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Career never a job for Blues coach Hitchcock

by Louie Korac

ST. LOUIS -- When it comes to hockey, Ken Hitchcock is a creature of habit.

During the season, the routine of the St. Louis Blues coach rarely changes, no matter the day's agenda.

First, Hitchcock heads to a nearby Starbucks, or any of his favorite coffee shops in the area. Then it's off to the rink, where he preps his players with video sessions while preparing for a practice or a morning skate with his assistant coaches. In the afternoon, he spends the majority of his time scouting an opponent. Then, as evening arrives, Hitchcock sends his players out on the ice or watches other NHL games.

The scenery has changed greatly since Hitchcock began the life of a full-time coach in the Western Hockey League in 1984, but the routine has rarely wavered. Why should it? Despite the fact he had no top-level experience as a player or coach, Hitchcock's routine has served him well in a long and winding career in the NHL.

In the 17 years since he joined the NHL with the Dallas Stars, Hitchcock has accumulated 641 regular-season wins and 72 Stanley Cup Playoff victories and continues to climb the ladder among the all-time greats. He has a .602 winning percentage, and his victory total is eighth on the all-time regular-season list.

It's been a long, sometimes arduous, but highly successful road traversed by Hitchcock.

Despite more than 1,200 regular-season and 136 Stanley Cup Playoff games coached, the Edmonton native doesn't view his position as a job. Hitchcock compares what he does to a favorite pastime.

"There's a different passion for me; I never viewed the game as a business," Hitchcock told "I still don't view it as a business. I view it as something that I'm fortunate to be in.

"The energy for me is in the teaching part, not in the record. It's not in the accomplishment. It's in the enthusiasm to help guys get better. I love teaching. Those are the two things. The arena that I do it in or the vehicle that we use is not as relevant for me as it is the feeling of when you build a team and you teach people to get better. I love that stuff."

Hitchcock, 62, has been fascinated with the sport since a young age.

"I worked for a living, so hockey was more of a hobby," said Hitchcock, who sold sporting goods before chasing his dream on a permanent basis.

His father, Ray, helped set the skates in motion. Ray was a fixture in the local hockey scene, helping to build three local rinks and coach several teams.

"I used to follow him around all the time," Hitchcock said. "He coached minor hockey for years. I was hanging around older guys and some of his teams all the time.

"I remember when I was 8 or 9, my dad was also the manager at the [local] rink as a volunteer and he would flood the ice late at night and I would stay out with him and help flood the ice when all the kids had cleared and scraped the ice. I remember starting when I was about 9, holding the hose for him. I really started hanging around at a very, very young age."

Those memories became even more cherished after his father died from complications related to a back tumor when Ken was 14. Seven years later, his mother, Barb, died from throat cancer.

Hockey turned into a calming influence for Hitchcock. His coaching curiosity picked up by attending clinics and camps in the Edmonton area.

There were mentors who helped him find his way. Clare Drake, the men's hockey coach for the University of Alberta for 28 years, was one. The Golden Bears’ arena is named in honor of Drake, who was named to the Order of Hockey in Canada this week.

Dave King, a developmental coach for the Phoenix Coyotes and a former coach of the Calgary Flames and Columbus Blue Jackets, is one of Hitchcock's close friends. George Kingston, a coach at various levels in Canada, and coach of the San Jose Sharks from 1991-93, also influenced Hitchcock.

"They were kind of the inspiration for anybody coaching in Alberta at that time," Hitchcock said. "But I got it from a number of different people. Where I worked felt like a team. The community I coached in, in Sherwood Park, felt like just a big community.

"For me, I really got it from my infatuation with how to build a team. I would interview people who ran businesses. I would interview people that ran other sports teams. I'd interview people that ran charities and stuff like that just to get a feeling of what it was like for them to be part of a team. I think my inspiration comes from how people find value in being a small part of something much bigger. That leads the drive to create that value system in everybody in seeing the real benefit of being a small part of that."

By the time he was 30, Hitchcock decided he wanted to coach full time and at a higher level. In 1984, he got the job as coach of the Kamloops Blazers in the WHL, where he was 291-125-15 in six seasons before becoming an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers for three seasons in 1990.

