A long road to the top
Hitchcock survives tragic past to attain NHL glory
Posted: Thursday June 04, 1998 01:00 AM
Hitchcock's difficult past is behind him, and the best is still to come (AP)|
COPPELL, Texas (AP) -- On a summerlike afternoon, Ken Hitchcock sits
placidly at his home on the patio overlooking the sparkling pool
and the small neighborhood lake beyond, and once again feels the
chill bumps crawl up his spine.
He is sipping iced tea and talking about the worst day of his
life -- the day he began to understand that his world was about to
spin out of control -- and he can still see his dying father's eyes.
They are seared into his worst nightmares, feverish,
"The eyes of death," he calls them.
To fully understand the man who leads the Stars, start there, in
a hospital room 32 years ago, and follow that 14-year-old boy's
attempt to overcome the demons that began eating at him that day.
Admittedly something of a chameleon -- it's his salesman
background -- the Stars' coach is many things to many people.
To fans, he is the lovable, teddy-bear-like coach of the NHL's
best regular-season hockey team that's playing in the Western
Conference finals, the Captain Kangaroo look-alike who always
stands with his arms crossed behind the Stars' bench, wearing his
lucky suit with the dark shirt and red tie.
To his players, he is equal parts Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi,
a master defensive strategist and an in-your-face taskmaster who
demands everything his players have to give, then asks for more.
To team president Jim Lites and general manager Bob Gainey, the
men who hired him and entrusted their team, he is the workaholic
It is easy now to forget that this is a man who never really
wanted to be an NHL coach; to forget that this was a boy who was
once the best youth hockey player in Edmonton, Alberta, a western
Canadian town full of promising young players; that he was a
scratch golfer and yet grew up to be a man who once weighed almost
The contradictions are the stuff of a psychologist's dreams.
There's no way to know, however, the difficulty of a man's walk
through life until you've strapped on his skates, or slipped into
the size 50-something pants he once wore, or taken a bus ride to
the hospital to find a father who would never be coming home again.
It starts there.
"They never called it cancer," Hitchcock remembers.
He was 12 1/2, the eldest of Ray and Janet Hitchcock's three
children, when he learned that the father he worshiped had
something wrong with his back.
"It was always this growth, this tumor, was the way it was
described to me," Hitchcock remembers. "There was not one day
that went by that I didn't think my dad was going to come home and
"And there were periods of time when he did come home. I
remember taking the door off my bedroom to put between his mattress
and the box springs to help his back."
But one day Ray wasn't coming home anymore and the son who had
followed his father to the hockey rink he had managed for as long
as he could remember, who had carefully listened as his dad taught
him the intricacies of the golf swing, couldn't wait any longer.
"For the last six weeks before he died they wouldn't let me see
him," Hitchcock says. "I was really upset about that, but I
didn't let anyone know it, I hid it really good. I decided on my
own that I knew how to get to the hospital. You had to take three
buses to get there, but I knew how to do it.
"I took that bus and I walked into his room in the hospital. ..."
Whatever the boy thought he might find, whatever his fears, the
reality was much, much worse.
"My father was hanging from a sling, or a hammock, eight feet
up in the air in his room," Hitchcock says. "He looked at me with
these eyes that had death in them. He never knew who I was, never
even knew I was standing there.
"I left that hospital, but to this day I can't tell you how I
got home. I just don't remember. I never told anyone about that day
until I told my mom years later, and I don't even know why I told
"For months after that, I would wake up with those eyes staring
at me. He was hung up there and he turned his head and I saw those
eyes and it was like a skeleton, and I knew what hell was like."
Five days later, Ray Hitchcock died. Sometime during those five
days the boy who had been Ken Hitchcock disappeared, never to
return. What was left was a mass of pain, anger and resentment.
Nor was there any letup for the Hitchcock family. At 15, Ken's
girlfriend was hit by a car and killed after they had had a
quarrel. He had gotten off the bus one stop before she did.
At 20, cancer also took his mother.
"Our family just blew up," Hitchcock says. Younger brother
Keith and younger sister Barb went separate directions.
"One day we were this tight-knit family, and it just went
'Poof!'... I needed to be responsible to somebody, and there was
Hitchcock doesn't remember consciously deciding to kill himself
after his father died, though he can look back now and see that he
was on a path of self-destruction. Mostly, he just quit caring.
"I was really bitter," he says. "Like a lot of kids, my dad
was my best friend. He meant everything to me. He took me
everywhere, any place I wanted to go, anything I wanted to do. We
had bonded and had a very tight, personal relationship.
"Then one day he was gone and all that changed."
Hitchcock's sister, Barb Marshall, now a computer consultant in
Vancouver, British Columbia, remembers how angry her brother was.
"I could see him saying to himself, 'Why did this happen to
us?' It had a real impact on our whole family, naturally," she
says, "But without question I think Ken was the one who suffered
the most by my dad's death."
Family and friends did the best they could to help, ferrying the
children to their sporting events, but it was never the same.
"What made me angry afterward was when I'd go to a baseball
game and there would be 11 players with 11 dads and me," Hitchcock
says. "It always seemed to be everybody else and me."
His father's illness and subsequent death triggered an emotional
response in Hitchcock that needed an outlet, a release, but there
was none to be had. A big youngster anyway, he began to put on
weight at an alarming rate. The boy who had been the best player on
his team at 14, an elite athlete who had skated with boys two years
older in Midget Hockey and led his league in scoring, couldn't even
make the team as a defenseman two years later.
"When I see pictures of myself back then, I looked like all the
other 12-year-old kids," he says. "But when my mom started to
work and I was out on my own, I really started gaining weight. I
was eating 5,000-6,000 calories a day; a lot of fried foods and a
lot of late-night meals."
