His first hockey memory is from 1955. He is four. He is rinkside at Edmonton Gardens with his father, Ray, attending a game between the Red Wings, the '55 Stanley Cup winner, and their farm team, the Edmonton Flyers. He sits near the blue line, where there is no protective glass, no chicken wire, nothing. His father often talks about Gordie Howe, and there comes number 9, taking one loop, then stopping and leaning across the boards and chatting with Ray for the remainder of the warmup.
Here is what Hitchcock remembers best: Howe, who was ambidextrous but shot righthanded, carried a lefthanded stick, a stick that was "the wrong way."
Details mattered, even then.
Ray was a minor league hockey coach, and Ken was his father's son. And when Ray died in 1965, of cancer, the bottom fell out of a teenager's world. Hitchcock struck out on a self-destructive mission to dwell on the edge. He lived fast. Food would become a release from frustration. He could teach and motivate like few men. He had to. When he landed his first NHL job in 1990, as a Flyers assistant coach after a successful junior hockey career, he weighed more than 400 pounds.
During a conversation at the Blues practice facility in January, Hitchcock said, "You'd hear, 'Oh, my God. He coaches? Does he skate?' ... You develop convenient hearing. It hurt me, but I never let it get inside myself."
He was too immersed in details. He would prepare his teams brilliantly—his old antagonist on the 1999 Cup team in Dallas, Brett Hull, swears no coach was better—but the constant drip, drip, drip in pursuit of excellence eventually would fray his players and erode his teams. When his time was up in Dallas and Philadelphia and finally Columbus (and with the hard coaches, their time invariably comes) there were shards of broken glass.
This time? Maybe a storybook ending awaits Hitchcock and a Cup-starved franchise. The coach is 60 and has never seemed as comfortable in his own skin. He follows the CrossFit lifestyle system and a so-called caveman diet, eating meats and nuts and berries. He says he has lost "significant weight" in the 25 months since he was fired as the coach of the Blue Jackets, although he declines to give a number. He has reconnected with the people part of the hockey business, enjoying his players more than ever. ("When he found out we were thinking of pranking his office," Pietrangelo says, "he told us he would plant a tree in our driveways.") When Hitchcock is vexed, he stays in his car outside the practice facility for as long as it takes to tamp down the ill humor. "I'm still a bear about playing and acting the right way," he says, "but I don't sweat the small stuff." After playing the familiar part of the sitcom mother-in-law, Hitchcock as nag, he is now more like "a mother," ventures St. Louis president John Davidson.
"The biggest reason for [firing Payne] and bringing in Hitch was we had to find out if these drafted kids ... were going to become good NHL players or not," says Davidson, who drafted Oshie, Berglund, Pietrangelo and traded for Shattenkirk and winger Chris Stewart, core players who are 25 or younger. "[Armstrong] said Hitch'll figure out quickly if these young players are capable of carrying a team. If not, we better start moving people out. Enough of potential.
"I like this Hitch.... I don't know if it's fair to ask [Jamie] Langenbrunner if he would've come knowing Hitch would be the coach"—the winger, who signed as a free agent last July and who is now out with a broken left foot, played for Hitchcock for eight years in the minors and in Dallas—"but it'd be an interesting question."
When asked, Langenbrunner smiles and replies, "Yes. Yes, I would."