Hitchcock would take the reins as coach of the Kalamazoo Wings of the International Hockey League in 1993. During his time there, the team changed its name to the Michigan K-Wings. He finished 110-60-11 in three seasons. The K-Wings were the minor-league affiliate of the Dallas Stars, and his success was noticed by the parent team.

Arriving In Big 'D'

During the 1995-96 season, the Dallas Stars were scuffling, and Bob Gainey, the coach and general manager, felt his team needed a change after it sputtered to a 11-19-9 start. Gainey looked to his minor-league affiliate and saw Hitchcock, who possessed a young and vibrant voice of change.

Hitchcock spent a good deal of time studying the great Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s, teams that won the Stanley Cup five times in seven seasons, beginning in 1984. He tried, in many ways, to get his team to emulate the lessons he learned from that dynasty.

Hitchcock finished 15-23-5 in a 43-game relief stint with the Stars that first season. It was quite the reality check for someone who had nothing but success at the minor-league level.

"When I went to Dallas in January of '96, I thought I was ready and I got the biggest wake-up call in my life," Hitchcock said. "I coached from January until April and I never felt more overwhelmed in my life. I felt that everything that I had learned was from watching the Edmonton Oilers play and watching their practices and watching the way they had played the game. It's the same system that I had in junior, the same system that was in the International League. That didn't work at the NHL level for whatever reason."

Hitchcock would turn to a pair of trusted allies understanding change was in order.

"I don't think I would have survived in this League without the help of Rick Wilson and Doug Jarvis," Hitchcock said of his assistants with the Stars. "Those two guys, who had years of experience in the NHL both as players and as coaches, convinced me there was a different way you had to win in the NHL. We spent the summer together. We spent a lot of time together and they showed me a different way to play. It was more the Montreal Canadiens way. Doug had played for Montreal, Rick had played 20 games at Montreal, and there was a way that Montreal had played in the '70s and early '80s [that yielded six Stanley Cup championships].

Ken Hitchcock won his first Stanley Cup as Dallas' coach in 1999.

Ken Hitchcock won his first Stanley Cup as Dallas
coach in 1999.
(Click to enlarge)
Courtesy: Getty Images

"They convinced me, based on our personnel in Dallas, that this was the way to have long-term success. I really listened to those guys because I really felt like I was out of my element; what I wanted to have happen wasn't even close. We were giving up way too many scoring chances and not having very much success. That really changed my coaching career. It really impacted the way I thought. I think it's affected me to this day in a positive way."

Although the impact may not have been felt immediately, the process would be rewarded. The Stars went from sixth place to first in the Western Conference the following season, improving from 26 wins to 48.

"I think what really helped me was when a lot of the older players came into Dallas who had won," Hitchcock said. "I learned a lot from Guy Carbonneau, Craig Ludwig, Mike Keane, Brian Skrudland ... I learned a lot from those guys because these were guys that had won Cups before, and I learned a lot on the level of competition that you needed to have to win on a full-time basis. I really leaned on those guys on how hard I can push, how far I can push, what the difference was between playing well and fully invested in playing to win. There was a difference. Those guys really, really helped me."

Forward Brenden Morrow joined the Hitchcock-coached Stars as a rookie in 1999.

"In the locker room that I moved into [in Dallas], there were a lot of veteran guys so there weren't many people he could lay the wood to. So, being a young guy, you were on the brunt of a lot of it and he demanded a lot," said Morrow, now with Hitchcock on the Blues. "For me personally, he drove me to be a better player and I think he's learned which buttons to push and how far, and I think he's always trying to find that extra level from guys. He realizes when enough is enough."

Early in Hitchcock's career, the limits were not always understood or heeded. Some players saw him as abrasive and demanding, but understood, in the end, that the coach had their back. Even so, conflicts were not rare during those years.

"It's like anyone with their boss or somebody getting in their kitchen a little bit, you want to fight back, and Hitch is no different," Morrow said. "He demands a lot, so there are times where you get [upset] and you don't see eye-to-eye on things. But when you look back and cooler heads prevail, you start to realize what he was saying does make some sense and it was for the betterment of the team."

After three full seasons of learning new ways to play, and win, in the NHL, the process initiated by Hitchcock paid off in the most tangible way possible for a hockey lifer. The Dallas Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999, the first championship for the franchise.

