A stranger to the game would never pick him out as the head coach.
While others in tracksuits race about the practice with their whistles and drills, Ken Hitchcock sits, huddled, at the far end of the players bench in the hours before his St. Louis Blues effortlessly dispatched the spiralling Ottawa Senators 3-1 Tuesday. White-haired, and today a shadow of his former rotund self, he has been handed a fourth chance, at 60, and is more than making the most of it.
But right now he is talking about the latest troubles in NHL hockey: coach injuries. Tom Renney of the Oilers cut badly by a puck in Edmonton, Lindy Ruff with three broken ribs when run over by one of his own Buffalo Sabres.
“It’s a dangerous sport,” Hitchcock laughs. “That’s why I think we should get hazard pay.”
Only the day before, one of Hitchcock’s Blues tipped a puck that very nearly caught the head coach in the head. The coach ordered him to do push-ups to atone. The old Ken Hitchcock would have boiled him alive in the hot tub before nailing him to the far end of the bench.
The true “hazard” of coaching in the NHL is the pink slip. You can win a Stanley Cup, as Hitchcock did with the Dallas Stars, and be fired the moment the wave you have been riding hits the first rock. Two years ago this month Hitchcock was fired by the Columbus Blue Jackets. It hurt more than when Dallas canned him, more than when he was let go by the Philadelphia Flyers. He thought he was through only to be surprised by a call from an old friend from his Dallas days, Doug Armstrong, now general manager of the Blues. Armstrong was firing coach Davis Payne and wanted Hitchcock to take over – an astonishingly successful coach replacement that has resulted in a 25-7-7 run for the Blues that had lifted them to the third-best record in the tough Western Conference entering the NHL’s games Wednesday.
They say Hitchcock has changed. The Edmonton native who came up through minor hockey and the minor leagues had no playing credentials to speak of and exerted his control through strict discipline. (It’s no surprise that he studies the strategies and style of U.S. Civil War generals.) His NHL reputation was of a short shelf life: come in hard, bring discipline, get immediate results, but eventually wear on the players. His success in international competition, interestingly, is renowned where everything is, by necessity, short-term and immediate.
They say he has become a kinder, gentler coach, but if he has changed then so, too, has the game. The change, he says, goes far beyond the early differences noted after the 2004-05 lockout and the bringing in of new rules to restrict obstruction and reward skill.
“It’s really different now,” he says. “The last two years it’s changed even more. We tried to still play possession hockey after the lockout, and now it’s race-a-rrific hockey. Bang it up the ice, chip it in, fore-check like hell, bang it down the ice.”
Hitchcock says in two recent St. Louis matches there were no-whistle runs of nearly nine minutes and nearly six minutes.
“The game is so fast now,” the coach says. “You never saw that before. It’s unbelievable how fast the game is, but it’s fast without puck possession, so it’s like fore-check, fore-check, fore-check, fore-check, fore-check, fore-check. …
“Sometimes it feels like it’s organized chaos out there. It’s what it is, with no red line and with teams playing three forwards high in the neutral zone, you’re not going to get a puck possession game, you’re just going to have to deal with it and get used to it.”
Another change, he says, is the relative youth and inexperience of today’s players. This shift is most profound on defence, he says, with freewheeling youngsters far more inclined to join the rush.
“You used to circle one defenceman, maybe two, to join the play,” he says. “So you would pay attention to two defencemen on every team. Now you’ve got one on every pair that joins the play, so you’re always defending four on the rush. It never used to be like that. It used to be only certain guys played up.
“You’re trying to get 22 and 23 year olds playing like 27 year olds, so you’re trying to get some sort of order in your game but you’re doing it with much younger players, and I think that’s why, for me, the biggest change I’ve had to adjust to is the next day. Not the game day, the next day.”
He is talking about teaching, the true art of coaching young players. Coaches who fail to adjust, he says, are in danger of forcing their players on “information overload” and freezing them to a point where they are spending so much time trying to figure out what they are supposed to be doing that the play will be long since past them.
Searching for an analogy to explain better the difference between the 2011-12 game and the game that came out of the lockout, he seizes on one that is played with racquets instead of sticks and balls rather than pucks.
“It used to be tennis when we came out of the lockout – now it’s like Ping-Pong. The game is so fast.”