Monday, November 7, 2011

Hitchcock refreshed, ready to face new challenge

Time spent away from game has helped 59-year-old get re-energized

ST. LOUIS -- Not only does Ken Hitchcock come to the Blues with an impressive resume, he doesn't hold back on it either.

Hitchcock, who was named Blues head coach Sunday night after the team fired Davis Payne, brings with him a boatload of wins (534), over 1,000 games coached, 14 previous seasons in the league and most importantly what the majority of this locker room doesn't have: a Stanley Cup, which Hitchcock won in 1999.

And despite the game evolving over time, the soon-to-be 60-year-old said he's changed with the game ... maybe even stayed a step ahead of it during his time as an advisor of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Ken Hitchcock

"I've learned over time as a coach as you get older, that the game changes," Hitchcock said Monday. "I think I'm as current or more current than anyone in the National Hockey League at understanding what changes have taken place, not only in the style of game but in the dealing with the personnel."

Hitchcock didn't seem to mind being fired by the Blue Jackets in 2010. It was the third time he had been fired from a job but this time, it hit him mentally as well as physically.

I just think that you’re in the business so long that you don’t even know what type of stressful situation you’re under," Hitchcock said. "You have no idea you just live day to day. And I was able to do some other things in my life from joining Crossfit to involving myself in a different type of eating lifestyle that is in the Crossfit community to involving myself in a different type of team.

"The Crossfit community became my life. It became my team. I really enjoyed it and I’ve got friends outside of hockey for the first time in my life. I’ve loved it. I’ve gotten worse at golf when I’ve tried to get better and that’s been fun, but I’ve basically dug a ditch at every driving range in Columbus and I’ve had fun doing it. But it’s time to get back to work and it has just re-energized me. I wouldn’t have recommended it for anybody but I've got to tell you that it’s a stressful job and you need a break sometimes and this break has been wonderful for me and it’s been a chance for me to do other things in my life."

Hitchcock said he has 25 ex-players who are coaching at the junior level in the United States and Canada. He's mentored these players and spent time with them on the phone and in person.

"It’s given me a fresh approach to things the way they teach," Hitchcock said. "I’ve spent a ton of time understanding how older guys coach younger kids and in particular a couple of coaches in the Canadian Football League. And studying how they have benefited from their expertise. I’ve been able to do that stuff and it’s refreshed me, it’s going to make me an even better coach than I was before.

"This time away for me has really been a godsend. 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."

This is the Ken Hitchcock everyone around the NHL knows, a tireless workaholic who lives, eats, breaths and sleeps hockey. A bit of a reprieve seems to have given Hitchcock new life, and he seems excited about the new chapter he's about to embark on when the Blues (6-7) host the Chicago Blackhawks (8-3-3) today at 7 p.m.

"I've worked with some of these guys at various levels," Hitchcock said. "... Obviously I have a strong relationship with Jamie Langenbrunner. But I think I like (the) potential. My job is to get the best players here to play their best and get everybody to follow that suit. I think I can do that. I think I can provide the game plan and the structure and discipline that allows the top players to set the direction here.

"I've had great success in working with top guys and getting them to play. I think there's potential with a lot of guys to be top players here. I really enjoyed my relationship with Stewy (Chris Stewart), (Alex) Pietrangelo last year and Coli (Carlo Colaiacovo) in the Worlds. I saw the potential of those guys and I think there's a lot of good young players here that can move to a whole other level if we provide that structure and discipline."

One thing is for certain: the Hitchcock of today is different from the Hitchcock in Dallas that went to the Stanley Cup Final in back-to-back seasons.

"Yeah. I think for me in Dallas, we had a veteran team that was kind of slow, but we played like an old dog," Hitchcock said. "We just sat back and let you make mistakes and then buried you.

"If you're going to win in the National Hockey League right now, you've got to be a 200-foot team. You've got to play really really fast defensively, and then you've got to protect the puck like crazy offensively. If you're going to win in this league, if you want to create your offense, you've got to play 200 feet. Now, you can't play at 150. And you also have to play really really fast. It's not fast offensively. Fast and loose offensively ends up in losses. Fast and tight defensively ends up in wins. I think this team has that capability. They've shown flashes of being able to do that, but to be able to do it night in, night out like some of the teams in the West do here ... San Jose, Detroit, Chicago, Vancouver, those are the teams that do it on a nightly basis. If we can get to that level, we're going to be in good shape."

This is the kind of coach Blues general manager Doug Armstrong knows, and this is the kind of coach that he feels needs to be in the locker room now despite claiming there was no short leash on Davis Payne.

"Obviously when you’re working with someone you try and support them all the way up until the last second and I tried to support Davis," Armstrong said. "We’ve have great conversations throughout his tenure here. This was based more on a gut feeling of the manager that there was a different direction that we could go with an experienced coach that could poke and prod and get a young core to meet their potential and that’s why and how this decision was made."

If players and fans don't believe Hitchcock is a hockey junkie, maybe this will convince everyone.

"I have done a lot of work," Hitchcock said. "One of the things that I did over the last year and half was study every team closely. And I have a six or eight game report on every team. The Jackets gave me permission to go into the arena to observe other teams and I took scouting reports off of that so I got a big advantage live this year, which really helped me. But I’ve watched every team play at least four times this year very closely and I’ve done that in preparation for the next gig.

"I assumed that if I went into a team, I better be ready on a scouting report on every team and not have to count on a coaching staff to provide me with the information. I better have that knowledge myself, so I’ve done a lot of work on prepping what they do well and what we need to do to beat them."

Here is a guy that has no problem adjusting on the fly in mid-game.

"I don’t know why, but the game for me is in slow motion," Hitchcock said. "When I stand on the bench, the game is in slow motion, I don’t have any idea why.

"I’ve talked to Scotty (Bowman) a lot about the way to do it, and little mechanisms that you do on the bench, but the game is in slow motion for me. So I don’t feel I need eyes in the sky and a bunch of video to tell the players in between periods what needs to change. And I don’t know why that is and it’s just the way it’s been. I’ve been able to remove myself, I know I look stoic behind the bench, but I’m a little bit like a duck back there. I have for a number of years found a way to remove myself from the emotion of the game so I can analyze and make adjustments quickly between periods."

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