Monday, November 7, 2011

Blues pass coaching torch to veteran Hitchcock

Move comes on the heels of sudden firing of Davis Payne

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues came into the new season with high hopes. A 6-7 mark is not what management had in mind out of the gates.

And as often is the case, the head coach takes the fall for the players' ineffective performance on the ice.

The Blues made a bold move on Sunday night when they relieved Davis Payne of his head coaching duties, and general manager Doug Armstrong turned to a familiar face: veteran Ken Hitchcock, who was introduced at a Monday morning press conference at Scottrade Center.
(Getty Images)
The Blues introduced Ken Hitchcock as the 24th head coach in franchise
history Monday morning after firing Davis Payne on Sunday night.

Hitchcock, who will turn 60 in December and becomes the second-oldest coach (behind Los Angeles' Terry Murray) in the league, becomes the 24th head coach in franchise history and fourth in the last six seasons under the current regime.

"Ken Hitchcock comes to St. Louis with an impeccable resume, a winner," said Armstrong, who was assistant general manager with the Dallas Stars when Hitchcock was the coach. "Someone that has molded and grown teams, someone that knows what it's going to take for us to get to the next level, someone that I'm extremely excited to have the opportunity to work with."

It became evidently clear that the Blues were wanting an experienced head coach to guide a ship that was wobbly out of the starting lane.

The Blues, who are currently in 14th place in the Western Conference, have not gotten off to the start that people within the franchise -- and outside of it -- had hoped for. There was much hype about the Blues making that jump into the upper echelon of Western Conference teams. It hasn't quite worked out that way and Armstrong received the blessing from ownership and team president John Davidson.

"I felt that where we are at right now, we needed an experienced coach," Armstrong said. "Someone that can guide this younger team to the area that it wants to go to.

"I just felt that I wanted a certainty of a head coach with a proven track record, a winner to push these young players and push this organization to the next level. I think it was very important that we didn't wait around. I had that feeling."

The 59-year-old Hitchcock, who's been out of the coaching ranks since he was fired by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2010, has been a consultant with that team. His name has been linked to various jobs around the league, and he indicated that he interviewed with four different teams over the summer and obviously didn't get those jobs. But Hitchcock, who won a Stanley Cup with Armstrong and the Stars in 1999 and lost to New Jersey in the 2000 Finals, had a brief phone conversation with Armstrong, who got permission from the Blue Jackets to talk to Hitchcock. It didn't take very long to consummate a deal, and Hitchcock signed a contract through the 2012-13 season.

"This happened very quickly for me," Hitchcock said. "It's still a little bit of a whirlwind. I'm still trying to figure out how I got down I-70 (from Columbus) to get here. But I am really proud and excited for the opportunity and for me, my strength is building teams, building accountability within the framework of teams. I'm a big believer in a certain style of game.

"There are certain teams in the West that play that similar style and I believe and trust it. I've seen it in place, not only in the National Hockey League but in the Olympics and I've seen how it works. I want to put that program in place."

Hitchcock has coached the Stars, Philadelphia Flyers and recently the Blue Jackets before becoming an advisor in Columbus. He has a
534-350-88-70 career record over parts of 14 seasons.

The time spent away from the game seems to have done the Edmonton, Alberta native a world of good.

"This time away for me has really been a godsend," Hitchcock said. "It's helped me health-wise, it's helped me physically, it's helped me emotionally. I'm energized and I'm excited.

"If I can get through this press conference without stumbling much, I'd like to get back to the coach's room where I belong and get back to work with the guys back there."

Hitchcock is known in the ranks as a disciplinarian who pushes his players to the limits at times, but there's a soft and funny side to him as well, as evidenced at today's press conference.

"I don't like Jason Arnott ... he's broken my heart," Hitchcock joked. "I'll never forget that."

"That" meaning the 2000 Cup Finals, when Arnott, the Blues' third-line center, scored the Cup clinching overtime goal to give the Devils the series.

"We're watching it and then he was like, 'I hate Jason Arnott.' I was like, 'Whoa! That's a good way to start,'" Arnott laughed. "... He's a funny guy. That's just his humor. We've played long enough and against each other enough ... I know his humor. I'm sure a lot of people are like, 'What?' Or didn't realize what he was talking about. Other than that, just go out and work hard for him and do the right things and just try to lead by example what he's saying."

Armstrong, who said Payne, "is an excellent young coach that is going to have a great career ahead of him," felt like he had to make something happen before the Blues' challenge became more daunting. Grabbing Hitchcock was worth it.

"He's got a great resume, his experience from the Stanley Cup, participating in the finals, being in the semifinals twice, Olympic champion twice, a World Cup champion, also working for Team Canada as the head coach and silver medalist ... his resume is impeccable as I said, and we're very excited to have him," Armstrong said of Hitchcock. "When you're going through this process, you have to look at all the potential candidates.

"... You never know what's going to happen health-wise or feeling the need to change, so Ken was on that list. I shared names and I shared philosophies with John. We talked extensively and we came back to Ken's resume and what he's accomplished. I've seen him firsthand as an assistant manager mold a team."

Current Blue Jamie Langenbrunner played for Hitchcock in Dallas, and the new Blues' coach also guided Chris Stewart, Alex Pietrangelo and Carlo Colaiacovo with Team Canada, most recently at the World Championships in Slovakia.

These are guys Hitchcock will rely heavily on to help bridge the gap with those players he's unfamiliar with.

"I had a huddle there with six guys at the end of practice (Monday)," Hitchcock said. "Those six guys are the guys I'm going to lean hard on. Petro was involved in that, Langs and Arnie were in on it ... the obvious captains, the guys that wear the letters were in on it. Those six guys are ones I'm going to lean really really hard on.

"I just know from experience that the players inside the locker room can push each other further and faster than any coach can. I want to create an environment where they're pushing each other further harder than I can push them and I can kind of stand back and watch."

The Blues have had a number of issues in the early part of this season, including special teams play, which are among the worst in the league (the power play ranks 30th and penalty kill is 27th). Also, No. 1 goalie Jaroslav Halak has gotten off to a rough start (1-6 with a 3.35 goals-against average and .856 goals-against average).

When asked how long it would take to rectify the power play, Hitchcock replied, "One practice. We'll get that fixed quick."

Armstrong met with Payne Sunday night and indicated to him in a face-to-face meeting of the Blues' plans. But it was time to turn the page.

"They have one of the best coaches in the history of our game," Armstrong said of the Blues players. "He's going to put up one of the best game plans on a nightly basis. And the responsibility is for them to perform. I thought this was a time to put that challenge on their plates."

Hitchcock was on the ice with his team Monday afternoon in preparation for Tuesday night's home game with the Chicago Blackhawks. Coincidentally, Hitchcock and his predecessors (Payne and Andy Murray) all debuted with the Blues against the Blackhawks.

"I want us to be proud of the way we play the game," said Hitchcock, who will keep the current crop of assistant coaches. "I think at the end of the day, I want people in St. Louis to say, 'Man, that team plays the right way.'

"There's a way to play (and) win in the league. You see the top four teams in each conference, seven of the top eight play exactly the same game. And I want us to play that game and I think we're capable of it and I think we can make those adjustments really quickly, and get into that style of game right away."

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