Dallas defeated the Buffalo Sabres in six games, winning the Cup with Brett Hull's triple-overtime goal in Game 6.

For Hitchcock, the blood, sweat and tears invested in that triumph put so much in perspective.

"What winning a Cup does is, it really convinces you that all of the sacrifices that you ask the players to make, when they make them, it's worthwhile," Hitchcock said. "But those sacrifices are very significant. There are times when you're going through that process of winning the Cup ... even for me, it was really uncomfortable watching what the players had to go through to win because they made sacrifices physically that were, at times, incredible. And every team that wins has to make those sacrifices. To see players do what they had to do to win, it's very emotional for me and almost, at times, overwhelming."

Hitchcock remembers the team finished the championship run in late June and nine players had to undergo surgery, meaning they went from rehabbing those surgeries right into training camp the next season.

"But they all feel to a man to this day that it was worth it," Hitchcock said. "There is a time and a period where it really challenges you physically and mentally to win a championship."

The Stars would return to the Stanley Cup Final a year later, losing to the New Jersey Devils. Another great regular season followed in 2000-01, but the beginning of the end had arrived for Hitchcock.

He was fired 45 games into the 2001-02 season with the Stars 23-17-5. It wasn't the record that led to the coach's downfall, but rather the belief by the decision-makers that his message was getting stale and falling on deaf ears.

It was the first of three times Hitchcock has been fired in the NHL.

Hitchcock was succeeded by Wilson, his former assistant, who was named interim coach. Armstrong, his other assistant, became general manager when Gainey stepped down to take a consultant position with the team.

Today, Armstrong is the GM in St. Louis.

A New Challenge In Philly

Not surprisingly, Hitchcock wasn't out of work for long.

He was hired as coach of the Philadelphia Flyers for the 2002-03 season by general manager Bob Clarke, a good friend of Hitchcock's. This time, the role of coaching a NHL team came easier after his trial by fire with the Stars.

"I really leaned hard on guys like Bob Gainey and Bob Clarke," Hitchcock said. "These were two guys that had won championships and they knew the difference between what was real and what kind of looked real. They knew how to dig into the details of what it took to win. I really leaned on both those guys in Dallas and Philadelphia for information on what it took to be a member of a team and a contributing member of a team. In a really easy way, it was like having a full-time coach on staff because they knew what it took as players, they knew what it took as management to win."

Though the process was simplified for Hitchcock, the challenges were far more demanding. Much is expected from those who support the Flyers, and the fans have earned a well-deserved reputation as some of the most vocal and most informed in the NHL.

Hitchcock had three straight seasons of 40-plus wins, but postseason success was a different story.

The disappointments included a first-round loss; a second-round loss; and a Eastern Conference Final loss, in 2004, in a legendary and contentious series with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

That series, which ended 2-1 in Game 7, is as close to winning a Stanley Cup as the Flyers would get with Hitchcock.

"I loved it there. I loved everything about living in Philadelphia," Hitchcock said. "I loved the passion for sports, I loved the attitude of the people, I loved working with [Clarke]. It was a great staff there, the training staff, the equipment people, the passion for the hockey team, the intensive community ... just the whole thing was an awesome experience. It was a very intense environment, but as you learn from grace, that environment there, you can really shine.

"We won a Cup in Dallas, but the team I feel most hurt for was the team before the lockout, the '04 team to me that lost Game 7 to Tampa [Bay] is the team I hurt for the most because that team was playing unbelievable hockey. We sustained all those injuries on the back end. It really impacted our team, but I've never seen a team play that well for that long like that group did and then to lose all those defensemen in those first two series really hurt us badly. That's the one team that I really think, man ... I feel bad for those players because that was a championship team with a championship attitude willing to do anything in order to win."

Hitchcock guided the Flyers back to the playoffs following the 2005-06 season but the team was beaten badly in six games by the Buffalo Sabres in the opening round. The following season the Flyers stumbled out of the gates at 1-6-1; Clarke retired and was replaced by assistant GM Paul Holmgren, and Holmgren's first decision was to fire Hitchcock.

