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Hitchcock hanging around Columbus

by Dan Rosen

Ken Hitchcock has signed a three-year contract extension to remain the Blue Jackets coach through at least the 2011-12 season.
Ken Hitchcock has won a championship at every level he's coached at, so cross finally reaching the pinnacle of his profession off his to-do list.

But in his 24 years coaching hockey, Hitchcock has never had a chance to nurture a young, talented but struggling team and watch it grow into a championship contender.

That's why he called the challenge he faces in Columbus the greatest of not only his hockey career, but his life. And, that's why this week he signed a three-year contract extension to remain the Blue Jackets coach through at least the 2011-12 season.

Hitchcock sees a bright future for the Blue Jackets, and he's hoping this contract extension ensures no other coach will reap the benefits of his hard work.

"Since the start of my career in 1984 I have walked into situations where the team was either ready made or close to ready made, so I was fortunate," said Hitchcock, who won a Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999. "This is the first time I have seen something like this, and I wanted the challenge.

"I want to be the coach that takes a team to the championship level. I want to be in the building of things from the ground floor up. Both Scott and I wanted that challenge and we're looking forward to taking the next step here."

Hitchcock, who was hired as the fourth coach in Blue Jackets history on Nov. 22, 2006, has guided the team to a 62-65-17 record. The Jackets finished the 2007-08 season with a franchise-best 80 points, but were still 13th in the Western Conference.

After a whirlwind week and a half in which GM Scott Howson added six key players, Columbus is looking more like a team Hitchcock is used to coaching.

Defensemen Mike Commodore, Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman bring a physical presence to the back end. Winger Raffi Torres and center R.J. Umberger provide some grit up front. Kristian Huselius should supplant the scoring the Jackets lost when they traded talented winger Nikolai Zherdev to the Rangers for Tyutin and Backman.

Plus, Rick Nash, who is coming off his best season with 38 goals and 31 assists, will enter training camp as the team captain. Goalie Pascal Leclaire is coming off a breakout season, and Fredrik Modin is expected to come back healthy from an injury-plagued 2007-08 season that limited him to just 23 games.

The Jackets are hoping top prospect Jakub Voracek, an 18-year-old Czech winger, makes the club out of training camp. Howson also said he expects Michael Peca to sign his new contract in the coming days.

"The team has change dramatically, and it's the change that most people on the outside can't see," Hitchcock said. "The culture inside the locker room changed dramatically. We added professional players who are committed to the team and are people who have competed at a very high level in North America and internationally. These players know what it's like to be on winning teams. There is a certain level of seriousness that your team has to have in order to win."

Howson believes there is no one better suited than Hitchcock to show a team how serious the business of winning is. After all, in parts of 12 NHL seasons, Hitchcock has 470 wins against just 314 losses for a .599 winning percentage. He owns a 66-51 postseason record.

His teams have won six division titles, two Presidents' Trophies, two Conference championships and one Stanley Cup. He also won a Western Hockey League championship as coach of the Kamloops Blazers in 1989-90.

"I think this is a really critical step for us as we seek to achieve our goals here in Columbus, to have some stability and credibility at the head coaching position," Howson said. "It's a great day for us to know that Hitch is going to be here for us as we seek to become a playoff team and then a Stanley cup team."

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