DALLAS — “Goals don’t matter.”
Brett Hull may have been a decade removed from his 86-goal season with the St. Louis Blues, and the game may have changed a tad. But really?
“Goals don’t matter.”
“It was very early in the (2000-01 season),” begins Hull, who currently works as an ambassador — “a gladhander” — for the Blues.. “Columbus was an expansion team, and we got shut out 2-0 by Columbus at home. So, we went to practice the next day, he gathered us around, and gave us a ‘Goals don’t matter’ speech.”
The “he” in question is Ken Hitchcock, the current head coach of the St. Louis Blues who had coached the Dallas Stars to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals in 1999 and 2000. The same one who was under fire in Round 1 of this spring’s playoffs for his handling of 40-goal superstar Vladimir Tarasenko.
You see, Hull was Tarasenko before Tarasenko was Tarasenko. While today’s 40-goal sniper was eight years old, a little malysh growing in Yaroslavl, Hull was a 36-year-old, ageing triggerman in the sunset years of a 741-goal NHL career. So there he was, 600 goals into a Hall of Fame career, and Hitchcock — who never played a game — is giving him the “goals don’t matter” speech.
“I’m standing there thinking, ‘We just got shut out by an expansion team, we’re supposed to be a No. 1 contender for the Stanley Cup, and I’m listening to ‘Goals don’t matter?’ It made zero — I mean, zero — sense to me.
“So, we started to warm up the goalies, and I just shot the puck into the corner of the rink. Hitch is like, ‘What are you doing?’
“I said, ‘Well goals don’t matter. What the hell am I shooting at the goalies for?”
Hitchcock kicked Hull off the practice ice that day. It was neither the first, nor the last time the two disagreed over how the game should be played.
“Fighting is the wrong word. We butted heads over hockey philosophy,” explains Hull. “He tried to make his point, then I tried to make my point. Both were made very succinctly. We had a great relationship — I love the guy. We just have different philosophies on the game.
The story goes that, before the Stars could win with Hull they had to transform his game. The Blues never won jack when Hull was running off five seasons of 50 or more goals in St. Louis, playing 90-second to two minute shifts. And if he would only change his game — read: forsake some offence and work harder defensively — they could win in Dallas.
Well, in 1999 the Stars won the Cup. And guess who had the Cup-winning goal?
“He started with Mike Modano. He turned Mike into his checking centre, which I always thought was ass-backwards. But Mike bought in, and that’s all that mattered. When he bought in, everyone bought in,” said Hull. “We taught each other a lot. The problem we had at the start was, I’d always considered myself to be a very intelligent player. He obviously saw himself as a very intelligent coach. We had to learn that we could teach each other aspects of the game.
“You could have offence within your defensive scheme, and there were times when you didn’t have to try to make the dumb offensive play. You could chip it in get it back that way.”
Tarasenko may be sour about his deployment under Hitchcock, or perhaps he’s just fine with his ice time. I can’t tell you I know the answer to that. But rendering judgement based on that clip of Tarasenko walking past Hitchcock on the Blues bench at the end of a period in Game 6 versus Chicago would be an error.
You see, Hitchcock isn’t every coach. His style is to drive his players harder, to impose his coaching philosophy in a more all-encompassing manner than many of his peers. In turn, he gets more push back than many of his peers, and Hitchcock can live with that.
“The worst players get just as mad at him as the good players,” Hull said. “He’s relentless. Sometimes he yells at you… He doesn’t even know what happened on the ice. He knows something bad happened, and he just starts yelling. Ya know what? How about just being quiet back there, and we’ll be all right?
“Every guy, at some point, is mad at him. He’s relentless. He wants it his way, and if it’s not his way, you’re going to hear about it.
“He knows what he wants.”
Like every coach, Hitchcock’s coaching begins with keeping pucks out of his own net, and then he extends his coaching acumen to offence. So, when the playoffs start and goals become even more precious, two-way players like Alex Steen, Paul Stastny and David Backes become more important.
In Tarasenko’s case, the best way to judge his ice time is at even strength. He doesn’t kill penalties, and there are less powerplays in the post-season. So his ice time is likely trending downward come playoff time.
Tarasenko played 15:24 per game at even strength in the regular season, ranking third among Blues forwards. In Round 1 versus Chicago, he played 15:04 at even strength, but fell to seventh among forwards.
Hitchcock points out that Tarasenko’s shifts are short, in the 30-40 second range. “What can you accomplish in 30-40 seconds?” asks Hull “To me, not much. But, it’s a team game now.”
Like Hull, Tarasenko is still finding his goals, even if it’s not quite as much fun as he may like. But the ultimate fun in hockey comes when you’re lifting a big silver mug over our head.
“You throw everything out the window when the playoffs start. It’s just, ‘Did we win?’” Hull said. “If you lose, you could say, ‘If I had more time I could have created more offence and we could have won.’ But when you’re winning, you sit there and you shut up.
“You say, ‘Let’s win again tomorrow.’”