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Second act: Ken Hitchcock relishes unique opportunity to lead Stars again

The coach who guided Dallas to its 1999 Stanley Cup describes his return as 'bigger than coaching'

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

Hitchcock comes home

Hitchcock discusses his return to Dallas

Ken Hitchcock discusses his return to Dallas, what he sees in this Stars team and what lies ahead

  • 01:20 •

FRISCO -- The 'oh boy' moment came when Ken Hitchcock got off the elevator on the third floor of the Dallas Stars' offices at their suburban Dallas practice facility.

"And as you get out of the elevator, there is a mural there of the '99 team," Hitchcock said over dinner. "And that's when it hit me: 'Oh boy, this is bigger than coaching.' That mural stares you right in the face and that's when I thought to myself, there's a major responsibility."

Other National Hockey League coaches have come home. That's not necessarily unique.

Randy Carlyle took the Anaheim Ducks to the Western Conference Final this spring a decade after he won a Cup at the Duck Pond in 2007.

Michel Therrien went home to Montreal and gave way this past season to Claude Julien, who also made his second appearance behind the Habs' bench.

So, it happens. But make no mistake, this homecoming is far more complicated.

Hitchcock's return to Dallas -- he was hired April 13 to replace Lindy Ruff -- easily ranks as the most interesting coaching move in recent memory, given his impact on the franchise during his first run-through.

"There's a lot of people that want this team to do really well," Hitchcock said. "So, when you hear that, it's bigger than just winning hockey games. We want to do it the right way. I really want the players to play a brand of winning hockey. Regardless of what happens, I want us to play and act like winners."

"And that part is really important to me, because that's bigger than just point totals or anything to me," the 65-year-old Hitchcock added. "That's the thing that really sticks out to me is I think I can help this group punch through to a higher level. I really think I can help."

More than two decades have passed since Hitchcock took over as head coach in Dallas on Jan. 8, 1996, replacing head coach Bob Gainey. It was Hitchcock's first NHL head coaching gig, and in short order, he helped transform the struggling organization into a dominant force led by future Hall-of-Famers Mike Modano, Brett Hull and Ed Belfour. 

Video: Stars kick off training camp with Media Day

The team's Cup win in 1999 made hockey real in Texas, and reaffirmed NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's aggressive plan to establish a pan-continental footprint for the league, with the Commissioner having taken office months before the Stars relocated from Minnesota in the summer of 1993.

The Stars flirted with dynastic status over a six or seven-year period near the end of the 1990s winning their first and only Stanley Cup in 1999, advancing to the Stanley Cup Final the following year as well as appearing in the 1998 Western Conference final. But glory has been elusive commodity for the team in recent years.

Two years ago, hopes of a long-awaited renaissance were rekindled with a Central Division title and a second-round loss in seven games to a St. Louis team coached by Hitchcock. But last season, the team took a major step backward finishing with 30 fewer points and outside the playoffs, thanks to a slew of injuries, uneven goaltending and a defense that ranked 29th in the league, allowing a ghastly 3.17 goals per game.

Aberration? Wake-up call? Or trend? Hitchcock has been called on to make sure it's the former not the latter.

"There's a lot to work with here. There's a lot," Hitchcock said. "This team's already seen 109 points and they've looked that straight in the eye. So, they already know about winning. Last year can be an aberration and it can be a wakeup call or it can be a trend. And that's on us. That's up to us. The dialogue that I'm hearing from the players now is somewhere between embarrassed and really pissed off."

Any coaching change is an experiment of sorts, a rolling of the dice in the hopes that coach and players mesh, that the message and game plan are simpatico and can translate into meaningful success on the ice. For Hitchcock, whose presence will forever echo back to the halcyon days of 1999, and what once was, the challenge is to firmly draw the line between nostalgia and the task at hand.

A longtime Civil War buff, few understand the role that history plays in the molding of the future in the way that Hitchcock does.

"I'm a history buff. I don't live in history but I sure love learning from it," Hitchcock said. "And the run that the team had here, there's a lot of lessons that you learn from that run."

"There's a lot of things that I can take forward from what we learned there. But I don't have any interest in reminiscing. I have zero interest in reminiscing," he said.

An offseason that has been heralded around the hockey world as nothing short of stunning, with the addition of top netminder Ben Bishop, veteran defender Marc Methot, talented winger Alexander Radulov, and top defensive center Martin Hanzal has sent expectations soaring.

Video: Seguin on the change in Stars offensive strategy

Now it falls to Hitchcock to bring all those elements together and create a more defensively-responsible, more-disciplined unit than the one that meandered through last season. If he can do that, Hitchcock may be able to perform the difficult task of honoring the past while creating something perhaps equally memorable in the here and now.

"What that group, for five or six years there, taught me was what a team looks, feels, and smells like," Hitchcock said. "What a real team feels like. And what must go into that, those are the lessons that never change. What that taught me is no matter your talent and your skill they get you the floor. They get you to the floor and to get to the ceiling, it's all about drawing out the character and the compete level and the coach usually is responsible for starting the climb to the ceiling."

It's easy to get caught up in the homecoming narrative -- the return of the conquering hero to restore greatness to a franchise. And to be honest it's difficult to find a discouraging voice about Hitchcock's return.

Wayne Gretzky has known Hitchcock since 1986 when the major junior team Gretzky owned, the Hull Olympiques, clashed with Hitchcock's Kamloops Blazers at the Memorial Cup in Portland.

Later Gretzky would tab Hitchcock as a key part of his coaching staff for the 2002 Olympics, 2004 World Cup of Hockey and 2006 Olympics.