Nancy, the woman Ken married a year ago in June, sees photos of
him then, eating his way to 478 pounds -- he's around 240 now -- and
she almost cries.
"When I look at those pictures, I see someone who was in great
pain," she says, "someone who was trying to hurt himself.
"I think he handed himself a death sentence. A lot of people
who suffer terror and trauma like that resort to something in
excess. For some people it's drinking, for some people it's drugs.
For him it was food and solitude."
There were friends and even surrogate families, like Wilf Brooks
and his wife, Shirley, who still own United Cycle, the sporting
goods store in Edmonton where Ken worked for nine years before
leaving to coach hockey full time.
"There's Ken the family guy, who had no problem bridging three
generations in my family," Wilf Brooks recalls. "He had the
ability to communicate with a variety of people on their level.
"And there was Ken, the hockey guy. That's the guy who puts
absolutely nothing in front of himself and his game of hockey. He
had two loves when he worked with us: working at United Cycle and
coaching hockey. The hockey Ken would block out everything else and
focus on getting that hockey situation settled. Any team that gets
Ken, on any level, gets all of him."
His friends knew the pain inside Ken Hitchcock, but he had built
a wall and no one was allowed inside it. So they tried to help him
with his increasing weight problem.
Shirley Brooks fixed him healthy lunches when he worked at
Chuck Gale, now the director of Canada's Forest Service in
Ottawa, and his family all but adopted Hitchcock.
"My wife had a big wooden spoon she kept handy," Gale says.
"He's probably still got bruises on his hand from reaching into
the cookie jar.
"I'd tell him, 'Take a walk down Jasper Avenue and see how many
people your size you see. You won't see any of them because the
rest are dead.'"
But Hitchcock thought as long as he could sell sporting goods,
as long as he could coach hockey, as long as he didn't have to look
in a mirror and could block out the insults he'd hear walking down
the street, it didn't matter.
"At times I lived like I didn't care whether I lived or died,"
he remembers. "I lived very hard. I drove fast, I drove
recklessly. I was careless. I thought at times I was invincible.
"But I did it with an attitude that my only focus was on today.
I never thought about tomorrow. I never spent one minute thinking
about the future. I never cared."
It was hockey that ultimately saved Ken Hitchcock. The game he
loved found a way to pay him back for his devotion.
It started in Kamloops, British Columbia, where he was coaching
juniors. Hitchcock was enormously successful with the Blazers,
winning the West Division five times in six years and twice being
selected Western Hockey League coach of the year.
Needing funds for a new arena, someone came up with the idea of
spurring contributions by tying them into a promotion that would
include a Hitchcock diet. The more pounds he lost, the more money
fans would pledge.
"People would follow him around in the grocery store to make
sure he bought the right stuff," Gale recalls. "If he bought a
dozen doughnuts, everyone in town knew it."
Hitchcock went along with the promotion more out of community
spirit than any passion about losing the weight.
"I finally went on the diet more to get people off my butt than
anything else," he says with a shrug. "It was like, 'Well, OK,
I'll give it a go.' I played the game with everybody. 'Yeah, yeah,
"Then I started losing this weight and all the competitive
fires that I'd had when I was younger, they just started taking
over. All of a sudden, exercise became enjoyable. All of a sudden
having people say good things about how I looked became enjoyable.
I learned a lot about myself as a competitor, and that's what
really turned it around for me."
The second half of the saving of Ken Hitchcock came when he met
Nancy, a TV producer in Kalamazoo, Michigan, during a Toys-for-Tots
campaign three years ago. They were married last June.
"He was generous, kind, positive," she says. "He can turn the
bad things around quickly and show me how there's an opportunity in
everything. He's generous of spirit, with me, the children Emily,
Alex and Noah, everybody he knows."
She also quickly discerned the demons that still haunted
Hitchcock's soul. "She's really helped me deal with those
problems, to talk them out, to deal with them and to put them
emotionally where they belong and to not put this wall up all the
time," Hitchcock says.
"It's different when you're thinking about sharing your life
with someone," Nancy says. "You're looking at the realities of
coexistence. There were just things he hadn't thought about, things
he should have been working on all along but didn't really have to
because the strength of his personality and his coaching kind of
carried him through; things like the weight issue and permanent
relationships and family."
As in any good partnership, Ken and Nancy have learned to rely
on each other.
"We're kind of at opposite ends," Ken says, laughing. "In my
personal life I'd been kind of this sloppy, Oscar Madison-'Odd
Couple' type of person, where nothing is exact or focused. I'm into
coaching and the details of that, but everything else is kind of
"Nancy is a very organized, efficient person, and we have a
From having no family at all -- though he and Barb and Keith
visit and talk often now -- Hitchcock finds it both delightful and
perplexing to be at the center of a family of five again.
"Kids don't have down days, and they don't really care if
you've had a down day," he says. "They want to see you, and they
want to see you at your positive best. That's been really good for
me because it's made me take stock of, not just of the importance
of coaching, but also the fact that you're a better person and a
better coach if you learn to shelve it, put it on the back burner,
deal with it tomorrow, and don't carry it with you."
In so many ways Ken Hitchcock has come full circle.
As a youngster he wanted nothing so much as to be a coach and a
teacher, like his father was, and he has reached the pinnacle of
his profession. He wanted a loving, closely knit family, and Nancy
and the children have provided that.
"I still have some skeletons and I don't know how long it'll be
before they go away," he says. "Maybe they never will. But a lot
of them have left the closet now."
There is peace in understanding, finally, that he has put the
worst day in his life behind him now, and that the best is still