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Hitchcock return to Edmonton stuff of legend for Oilers

Coach warmly embraced by city that cherishes his humble hockey roots

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

EDMONTON -- Ken Hitchcock was already a celebrity in the Edmonton area long before he became the third-winningest coach in NHL history.

"All the hockey people in Northern Alberta knew about him in those years," University of Alberta men's hockey coach Ian Herbers said.

Hitchcock's status had nothing to do with wins and losses. At that time, it had to do with procuring hockey equipment or the perfect hollow applied to a pair of freshly sharpened skates.

"When a team needed sticks or equipment or jerseys, he was the guy," Herbers said. "When you needed sticks, and I remember this, he was always there. He touched many hockey people who have gone on to play professional hockey and many people involved in the game and at the youth level."

Nearly 50 years after Hitchcock first started at the United Cycle sporting goods store here, he hopes to make his mark in the Edmonton hockey community again, this time as coach of the Edmonton Oilers after being hired to replace Todd McLellan on Nov. 20.

Hitchcock, who went 1-1-1 in his first three games with the Oilers, will make his home debut against the Dallas Stars, the team he led to the Stanley Cup in 1999, at Rogers Place on Tuesday (9 p.m. ET; SNW, FS-SW, NHL.TV).

Support for Hitchcock's hiring runs deep in the community. Why can't a local kid who had immense success out of Edmonton come home and do it with the Oilers, who haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1990?

"If you believe in storybook finishes or fairytales or fate, you've got a team that's struggled for a number of years, gone through general managers, coaches, ownerships and nothing's really changed in all those years," said Rob Brown, a radio analyst on Oilers broadcasts since 2012. "So if the coach who was sharpening skates in the local skate place and working his way up from midget to the WHL and to the minors and then the NHL has come back full circle, possibly at end of his career, to lead them to where they need to be, it could be like a Disney movie."

Brown, who played 543 NHL games during 11 seasons for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Hartford Whalers, Chicago Blackhawks, Stars and Los Angeles Kings from 1987-2000, says the loyalty of Edmontonians to their own is a big part of this new chapter for the Oilers.

"They cheer for anyone from Edmonton wherever they go," Brown said. "Edmonton's always been [Hitchcock's] roots and he's always talked about how much he's enjoyed being from here. Now he's finally coming back."

Before he was hired by the Oilers, Hitchcock, 66, coached 21 seasons in the NHL from 1995-2018 with the Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues. He has 824 wins, trailing Scotty Bowman (1,244) and Joel Quenneville (890) on the NHL's all-time list.

Wilf Brooks, former owner of United Cycle (now United Cycle and Sports) on Gateway Boulevard in Edmonton, said Hitchcock has always been resolute. Brooks recalled it was 1970 when he hired Hitchcock, then 18.

"He hung around United Cycle hounding me for a job for a few months so I hired him," Brooks said. "He was very determined. I had learned early on that when people want something and will stay with [it], you get good team players.

"Ken has a knack of making his first impressions stick with folks, and an uncanny ability to get buy-in. He presents things in a way that naturally draws people and players into those thoughts. And getting buy-in is different than selling."

Brooks has watched the career path of Hitchcock, which took roots right in front of him on the floor of United Cycle, with enthusiasm. He has remained invested in the triumphs of Hitchcock across the decades and at stops in hockey outposts across North America.

"Perhaps one of Ken's greatest assets is his ability to create leaders, as opposed to being the leader," Brooks said. "When you look back ... you will see many who went on to wear letters on their jerseys or lead or coach that were often touched by Ken or Clare Drake along the way. Clare was a master at creating leaders and guys like Ken who hung around him often picked up the how-to."

Drake, inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last year in the Builder category after coaching the University of Alberta men's hockey team for 28 seasons starting in 1958, was an integral part of Hitchcock's formative years.

Hitchcock used to show up to watch Drake's practices and engage the veteran coach in conversation afterward, looking for ways to improve his own instruction to the major midget team from Sherwood Park, an Edmonton suburb, he coached from 1976-84.

Edmonton native Billy Moores, 70, is a former University of Alberta coach and a former Oilers assistant. He was Drake's assistant from that era and remembers Hitchcock as a regular in the stands on the university campus.

"I didn't really know him at the time but Hitch has been very gracious over the years, saying how practices were structured and what an impact that made on his teaching and coaching," Moores said. "One of the things Clare did was break down the game into parts and build it back up so the players would have a better understanding.

"And one of the things Clare did, if you watched his practices, was give attention to detail. It was always there. He was insistent and persistent. In order to get excellence and detail, you have to do that. That's what Clare was all about."

Moores said he observes many similarities between Drake, who died May 13 at age 89, and Hitchcock.

"When you hear [Hitchcock] talk to the media, it's clear he has an understanding of game, especially the technical parts, but also has a clear understanding of how he wants to get his players to play," Moores said. "Clare always understood the technical part as well, and he knew how to handle people. He understood how to get the best out of people and the way they should play the game and best use their potential. He was such a thinker.

"Hitch has this. He has been able to get his teams to play the way he wanted and that's a sign of a good coach."

Herbers, 51, played for the Sherwood Park major midgets in Hitchcock's eighth and final season as coach, 1983-84. The next season, Hitchcock was hired as coach of Kamloops of the Western Hockey League.

"Our practices were a lot like they are now, about details, work-oriented, physical, heavy, aggressive, about forechecking," said Herbers, a defenseman who played 65 NHL games for the Oilers, Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders and was an assistant with the Oilers from 2015-18. "Our practices tended to be repetitive. There was nothing left to think about. You did it over and over again until it was instinct.

"And I remember some cold 6 a.m. practices. We'd get on that ice and then he'd have us take our skates off and go for a nice run outside while he sat in the concession area, staying nice and warm. But all of it was good experience, for me especially. It made my game a lot easier. I wasn't the most skilled guy, so it was very beneficial for me."

Roots seem to go through every part of this latest chapter of Hitchcock's story.

Brown has experienced many of those chapters, either as a fan or as a member of the NHL community since turning pro.

He is excited to see how the current chapter of the Hitchcock story ends.

"For years, I would have loved to have seen him here," Brown said. "Now he gets that opportunity. If he has any success, my gosh, it will be like the magic has come back to Edmonton."

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