How Ken Hitchcock reinvented himself in final years of career

Dallas Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock joins HC at Noon to discuss reaching a very important milestone, picking up his 800th win behind an NHL bench.

Despite what just about anybody who’s worked with or against him would say, it is possible to catch Ken Hitchcock off guard. Dennis Coates still has the hard evidence and, one day, he plans to return to ‘Hitch’ the handwritten — in pencil no less — resumé Coates and other members of the Kamloops Blazers board got in 1984.

While every other candidate found the time to do some typing, Hitchcock’s presentation was less than perfect for a couple reasons. First off, he didn’t even really want the job, having carved out a niche for himself working at a sporting goods store in Edmonton and coaching a powerhouse AAA midget squad in nearby Sherwood Park. Additionally, Hitchcock didn’t even know he was supposed to bring a resumé until he had one final conversation with Kamloops brass just before his flight departed.

“I grabbed a bunch of lined paper at the airport and wrote out my resumé and the only thing they had on the airplane was a pencil,” he recalled when I spoke to him for a Sportsnet magazine story back in 2012. “I wrote it out on the airplane from Edmonton to Kamloops and I’d never written a resumé before.

“Pretty tough to have a resumé when all you’ve done is coach midget hockey.”

This morning, Hitchcock retired after a 22-year coaching in the NHL. And at this point, should he ever feel the need or change his mind, Hitchcock could probably scratch out his resumé in crayon while riding a Segway and still get a job coaching in the world’s best hockey league. In the final act of his career in St. Louis and Dallas, the 66-year-old found success with many of his tried and true methods — the same ones that helped him claim a Cup with Dallas in 1999 and win more games than everyone but Scotty Bowman and Joel Quenneville. But a man long known for being an ultra-demanding coach also implemented lessons gleaned during his final out-of-work stint.

Any talk of Hitchcock’s late-career adjustments must first be placed in the context of what he always possessed, namely an incredibly absorbent, layered hockey mind. Gary Agnew’s first contact with Hitchcock came after the former had spent roughly 20 years coaching the game at very high levels.

“You kind of think that, over that time period, you have a pretty good handle on X’s and O’s and preparation, work ethic and how the game should be played,” said Agnew. “And then you meet a guy like Hitch and you say, ‘It’s not fair he knows that much more than I do.’”

Hitchcock grew up playing hockey, but quit in his late teens to pursue another sporting passion, golf.

“Believe it or not, even in Edmonton, the two seasons overlapped,” Hitchcock said.

He ventured east to explore the possibility of NCAA golf at the University of Michigan, but said the decision to get in the car and drive home was an easy one once he found out how much that endeavor would cost.

He began a successful run coaching in Sherwood Park and had actually already turned down other offers to get behind the bench of a junior club when the Blazers came calling.

“I liked my life at that time, I have no idea why I got on that plane and I have no idea why they picked me,” he said.

Coates, a lawyer in the Kamloops area who was involved with the team for over 40 years, shed some light on the decision.

“You just get instincts about people who can win and not win, and people you can work with and not work with,” he said.

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The themes that would come to define Hitchcock as a coach surfaced quickly. He’s an information junkie, a relentless worker who demands the same detail-oriented devotion from his players as he gives to his craft. In fact, as Kamloops GM Bob Brown soon found out, everybody in the organization is expected to be as engaged as the coach.

“Brownie would get calls from Hitch at 2 o’clock in the morning talking about a line combination,” Coates recalled.

Another Hitchcock hallmark took root early on, though this one developed out of necessity. As a major junior rookie, Hitchcock had moments where he felt he was in over his head. He had no choice but to trust the leaders on his team, players like future NHLers Daryl Reaugh and Greg Hawgood.

“I turned the room over to them because I didn’t have a clue,” he said. “I didn’t even know where to point the damn bus.”

In doing so, Hitchcock stumbled upon a formula he used throughout his career. Rather than preach to 23 players, he hammers his message home through a core of capable leaders.

“He’s the harshest on them,” said former NHLer and current Vancouver Canucks assistant coach Manny Malhotra, who became one of the league’s premier defensive players under Hitchcock in Columbus. “There’s no free rides for anybody in the room, but he’s the harshest on the guys he knows can pull other guys into the battle.”

That process wasn’t always pretty. There isn’t a professional sports coach alive who hasn’t, on numerous occasions, asked some spit-laced questions of a player from close range. But Jeremy Roenick said while he’s played for coaches who yelled and screamed far more than Hitchcock, he stressed you did not want to be the player who hurt a team by doing something that ran counter to Hitchcock’s game plan.

“He would talk to you in the room as if you were committing some kind of capital crime,” said Roenick, who played for Hitchcock as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers. “He would definitely make you feel inferior in terms of the knowledge. He would hover himself over you — and not that that’s bad thing — but Ken is very intimidating.”

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It’s not as if Hitchcock started handing out hugs and candy late in his professional life, but he tweaked his approach after a reflective period beginning in 2010 when he lost his job behind the Blue Jackets bench. Agnew, who worked beside him on the Columbus coaching staff, was let go, too, but the pair, while still collecting paycheques from the Jackets, continued to see a lot of each other living in Central Ohio.

“We would meet at least five days a week for coffee,” Hitchcock says.

At the time, Agnew — now associate coach of the American Hockey League’s Utica Comets — had two teenage children involved in sport, son Brett being a hockey player and daughter Lindsay playing soccer. The veteran coaches talked a lot about the needs of young athletes and Hitchcock attended seminars on the subject, which is no surprise given the Civil War buff’s all-around love of learning.

“All the guy does is read books,” Roenick says in a tone that hints at where that activity falls on his fun hierarchy.

One of the takeaways for Hitchcock was that athletes today are much, much harder on themselves than their predecessors. Every aspect of their existence is so heavily regimented — from diet and their physical conditioning to video sessions and practices—that it can all become a bit much. On a given day during that latter portion of his career, Hitchcock could wander into work and find a handful of his guys glued to screens watching their shifts from the night before. Players are almost all students of the game now and the best way to reach them is through detailed explanations, not enhanced decibel levels. Hitchcock tried to make his points direct and concise, believing brevity would help players turn the page on miscues, rather than letting mistakes become a mental drain.

“This is a (generation) that needs to move on quickly,” he said.

That’s why humour is another element Hitchcock incorporated in his teachings.

“It becomes, ‘It’s not as bad as you think’,” he said of injecting the odd chuckle into coaching. “You bring that aspect into it and I think it increases the learning curve.”

Creating laughs is no problem for Hitchcock, who is universally acknowledged as a people person.

“Get him outside the rink and he’s a hoot,” said Roenick, who admitted his own flamboyant personality caused some clashes with Hitchcock, but added the two always shared a mutual respect. “You get him on a golf course and he’ll hold court. He’ll have people enthralled, laughing, just totally engaged in what he’s talking about. That’s a very hard trait to master.”

The trepidation Hitchcock originally felt about the move that ultimately launched his career dissipated fast. He said it took just one day on the job in Kamloops to know he’d made the right decision and his instincts were as accurate as Coates’s when he met the guy with the pencil resume that’s still floating around the Kamloops offices.

“We’re going to frame it and give it to him one day,” Coates said.

No better time than now.

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