details."

Hitchcock does love the details, particularly those relating to defending the CBJ zone. His thoroughness in that department has helped good teams become great ones and gifted players become exceptional. Like Mike Modano did in Dallas. And like the current Jackets' captain.

"He's a good teacher of the game," Rick Nash says. "He explains things well, lots of meetings, lots of video. He really preaches his defense. He says offense comes from defense and it's true."

Nash adds that Hitchcock is always up for a chat with his players. While assistants Claude Noel, Gord Murphy and Gary Agnew do a lot of the one-on-one work with the Jackets' younger personnel, Nash knows that he can always go to the man in charge.

"The office is always open," says the captain.

While the 24-year-old horse has helped to carry the Jackets this season, Columbus has also relied heavily on many younger players. Derick Brassard had truly emerged as a solid front line contributor before his shoulder injury; Steve Mason has anchored the club in the back; Jake Voracek seems to be getting better and more influential as the season progresses; Kris Russell paid some dues in the minors and is the better for it now; and even a teenager like Nikita Filatov has stepped in and scored goals with limited opportunity.

But they will all make mistakes from time to time. That's not a huge issue for Hitchcock. When it comes to younger players, his message is clear.

"To me, it's enthusiasm," says the coach. "And to not get discouraged. Younger players get discouraged easily. We try to keep them away from that. If we see that we're hanging their head or sloping their shoulders, then we talk to them right away to get back up and get going again."

These principles that Hitchcock drills into his pupils will be critical as the Jackets approach arguably one of the most important stretches in the franchise's history. The goal is to be, in his words, the hunted, not the hunter. And two years into Hitchcock's tenure, his team, the city of Columbus and the rest of the hockey world are beginning to see the harvest from the seeds this unique coach has planted.

It's all about progress.

"Eventually as a player, you have to make a decision whether you want status quo or whether you want to get it moving to the next level," says Hitchcock. "I think collectively, we would like to play at the next level. "And everybody's focused on that."

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