"When you're coaching in our business and you're having success, if you look at a lot of times when coaches get fired, a lot of coaches get fired in cities they had success in and a lot of times it's when you're in that transitional phase leadership-wise," Hitchcock said. "In Dallas, a lot of guys were tired, so there was a changeover in leadership, and the same thing happened in Philadelphia. A lot of guys were tired, everything changed and different people took over, and there's a different energy that's needed. ... For me, I was really grateful for the time I spent in Dallas and in Philadelphia, really grateful."

Catching On In Columbus

Again, Hitchcock didn't spend much time unemployed.

On Nov. 22, 2006, Hitchcock was named the fourth full-time coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, which had joined the League in 2000. He replaced Gerard Gallant, whom the Blue Jackets dismissed nine days earlier. Gary Agnew, now Hitchcock's assistant in St. Louis, served as Columbus coach on an interim basis between Gallant and Hitchcock.

Things were certainly different for Hitchcock in Columbus, where he joined a franchise building from the ground up, one that had yet to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs or finish higher than third in its division.

But Hitchcock was immediately sold after meeting with owner John H. McConnell.

"When I went there to interview, I loved Mr. McConnell and I really respected him and the organization," Hitchcock said. "I just thought that this was an organization that had ... between the city and the facility and the organization and the people in the organization, I thought, 'Man, this is unbelievable potential.'"

Hitchcock's intuition proved right. In his third season, Hitchcock guided the Blue Jackets on a wild ride to the postseason for the first time. It didn't matter much that the stay was short.

"It was the best feeling in the world when we made the playoffs," he said. "We were such underdogs and we overcame so much to get into the playoffs."

The momentum didn't last long, however. Fifty-eight games into the 2009-10 season, the union between Hitchcock and the team was broken and the promise of that first Stanley Cup Playoff appearance was dulled by a 22-27-9 start. Columbus finished 10-8-6 under new coach Claude Noel.

"I was really disappointed in getting let go there," Hitchcock said. "I was really disappointed because I felt like what we were going through was a bump in the road. That, to me, felt like unfinished business."

This time, the separation between Hitchcock and the NHL would last longer, stretching almost two years while he remained with the Blue Jackets in a limited consultant role.

Ken Hitchcock helped coach Canada to a gold medal during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. (Photo: Getty Images)

During that time, Hitchcock was able to coach in a different forum, joining the staff for the 2010 Canada Olympic team, which was headed by Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock.

That team, before a rabid pro-Canada crowd in Vancouver, delivered the country its first gold medal in hockey in a half-century.

"He's been to 100 Olympics, so you've got to be older than God to be at that many," Babcock said jokingly about Hitchcock. "He's a good man, he loves hockey; he's passionate. He believes you've got to keep getting better each and every day if you're going to have success, and he's done that for a long time. He's been able to reinvent himself over and over again and keep being a good coach in the League. He's a details-oriented guy. One of his jobs is to coach the coach. That's what we talked about [at the] last Olympics.

"In the lead-up, he was unemployed, so it was real beneficial because he was on you like a rash every day to make sure you're working on it ... but obviously just tons of experience. I think anytime you've got a resume over time, and you've seen things, you have a way to understand what's coming. And foresee-ability, whether you're a school teacher or a parent or a coach, is a good thing."

Hitchcock is again with Canada this time around for the 2014 Sochi Olympics this month. Babcock is again the coach, and Hitchcock, Claude Julien of the Boston Bruins and Lindy Ruff of the Dallas Stars are associate coaches.

Once the euphoria of the 2010 gold-medal moment started to pass, Hitchcock was forced to assess where he was in his career. Doubts about future employment began to creep into his mind. Approaching 60, Hitchcock was a bit apprehensive that his time in the NHL spotlight had passed even though he had job interviews with several teams.

"I wasn't content, but I had reached a mental phase in my life where I thought, you're being interviewed all over the place and they're opting to go and take the American [Hockey] League coach in most cases and, you know what, that was me in '96," Hitchcock said. "Bob [Gainey] could have opted to take anybody from the NHL, but he opted to take me.

"I started to feel like maybe it's the time to turn it over to some younger guys that were there because that seemed to be the move that everybody was making and I thought, you know what, maybe that's the phase that I'm going to have to live in. If I'm going to do something else in the game, maybe I should start looking. But as I started to think about that, that's when the call came."

