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For Hitchcock, Armstrong, friendship will always outlast business

Not even Hitchcock's exit from St. Louis last winter could puncture his relationship with the Blues GM

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB /

So, what happens when two longtime friends work together and one has to fire the other?

You can imagine, can't you? The recriminations. The wedge that such an act might drive between even the closest of pals, especially in a small community like the National Hockey League represents.

But what if nothing happens?

What if the core of that relationship remained unchanged? That would be something, wouldn't it?

And that's the beauty of the enduring friendship that exists between Dallas Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock and St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong.

It's really quite simple: There is the business of hockey, and then there is the matter of friendship.

The latter trumps the former, and Armstrong and Hitchcock are the latter -- friends.

They have been so for years, since Armstrong was the assistant general manager of the Stars and Hitchcock was tasked with coaching the team's prospects in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the early 1990s. Their relationship has continued through a Stanley Cup win in Dallas in 1999, through international competition including two Olympic gold medals with Canada in Vancouver and Sochi, and on through a solid run with St. Louis and the Blues.

"And everything in between," Armstrong said with a smile.

It's the in-between parts that appear to be the glue that allows the two to not just remain friendly -- in spite of the fact that Armstrong had to tell his friend last Feb. 1 that he could no longer coach the Blues -- but remain much more than that.

"I think we've been through so much together," Hitchcock said recently. "Doug was really one of my bosses when I was in Kalamazoo. And I think when you go through the travails and build a championship together, you build a bond. And the bond gets tested all the time, because I went back and I worked for St. Louis, and we had a great run there. We had a heck of a run."

During the preseason, the Blues were in Dallas when we caught up with Armstrong in the visiting team's booth in the press box.

Dallas was home, professionally and emotionally, for a long time for Armstrong, who worked for the team in various capacities for 17 years, including the transition period when the team moved from Minnesota to Dallas in the summer of 1993.

But you never know how things will change, especially when things like jobs and hiring and firing are involved. People have egos anywhere, but especially in pro sports.

So we approach the topic gingerly. We needn't have.

Armstrong doesn't miss a beat when asked about how things stand between the two old friends.

"In hockey, you have a lot of acquaintances," Armstrong explained, "but not a lot of friends."

He counts Hitchcock among the top-three people in his life, on whom he can count, regardless of the circumstances.

That friendship is greater than what happens on the ice or in the boardrooms. It's greater than "Who is the boss?" and what happens when someone has to make those hard, boss decisions and make a change professionally.

"If you're friendship is based on a job, it's not really a friendship," Armstrong said. "He and I talked a lot about that when the transition happened.

"We're friends well past whatever happens between 7 and 9:30 on any given night. We'll be friends well past our days in the National Hockey League."

Maybe it's the complete candor. Maybe it's that we're old and given to bouts of emotiveness. Maybe it's that there seems to be so little evidence of things like humanity and respect -- and enduring things like friendship -- in our world that we found the simple fact that what unites these men trumps wins, losses and paychecks more than compelling and maybe even a little life affirming.

How strange is the business?

The day that Armstrong was promoted to GM in Dallas back in 2002 was the day the organization dismissed Hitchcock from his first-ever NHL head-coaching gig. Armstrong replaced Bob Gainey, who had mentored Armstrong early in his career in Minnesota and Dallas and who remains a close friend of both Armstrong and Hitchcock.

When Armstrong was fired in November 2007, it was Les Jackson and Brett Hull who assumed co-GM roles.

It was Jackson, with the organization for more than two decades, who first spied Hitchcock and helped bring him into the Stars organization -- and that first pro job coaching in Kalamazoo.

St. Louis tabbed Armstrong as their GM in the spring of 2008, and early into the 2011-12 season, he called Hitchcock to join the Blues.

And so it goes.

"We've been through a lot of tough times," Jackson said when asked about the enduring friendships. "You find out who you can trust and who you can grow with."

All have had rich, full careers marked by success, regardless of how you measure it. But maybe it's the shared history of starting without any of that which is at the heart of being able to ride out whatever life throws down in front of them now.

"I think all those guys, we all started together," said Jackson, currently the senior advisor to Dallas GM Jim Nill. "We had to lean on each other. It's what we had."

This season has seen a number of firsts.

The Stars opened 2017-18 against the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who played their first-ever game against a Dallas team that repatriated Hitchcock as head coach during the summer.

Twenty-four hours later, Hitchcock stood behind the visitors' bench in St. Louis for the first time in league play since he was relieved of his duties a little more than eight months ago.

The Blues, now under the tutelage of Mike Yeo, are near the top of the Central Division standings. And the Stars -- enjoying their most productive stretch of the season -- are right behind them as they prepare for their second clash of the season on Thursday in St. Louis.

"At the end of the day, we both get the business of hockey. But there's a reason that I'm in Dallas, and I know Doug stood up for me," Hitchcock said. "So you appreciate those things, and I think he's exactly right. This goes well beyond the competition -- well beyond that. It goes deeper than that. It's something you have a lot of acquaintances, but then you have very few people that you know when you're in trouble you can go and get help from, and I think we both feel that way.

"So there's the connection, there's the business connection, and then there's the emotional connection. And there's very few people that I'm emotionally connected to, but they all seem to be from the Kalamazoo (and) Dallas days that you're entrenched in. And Doug's obviously right at the top of the list, with Bob and Les -- and it was that crew."

And when Hitchcock returned to Dallas, well, it just seemed a good fit to everyone. Especially Armstrong.

"I was excited for him," Armstrong said.

Make no mistake, Armstrong wants nothing more than to bring a Stanley Cup to St. Louis. He thought Hitchcock was the coach to do so, but it didn't turn out that way. Now, Mike Yeo is the man Armstrong hopes can guide the franchise to its first-ever championship.

Hitchcock, meanwhile, is hoping lightning will strike twice in Dallas. He wants nothing more than to close out a Hall of Fame coaching career with a second championship in a market yearning for a return to glory.

That their friendship continues to exist, somewhere between those competing and mutually exclusive (at least as far as this season) goals, isn't necessarily surprising. But it is certainly something to be respected.

Maybe even cherished.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter at @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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