EDMONTON — The clichés follow Ken Hitchcock.
His players hate to play for him. His style doesn’t work with today’s players.
And this old chestnut: He has a “shelf life.” Like every coach in Edmonton hasn’t had a shelf life.
As news broke this past few days that Hitchcock has two years remaining after this one on his contract with the Oilers, the possibility suddenly existed that he could return as head coach next season.
Now, a new general manager will be hired, and we’d almost guarantee that his choice as a head coach will not be a 67-year-old who won his only Stanley Cup 19 months after Connor McDavid was born.
But take a look at Edmonton’s roster, and tell me that a coach that has a 9-5-3 record in his last 17 games isn’t doing a fantastic job. The record, however, isn’t everything.
What about the clichés? The shelf life? The players’ feelings?
We went out to define what it is that Hitchcock does to earn his reputation. What are the traits that make Hitch Hitch.
“He believes in the emotional part of the game,” said Kyle Brodziak who had Hitchcock in St. Louis and Edmonton. “He likes to get on guys and see how they respond, because he knows that most guys respond when emotions are high.”
How does Hitchcock raise those emotions? Often, by getting the players mad at him.
“It’s the challenging part. Challenging your players,” said Milan Lucic, when asked to define the old-school coach. “Givin’ it to them a little more. In their face a little more.”
“Yeah, even though it’s not personal. But getting a reaction out of you to get some emotion going,” Lucic said. “You know, sometimes the newer-school coached can get lost in the Xs and Os. Whereas old-school coaches sometimes get lost in the emotional part of the game.”
Here’s an example we bounced off Lucic: He fails to get a puck out along the boards, and it results in an opposition chance. Some coaches would lean in and instruct Lucic quietly in his ear. Others would wait for the video room the next day.
Hitchcock? He instructs Lucic on his failures loud enough for every other player to hear.
“There are different styles. That’s coaching,” shrugs an unapologetic Hitchcock. “And a lot of times you’re not just doing it for him. You’re doing it for everyone.”
At the time, Lucic isn’t loving it. But he appreciates the process.
“For me, now your teammates know,” he said. “Now you don’t want to let your teammates down. It becomes more about your teammates than the coach.”
It’s a coaching tool that an old-school coach might use, where a younger coach has the player’s feelings in mind. Clearly, the coaching vocation has not been spared the same softer transformation that has benefitted — or afflicted — society as a whole.
“Parenting is a lot different these days. The way kids are raised is a lot different,” said Lucic. “Awareness to sensitivity. Awareness to mental health.”
Principals used to dole out “the strap” across the palms of a misbehaving student. Try that in 2019 and you’ll be bagging groceries within the week.
“I got the wooden spoon when I came home. My parents were old-school, Eastern European immigrants,” laughed Lucic. “But they were more our parents than our friends. Whereas now, it seems like parents are sometimes more friends with their kids. They’re scared to have a hard conversation with their own child, and if the kid has never experienced a hard conversation growing up, when they get to their 20s and someone is having a hard conversation with them, they don’t know how to react.”
That might perfectly describe why the old-school coach and the 21-year-old superstar have trouble finding common ground. However, we spoke to two 40-something former NHLers who both loathed Hitchcock at times, but would say today that they learned more from him than any other coach.
“I loved playing form Hitch. Hated him half the time, but loved playing for him,” said one. “Most guys, they appreciate what Hitch did for them more when they look back. When they’re in it? Not so much. But after, they realize they become better players having played for him.”
Remember Hitchcock’s post-game rant this season about how “the coaches can’t care more than the players?” Well, that missile was aimed squarely at Leon Draisaitl, who was particularly derelict in his team play that night.
Up to that game Draisaitl was scoring at a pace of 1.2 points per game. Since then? He’s at 1.45 points per game — down the stretch when points are tougher to find.
“Hitch preaches ‘Get pucks behind them.’ And ‘the ice is behind them,’” texted another former player. “He leans heavily on his top guys to carry the reigns. He demands work ethic.
“He loves the game. It’s his life. He taught me a lot about the game.”
So, perhaps the question becomes: Maybe McDavid, Draisaitl et al. could use another year of Hitchcock? Maybe a team that has completely lost its culture — that had one year of proper defensive hockey under Todd McLellan, then totally forgot how to play defensively — needs a guy like Hitchcock?
Maybe the Oilers shouldn’t be asking the current players what they think of Hitchcock? Maybe they should ask the retired ones, who look back with clearer vision of what they learned from him?
“This league is so tight now, you have to check every night. And the teams who have success are the teams that do it every night,” said centre Sam Gagner. “Obviously you have to create … but part of that is checking the puck back. You have to have the puck.”
Look, this roster isn’t very good. You know the old hockey standard that says your best players have to be your best players to win?
Well, McDavid, Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are all having career years, and the Oilers are 33-34-8. Hitchcock is squeezing every drop from this lemon, every morsel of blood from the stone, and among the players who really matter (including Darnell Nurse), we’re seeing their best hockey.
He’s not the long-term coach in Edmonton, clearly. And honestly, we wouldn’t give you 5-to-1 odds he’ll be back in September as head coach.
But what if another year of Ken Hitchcock is exactly what this young Oilers core needs, while a new GM overhauls the rest of the roster in 2019-20?
“Look,” says Hitchcock, “coaching is, you coach them up because you care about their development. If you coach just to win, you’re going to be heartbroken. It doesn’t work that way. The satisfaction of coaching is helping the players reach their potential.
“You’re taking the players to a place, a lot of times, they can’t get to themselves. And you’re helping them because you believe in them.”
What if it’s an old-school guy who holds the road map in Edmonton, at least while the superstars are still this young?
One thing about Hitchcock: You know what you’re getting every day.
“As much as they say guys change, coaches don’t change,” Hitchcock admits. “You are what you are.”