EDMONTON — Ken Hitchcock is the Puck Whisperer, a man who can tame the 20-player horse that bucked the last coach off better than any coach of his generation.
Suddenly, an Edmonton Oilers team that had just stopped functioning under Todd McLellan — who we maintain is among the upper echelon of NHL coaches today — is back in the playoff picture and cruising along at 8-2-2 under Hitchcock.
We had a chance to sit in with a couple of Philly writers, who visited with the former Flyers coach on the morning of Philadelphia’s only visit to Edmonton this season. Hitchcock, who also explains the game to a hockey fan perhaps better than any coach we’ve ever met, was in a mood to talk.
If you’re coaching a hockey team, you’ll want to read this. Here’s what we learned. (Answers have been edited for brevity.)
Q — Usually when teams make in-season coaching changes there’s a two to three week period where teams begin to catch on. You got them playing right away. How come?
A — A lot of the work was done by Todd and his staff. We’re part of the same coaching tree. Todd, Bill Peters, Mike Babcock, myself. So the terminology was easy… and then I do what I do. It’s just concepts, it’s not X’s and O’s. A lot of concepts (that were), quite frankly, in place. And I think we had some things that went on early that allowed us to have some confidence. We won a game in a shootout. We won a game in overtime. We won in a rink in San Jose that has not been nice to us right off the bat. So we were able to grow kind of quicker. But… I didn’t have to touch anything. I’ve had three full hockey practices since I started. It’s been what was already in place.
Q — They say that simply having the players hear a new voice can be the difference. Is that true?
A — No. I think it’s the same stuff, but a different approach. I’ve learned over time that the pregame preparation is one of the most overrated things in our sport. Because you’re saying the same things over and over again. But postgame preparation is not. It’s really important. And how you move the train along the tracks is all in your postgame review. So I drill down hard on things (the day after a game) that I know are going to come up the next day when we play. We’re very brief on our pregame presentations, very brief on our preparation, but we’re not brief on our review. It’s very detailed.
Q — Do you speak to players right after a game?
A — I stay away from them until the next day. I might go into the locker room every third or fourth game, but otherwise I don’t go into the locker room. But when we’re in there the next day before we practice, or before we do anything, there is a lot of detail that gets dealt with. My job is to keep the train on the tracks and keep the players out of the ditch for a long period of time, and I believe you do it with hard review. Most of it’s positive. But if you really review the details then they start to become absorbed. Because there isn’t much that gets absorbed on the day of a game.
Q — You’ve carried that over from Dallas and Philly. What do you think you have changed? Is there a lighter side since your days in Philly?
A — I don’t believe there’s a lighter side. But I’ve learned over time in generations… when I first started in this game, you told players what to do and that was it. Then you got to what and how to do it. And that became relevant. And now it’s what, how and why. And what’s in it for them. And you better be prepared to go the distance in explaining all of those in detail or you’re not going to get a buy-in.
(You can’t just say because I say so) No. And you can’t just give them the information because they have thoughts. The athletes now are better prepared than they’ve ever been. They’re more physically, mentally prepared. But they’ve got strong opinions. And you better be prepared for the dialog and the debate. And you better have the patience for it. And that’s a daily conversation that you need to have with guys all the time and you better have that time. Because if you don’t it gets away on you.
Q — You’ve coached some great players over the years. What makes Connor McDavid unique?
A — The thing that’s unique to him is that he’s a fearless, reckless player. He’s a tremendous athlete, a tremendous player but he’s fearless — willing to pay any price to score a goal. To attack. He goes into places that make me nervous just being on the bench. Absolutely reckless and fearless, in order to get into scoring areas.
Q — Is every coach hired to be fired? Is it a ‘tick, tick, ick,’ kind of job?
A — You know it (going in). My job is to get players to do things that are really uncomfortable, and find value in that. Your job is to get them through the wall and out the other side. That’s very difficult to do. The feel you have as a coach is, when it’s inconsistent, you know that there is some resistance in the room. That’s when you need the general manager (to have your back). When they do it, and they don’t do it, and they do it, and they don’t do it… The feel that you have is, somebody or something is stopping them. I don’t find it makes that big a difference to change the coach. I think you have to go a lot deeper than that … and find out what, who, or whatever is stopping them from going deeper.
Q — Are the Oilers, then, the perfect team for you? They must be very receptive, after what happened here last season, no?
A — Sometimes teams are in the position where they’re ready to listen. This team was already on its way, way ahead of the curve before I got here. Sometimes teams aren’t ready to listen. Doesn’t matter who’s the coach. Maybe my approach is a little different than Todd’s, but they were already on their way here, for me.
Q — Why aren’t you on a beach in Florida right now? (He’s 66.)
A — I just had coffee with (Flyers assistant) Rick Wilson, and we both said, ‘Are we friggin’ nuts?’ We were the mayors of the coffee club. I’ve got to tell you, both of us miss one thing: we both love having a stake in the game. Whether it’s a coach or as a consultant or whatever, we love having a stake in the game. That’s the fuel that is our fire. It’s not like I have to be the head coach. I know what makes me feel fulfilled. I’m part of a group that has a stake in the game.
I can’t watch hockey as a fan. When I was watching games when I wasn’t coaching, I’d watch until I had the information, then I’d turn the TV off and watch the History Channel. Or Discovery. It’s not like I need to be the boss or the head coach, but I need to be part of an organization where my opinion matters and (I’m) involved in an outcome.