See You In St. Louis

It came from old friend and colleague Armstrong, who was instrumental in Hitchcock's formative years behind a NHL bench.

Hitchcock was surprised as the conversation took its course.

The Blues were 6-7-0 in 2011-12; they had just lost to the Minnesota Wild to fall a game below .500. The Blues made the postseason in 2009 and expectations were building, but narrow misses in each of the next two seasons ratcheted up the pressure.

A losing record 13 games into the season was enough to convince Armstrong, the GM, to make a move. Davis Payne was fired on a Sunday night in November and Hitchcock was introduced the following morning.

"It came quick. I got a call in the morning [Sunday]," Hitchcock said. "I thought we were just talking about his team when Doug called. I went home and I told Corina [Kelepouris, Hitchcock's wife], 'I think I just did the interview, but I don't know if I did the interview or not.' And then about three hours later, I got a call and [Armstrong] said, 'Listen, if you want to coach ...'; he offered me the job.

"At the end of the day, [being fired in Columbus] gave me the opportunity to come here. It was a negative that turned into an unbelievable positive to have the opportunity to come to St. Louis to reunite and work with Doug. We've had great success together. We worked really well together [in Dallas], so what was a short period of a down time ended up turning up being a heck of a positive."

Armstrong and Hitchcock hadn't worked together for roughly a decade. It was time to rekindle an old relationship.

"I had a foundation of what to expect and a belief that he could complement my weaknesses and I could complement his weaknesses and we could develop a partnership again," Armstrong said. "It was a general feeling that I wanted to work with him again."

On the drive from Columbus to St. Louis, Hitchcock received another unexpected phone call, this one from Blues captain David Backes.

"I think the conversation I had with Backes and some of the other leaders, the part that helped me the most, they felt personally responsible for what had happened," Hitchcock said. "They weren't shirking anything. I thought more than anything, that's what impressed me. They weren't looking to blame anybody. They were accepting full responsibility. They just wanted to know how to get out. They wanted to know how to get better.

"That was the one thing David related to me was, 'We know we can play better. Tell us how to do it and we'll sell it in the locker room.' There was a hunger to not want to let each other down. There were a lot of personal friendships here and they didn't want to let each other down. They'd grown up together here. So what they wanted was the information on what they needed to do to change. I felt confident that I could give them that information."

Hitchcock has always been known as a coach who relates best to veteran players. The Blues’ core, though, was comprised of younger players just establishing themselves. Would Hitchcock be able to adapt? That was the question on the minds of many people in St. Louis when the move was announced.

It wasn't on Hitchcock's.

"I don't look at it like I have to change this or change that," he said. "I think as you get older as a coach, you get in situations when you're facing adversity, you kind of realize after a while having gone through it before; you know where it's going to go. So you're more comfortable in adverse situations.

"When I came in here, I knew there was some adversity, but I've been through this before and so I felt experienced in how to help another guy get to another level. I felt comfortable knowing where we were at was just temporary. It wasn't permanent. It only comes from experience. It doesn't come from having all this knowledge. Having gone through it in Philadelphia, I knew."

Morrow, once a young player in Dallas absorbing the full brunt of Hitchcock's attentions, was now a veteran with the Blues.

"I heard that he had changed a lot," Morrow said. "He may have mellowed a little bit, but his message is the same. He demands the same details of the games. I think his philosophies and the things he believes are intangibles that help teams win or make teams win. I think his beliefs are the same, but he may have mellowed out on his approach with some people."

After the 2011-12 season, Hitchcock won the Jack Adams Award for the first time. (Photo: Getty Images)

His approach to the game also changed. During his time off after his Columbus coaching job ended, Hitchcock studied teams in the NHL. Part of it was passive observation, but he gleaned other details through the interviews he had in his search for a new job.

"I saw some fascinating things with other teams that I thought were a fresh way to sell it," Hitchcock said. "Some were junior, some were college, some were pro. But I went to teams and I said, 'You know, that's an interesting way to sell the same message.' I felt really confident that I could use some of the information.