"He's a true patriot of the sport and loves the game and can't get enough of trying to figure out ways to better his teams and better himself as a coach," Gretzky said in an interview. "He just loves the game. I really enjoyed my time with him. I enjoyed being around him because he loves to talk hockey all day long."

As for Hitchcock's return to Dallas, Gretzky -- now a partner and vice-chairman of the Edmonton Oilers, the team with whom he won four Stanley Cups -- has zero misgivings.

"I think it's a wonderful fit," Gretzky said. "I expect Dallas to be completely opposite of what they were last year. They're going to be a very competitive team."

Longtime NHL executive and analyst Craig Button was part of the Stars organization when Hitchcock was first in Dallas and recalled how important the veteran coach was in forging a bond between the community and the sport.
"They thought he was one of them," Button said. "He connected."

Hitchcock redux? Button loves the fit.

"I think exactly what they need is what Ken Hitchcock provides as a coach," Button said.

Video: History following Hitchcock to Dallas

"The past is not going to change," the former Calgary GM added. "Hitch is brought in now to change the future. If you're going to live in the past, you've got no chance in the future. Hitch isn't living the past, I can tell you that."

This isn't about building from the ground up. This Stars team has a core of talent that includes former league scoring champ and captain Jamie Benn, sniper Tyler Seguin, and now two-time Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop.

"I think this is a really good coaching fit in terms of timing. I really think that," Button said. "Which I don't think can be understated."

Darren Pang, the former NHL netminder and longtime national analyst, is entering his 10th season covering the St. Louis Blues. His job regularly takes him between player benches during games, and he knows, by rote, Hitchcock's voice patterns, his verbiage and how his teams play.

The Stars, for instance, will learn to back-check, Pang said. Yes, they will.

"Hitch has the ability to sell," Pang said recently. "He has the ability to prepare your team in January as if you're in the fifth game of a playoff series."

"I think he went to the exact right team for him," said Pang, who admitted that his first reaction to Hitchcock's hiring was; "Oh, no, not the Central."

"That team was in need of an attention grabber," he said.

Another person familiar with Hitchcock and his methods is former NHL netminder and goalie coach Corey Hirsch, who first met Hitchcock in Western Canada as a teenage player and later worked for the Blues under Hitchcock as a goaltending coach. 

"I thought they couldn't have made a better decision," Hirsch said of the Stars.

Video: How will Hitch right the ship in Dallas?

That the Stars have talent is undeniable. What is also undeniable is that more needs to be coaxed from them. "He'll teach them how to get there," Hirsch said of Hitchcock.

It won't be easy especially with so many new faces, Hirsch said.

"It changes the dressing room," he said. "If anything, Hitch is going to have to manage personalities."

A year ago, Hitchcock was coming off a trip to the Western Conference Final with the St. Louis Blues. He'd agreed with general manager Doug Armstrong, whom he'd known for years including a long, shared stint in Dallas, that the 2016-17 season would be his last as Blues head coach.

The Hollywood script that would have seen Hitchcock go on a long run, maybe to the franchise's first-ever Stanley Cup, went awry. Hitchcock was relieved of his duties on Feb. 1.

"It was really emotional for Doug and myself because we've been together for so long," Hitchcock said. 
Hitchcock thought about what he might do that didn't involve coaching.

"Then it changed, and what changed it were the calls," he said.

Initially there were the normal, 'gee we're sorry you got canned' calls from friends, colleagues, other coaches.

"And then the calls started to come like, 'Hey, sorry you got fired but can you help me?'" Hitchcock said.

Some of the calls were from NHL coaches, mostly in the Eastern Conference. Some were collegiate or junior coaches or coaches in the American Hockey League. And for a time, Hitchcock was like the coach whisperer.

Video: Hitch on what it takes to win in the NHL

Sometimes the calls came from coaches looking for help tactically, how to improve the power play, defensive zone coverage. But lots were from coaches who were having some sort of crisis of confidence about who they were as coaches.

"I'd hear the guy talk and it was like, 'Oh, this guy's in trouble, he's in trouble because he's questioning his own ability,' so then I really started to dig in," Hitchcock said. "And the more I dug in, the more fun I had."

Sometimes Hitchcock would travel to see various coaches and their teams. He'd come in a day early and watch them practice and then stay for a game.

He made a game of it, trying to make sure no one saw him there.

One night, he was sitting in a seat next to the handicap section at a game, and a woman turned to him and said, "I know who you are and I won't say anything."

"And I said, 'Thanks,' and then she never said another word to me," Hitchcock said.

A funny thing happened on this journey of assisting others. It turned out Hitchcock was the one who benefitted, who grew, who found something like another gear.

"I'd gone from mentoring to learning," Hitchcock said. "And then I just started thinking, what am I doing? I love this too much."

While on vacation in New Mexico after the NHL's regular season ended Hitchcock got a call from Dallas GM Jim Nill.

The two met in a little room at the Albuquerque airport for four hours.

Video: Stars name Hitchcock head coach in 1996

"And I went back to Santa Fe, and I told my friends,' I don't know if I'm going to get that job but I sure want it,'" Hitchcock said.

He needn't have worried.

At our dinner ends, not far from the Stars' Frisco offices, a woman approaches Hitchcock.

"Are you coach Hitch?" she asks.

She motions to a large party at a nearby table.

"So, I'm not making this up," she explains. "My best friend's there. She and her husband. Their son passed away just around the corner, 24 years old. He was the biggest Dallas fan. And we were here because we wanted to visit the last place he was when he passed away. So, I only see it fitting to have a picture with you."

Hitchcock, naturally, agrees to pose with the group.

"It's good to have you here," another member of the group tells the new Dallas Stars head coach.

Another 'oh boy' moment for a coach with many under his belt, and who seems destined for many more in the coming weeks and months.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB

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