Ken Hitchcock's transformation
Ken Hitchcock was close to retirement when he got a call from the St. Louis Blues
The once rotund, overbearing coach was notorious for burning out his players
After adjusting to the faster NHL game, Hitchcock has revived the struggling Blues
Sure, he could have just bagged it all, could have slipped into a nice, comfy life of semi-retirement. Lord knows Ken Hitchcock had already given enough of his life to hockey.
Now there would be more time to indulge his growing passion for the CrossFit diet/exercise/lifestyle program that had already helped him take off 60 pounds and left him feeling better than he had in years, even with his 60th birthday approaching.
Now there would finally be more time for friends and family, more time to fully indulge his love of history, particularly the Civil War. (He started participating in re-enactments after his first visit to Gettysburg in 1992, when he was hired by the Philadelphia Flyers as an assistant following his phenomenally successful junior coaching career.) Hitch has wide admiration for the South, particularly Robert E. Lee, but so far the only greatcoat he's worn is that of Union blue, as a self-described "grunt."
A year-and-a-half removed from his last head coaching job with the Columbus Blue Jackets -- who made their first and still only playoff appearance under his watch -- Hitchcock was beginning to "think I would have to do something else, to be honest with you. I was starting to mentally prepare myself for that."
He was still on the Jackets' payroll as a consultant to the team's minor-pro system, but he didn't get any calls from teams seeking a new bench boss an was increasingly beginning to believe his phone might never ring again. Besides, he wasn't quite sure if he'd even say yes. He knows only too well the commitment it takes to win, and -- lord, where did the years go? -- he knew that he was turning 60 in a sport where players and coaches were trending younger.
But then something happened: Hitchcock got his hockey coaching religion back in, of all places, the birthplace of basketball.
"I spent two or three days with the coaches in Springfield (Mass., where the Blue Jackets' AHL team is based), and that was a lot of fun digging in with them. That really got me mentally prepared to take a phone call again," Hitchcock says.
A week later, the phone did ring. Surely, it was from the Jackets, the team that had devolved into a laughingstock since firing him as its head coach on Feb. 3, 2010. But instead of a mea culpa offer from management -- which some reports at the time suggested was imminent -- the incoming call had a 314 area code, not 614. Doug Armstrong, the GM of the St. Louis Blues, was on the line.
"I was absolutely shocked," Hitchcock says. "I wasn't ready for it, and it really caught me by surprise. But he asked the one question, did I still want to coach? When I thought more about it, it was still obvious: yes."
So on Nov. 6, with the Blues floundering under .500, Hitchcock was hired to replace Davis Payne. The record since for St. Louis: 13-3-4 entering Friday's game in Glendale, Ariz., against the Coyotes.
"I'm enjoying every minute of this right now," he says. "For me, I love the planning and preparation. You know what I really love about it? I love the building of the team. I love when you see players buy into a program that you're trying to sell. Right now, we're a team that's still learning and striving. There's four teams in the West -- Vancouver, San Jose, Detroit and Chicago -- that we're all chasing to be like. We want to be one of the teams that makes those four teams think. We want teams to take us seriously, and to do that you've got to win a lot of games and we've won some lately."
Those first couple games back behind the bench, though, left Hitchcock severely worried about his decision to say yes to Armstrong.
"I thought I was still a great coach in front of the TV set. But, wow, those first two games actually on the bench, I mean it was not good. I thought my middle name was 'Who's Up?'" say the man who compiled a 291-125-25 record with the Kamloops Blazers, still the best winning percentage in WHL history. "The game is very, very quick right now. It's a four-line game with a lot of tempo. There's a lot fewer whistles in the game than I can remember. I couldn't keep up at times in those games. But I started to get up to speed again."
What is the secret sauce in Hitchcock's coaching method? If it had to be boiled down to a sentence, it might be something like: "Chase puck, get puck, shoot puck on net, relentlessly hound down rebound of puck -- rinse, repeat. If other team has puck, make sure it's a long ways from your own net."
"I remember he always used to say, 'take away the guts of the ice,'" says Colorado Avalanche coach Joe Sacco, who played under Hitchcock during his final year as a player in 2002-03. "His philosophy was to keep the opposition to the outside all the time, to take away their play in the middle of the ice."
Despite a resume that included a Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999 and a Western Conference championship the next year, the knock on Hitchcock was always that he burned players out too fast with his relentless drive for perfection. He was a mean, sarcastic SOB who didn't care about humiliating you with a tantrum right on the bench, more than one player has said over the years. The fact that he once weighed well over 400 pounds and never played professionally lent itself to too much easy mockery from his players when times got tense and Hitchcock's smothering coaching style became even more overbearing. He became an easy coach to tune out. During his latest hiatus, Hitchcock began to realize that better.
"You learn after a while that your biggest job as a coach is to give hope," he says. "You've got to let the losses go easier. I move on much quicker now. I read a ton. When I go to a bookstore, I don't just buy one book. I buy a bunch, and I take them with me on the road. (He's currently reading Roy MacGregor's new book "Wayne Gretzky's Ghost: And Other Tales from a Lifetime in Hockey" and just finished one about Thomas Jefferson). You have to get your mind away from the game at times."
He's not a company pitchman, but his immersion into the CrossFit lifestyle -- which emphasizes the mind as much as the body -- helped him see life differently, too. After helping Canada win the Olympic gold medal in 2010 as an assistant coach, Hitchcock took a trip to California and was goaded into attending a CrossFit workout session. This would just be another in the many fad diet/fitness programs he'd tried over the years, he first thought. But he's still with it today, looking up CrossFit centers in every city he visits and hewing to the program.
Finally, the director of all those classic scary movies is known as the most rotund Hitchcock again. "It's a way of life. You've got to read up on it," he says.
There appears to be a lot more coaching, a lot more winning, a lot more living, for Ken Hitchcock to do. Clearly, retirement can wait a while.