"I'd been out of it for a year-and-a-half and I felt really confident that I could take some of the information that I had learned and send the same message in a different venue. That became what the players bought into."

The Blues bought in immediately and soared. After starting 6-7-0, the Blues finished the 2011-12 season 43-15-11, narrowly missing out on winning the franchise's first Presidents' Trophy since 1999-2000.

The Blues won a Stanley Cup Playoff series for the first time since 2002, defeating the San Jose Sharks in five games. In the second round, the Blues were upset by the Los Angeles Kings, who went on to win the Stanley Cup.

In the offseason, goalies Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott were awarded the Jennings Trophy and Hitchcock won the Jack Adams Award for the first time. The Blues slowly began earning the respect around the NHL as one of the top teams. Hitchcock again successfully brought a winning mentality to another franchise.

"He's got an unbelievable competitive edge to him," Armstrong said. "I think he's able to mask it in public, but I think once you get in the confines of the room and the doors are closed, I think the players see it. I know I see it on a regular basis; that's one of his greatest strengths. He's an easy person to talk to in the media. He's a really good spokesman for the team and the League, but in a competitive nature, I've yet to be around someone that's got more competitive fire than him.

"He demands a lot of himself before he demands a lot from others. He's got an A-type personality and his work ethic is off the charts. To be successful in the industry over a number of years, the main ingredient has to be a passion and love for the game more importantly than work ethic. When I look at Mike Babcock, when I look at Scotty Bowman, when you look at Ken Hitchcock and you look at Joel Quenneville, no one ever questions their work ethic and the commitment they put into the game. It's really 365 [days], seven [days a week], 24 hours a day.

"I don't think he's changed his core values. What makes him a good coach, what makes any coach with longevity, it's the ability to adapt to the environment, adapt to the style of play, the rule changes that are made by the League. He's been able to understand the modern player. I think when Ken got in 17 years ago, there was a little bit more control from management over players. Now there's more of a partnership between management and players."

Hitchcock has certainly changed with the times, but the results never wavered. The Blues are a top team this season and Hitchcock continues his charge up the all-time list.

He sits seven wins shy of tying Ron Wilson for seventh place. Among active coaches, only Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks has more.

"To me, those guys are always going to be my heroes," Hitchcock said. "The guys like Al Arbour, Scotty [Bowman], Glen Sather, those guys are always going to be my heroes. Those guys are guys I grew up watching coach. That's never going to change. I don't ever think that I'm in their company. That's just me personally. But the thing I'm happiest about is I still have a high level of energy to do it every day. I think I can bring a lot to a group."

Wilson has 648 wins. Mike Keenan (672), Pat Quinn (684), Dick Irvin (692), Quenneville (693), Arbour (782) precede Bowman atop the list with 1,244 victories.

Hitchcock will pass Wilson this season, and probably Keenan, Quinn and Irvin next season. As for Nos. 2 and 3? Only time will tell. But Bowman?

"I think I would catch him if I got to 108 [years old]," Hitchcock said, joking. "If Joel went to 101, he might get there.

"I don't think anybody ever is going to catch a guy like Scotty. I don't think you can have the mental discipline to do it."

There will come a day when Hitchcock will stop coaching. Maybe another challenge will pique his interest; maybe the flame will suddenly flicker. But until that day comes, Hitchcock's will concentrate his vast energies on striving to help the Blues win that elusive Stanley Cup.

"I think that for me it's going to be a sad day when I'm not able to teach again," Hitchcock said. "I love being part of a team. I don't care at what level, but I love being a part of a team. I love the fact that I can help people, make them better and I love the part about being a member of an organization and a small part of it and trying to help. The part that has impressed me with this group is the level of buy-in. There's a really strong buy-in with this team.

"I've said this to people: I think the day this becomes work, the day I get into my car and I don't want to go to the rink or I'm apprehensive about going to the rink, I'll just turn around and go home, and that'll be it. I love coming to the rink. I love watching hockey at home. I love talking about hockey. I love talking about teams. And I think when I lose that enthusiasm, then it's time to go. I don't feel like that at all. I feel like coaching here's really rejuvenated me. It's rejuvenated my belief system. My belief system has really been reinforced coaching in St. Louis. I think that it's given me a new level of enthusiasm to continue to teach."

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