The St. Louis Blues have ascended to the top of both the Western Conference and NHL rankings, a feat more remarkable considering their struggles at the beginning of the season and during the prior two disappointing seasons. While the Blues possess a solid mix of gritty veterans and young players, their success has directly been related to a sole personnel move: the hiring of head coach Ken Hitchcock.
The Blues started the 2011-2012 season with a quite unremarkable 6-7-0 record and were mired in a funk of sub-mediocrity, having missed the playoffs for the prior two seasons after finally returning to the playoffs in 2009. In the process, the Blues fired Andy Murray in the middle of the 2009-2010 season then had Davis Payne coach the team for the remainder of the season and throughout the season that followed.
For a team with a legacy of success – the Blues made the playoffs every year for a period from 1980 to 2004, the third longest streak in professional sports history – missing the playoffs for seven of the last eight years since the NHL lockout was intolerable and the organization had to make a statement to change the paradigm of ineptitude.
Enter Ken Hitchcock. On November 6, 2011, the Blues fired Davis Payne and replaced him with Hitchcock and the results have been nothing short of spectacular. Since Hitchcock’s hiring, the Blues have registered a record of 22-5-6 which has served notice to the NHL that the Blues are serious contenders for not only qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs but to be a team that few would care to face, come playoff time.
Hitchcock’s resume ranks with some of the coaching greats in NHL history: One Stanley Cup title, two Stanley Cup finals appearances, four conference finals appearances, a World Championship and Olympic Gold medal titles for Team Canada (one of which was as part of Team Canada’s executive committee) and over 500 victories.
Ironically, Ken Hitchcock has never won the Jack Adams award as the NHL’s premier coach for any of his 16 seasons behind the respective benches of the Dallas Stars, the Philadelphia Flyers, the Columbus Blue Jackets and now the St. Louis Blues. In hindsight, Hitchcock’s ability to lead the perennially-downtrodden Blue Jackets to their only Stanley Cup Playoff appearance is nothing short of miraculous.
What’s most puzzling about Hitchcock having never won the award for those of us in the media is that Hitchcock has always garnered the utmost admiration of the media at every career stop, even while coaching in one of the toughest media markets inPhiladelphia. And while Hitchcock eventually wears out his welcome with the players he coaches at every stop in his illustrious career, his legacy is that of resounding success.
So how has Hitchcock turned around the rudderless Blues? There are a few solid reasons behind it.
First of all, Hitchcock has the Blues believing that they are a talented group. During his introductory press conference, Hitchcock proclaimed that the Blues have as much talent as any team in the NHL. While this might appear to be a classic case of ‘coach speak’, Hitchcock sincerely believed this to be the case and the players responded, immediately.
Secondly, a Ken Hitchcock-coached team is anchored in the following tenants: Accountability, having players playing at their absolute maximum capabilities, having players completely buying into his philosophies, otherwise known as “Hitch Hockey”, a patented mix of defense-first, north-south, physical hockey which Hitchcock affectionately likes to refer to as “heavy” and “weighty”.
Hitchcock is a demanding coach who endlessly pursues perfection. Having known Hitchcock from his time with the Blue Jackets, I can honestly say that Hitch has given no credence to the 22 victories since he’s arrived but he has absolutely been seething about the five regulation losses and the six losses during the extra periods.
But I believe his greatest contribution to their success was forged during the time period in which he was without a head coaching job in the NHL, for the time period from when he was fired as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets – February, 2010 – until his hiring inSt. Louis. Hitchcock used that time period to work with Junior hockey players, getting a deeper understanding of today’s young players, a true examination of conscience for a coach historically notorious for not dealing well with less-experience players.
Specifically, Hitchcock refers to a symposium he attended the prior two summers that taught him a great deal about today’s younger athletes. He took notes. He listened. Notoriously hard on players, Hitchcock said that education made him return to the game with a bit of a softer edge.
“The thing that’s softened for me is having to deal with the athletes of today,” said Hitchcock. “Some of it comes from experience but also some of it comes from the fact I’ve worked really hard at understanding this age group and what they need to be successful. It’s different working with this age group — it’s a lot different. It’s way, way different from 10 years ago.”
The Blues have 36 games remaining to their regular season and a lot can happen during that time period – injuries, suspensions, the rigors of the road – however, if Hitchcock and the Blues can maintain their frenetic pace and possibly attain Stanley Cup glory, perhaps Ken Hitchcock can attain that elusive Jack Adams trophy.
But knowing Ken Hitchcock, he would forgo any awards of that type to once again raise Lord Stanley’s Cup. He expects nothing less.