Stars and Starbucks
Dallas coach Hitchcock muses about his coaching career
Posted: Monday June 14, 1999 03:47 PM
By Denise Maloof, CNN/SI
DALLAS -- Count Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock among those who worship the caffeine god.
Altar calls involve Starbucks' daily feature -- tall and black -- and sometimes coffee-house coaches' meetings. But on this recent anonymous June morning, no notepad or companion accompanies him. Hitch's team is doing all the work for him, he says, on Lord Stanley's stage against the Buffalo Sabres, and the Stars need only an occasional prod.
In, or out? he's asked.
"Let's go outside," he says, with the mildness of someone unfolding a newspaper.
To where dawn warms metal café tables, and commuters in the parking lot slam car doors. Hitch doesn't drink coffee as much as he appreciates it, in shorts, without a watch. And while Cowboys-mad Dallas may have gone Cowboy-bonkers over the Stars, their generous-waisted general talks history, incognito, on a suburban sidewalk -- his, the United States' and his team's.
He laughs easily. His Everyman persona is a perfect bookend for Buffalo's similarly dry-witted Lindy Ruff, and Hitch downplays his contribution to the Stars' stuff-of-dreams regular season and playoff run. Or the presence of secretive ulcers.
Instead of twitching over Mike Modano and other Stars' injured limbs, or Dallas' embarrassingly puny power play, the man recently spent time with Buffalo-area Civil War reenactors. As sun and heat climb, he describes unearthing bullets from Gettysburg battlefield soil.
"The work is done," Hitch insists. "The push and pull of the regular season is part of the reason that we can weather whatever happens to us now. I absolutely love that pressure."
Perhaps because he feared he'd never feel it.
The 48-year-old Edmonton, Alberta, native reverts to cliches: "From 1984 to 1990, I worked for a living like everybody else, working full time and coaching part time." That's why he says he doesn't mind major-event media duty. Or that he's perceived as more New-Age magician than X's-and-O's genius, a la Detroit's Scotty Bowman. He insists that years as a sporting goods salesman deadened his sense of pretense, so although stars surround him now, literally and figuratively, he doesn't see his rising.
Despite a python-like defensive system. Three straight division titles. Two President's Trophies as the league's regular-season champions, and this year's All-Star head-coaching assignment (his North American team beat Ruff's World team, natch).
All in three and a half NHL seasons.
"In 1990, when I was [an assistant coach] in Philadelphia, a guy gave me some advice," Hitch says. "He said the rungs on a ladder go up and down, and you can slide down as fast as you can go up. I've never forgotten that."
A stranger bursts from Starbucks with, "Good luck, Coach."
"Thank you," Hitch calls back.
Deliberately myopic in outlook -- "I've got one of those monthly planners and there's not one entry in there for the month of May" -- he cites his relationship with GM Bob Gainey as a safety net, referring to Gainey's franchise vision and five Stanley Cup rings with the Montreal Canadiens.
Yet, Hitch isn't uncredentialed. Working-man's soft shoe aside, he won big in Canada's midget and juniors ranks, earning national coach-of-the-year honors in both categories. Beginning in 1984, a six-season run at Kamloops (British Columbia) of the Western Hockey League earned him a three-year stint as a Philadelphia Flyers assistant (1990-93), and his ascension as head coach of the IHL's Michigan K-Wings -- a successful Dallas minor-league affiliate under his watch -- came in 1993.
His big break came on Jan. 8, 1996, the midpoint of the 1995-96 season. Weary of a struggling team and five years of dual roles, Gainey decided to fire himself as head coach.
"Bob called and said that he was stepping back from coaching, and asked me, 'You want to give it a shot up here?' " Hitch recalls.
After packing enough clothes for a week, the Stars' new coach spent his transition time on airplane phones, saying goodbye to the K-Wings. Then he embarked on the roughest ride of his professional coaching career -- a 15-23-5 second-half gantlet.
"I tried to fit the same system to the team here, and it was wrong," Hitch says. "It was probably the biggest lesson I've learned in this business, a really humbling experience."
He concentrated on people instead, testing theories, Civil War regimental lessons; pestering coaching acquaintances and peers. Long-term tacticians like Bo Schembechler and Tom Landry remain a source of fascination -- Stars' assistant coach Doug Jarvis' son is named Landry, in honor of the city's most famous coach -- and Hitch admits, "I'm a sponge" when confronted with other people's success stories.
Still, he sees his primary contribution as someone who "tightens down the bubble." The most obvious examples are Modano, a pretty-boy scorer turned all-around threat, and Brett Hull, whose one-year Dallas apprenticeship has featured never-too-late courses in backchecking.
"As a coach, you have to feel like everybody's pulling in the same direction," Hitch says. "The thing that I was taught, was that before you can think about that person playing against you, you have to be sure of the people playing with you. These guys have to have confidence in each other, and in you, and the message I send is, 'Don't even think about winning. Think about being a team first.' "
"Go get 'em Ken!" a woman calls from the parking lot.
"Thanks!" Hitch calls back.
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