St. Louis: Breeding Ground and Junkyard

The hiring of Ken Hitchcock as the new head coach of the St. Louis Blues is a welcome return to NHL coaching for one of the finest head coaches in the history of the game. Hitchcock had been out of circulation since 2010 when the Columbus Blue Jackets relieved him of the head coaching position there.

Hitchcock’s return to NHL coaching means he now leads all active NHL coaches in success points according to my rating system. (I have Hitchcock ranked twelfth on my all-time list with 36 success points—one point more than Joel Quenneville’s 35).

Ken Hitchcock at age sixty still has a lot of hockey wisdom to offer and his ability to get a team to play at playoff level has always been superb. Departing Blues head coach Davis Payne although he had earned two winning seasons with the Blue failed to reach the playoffs both times. This season he started poorly out of the blocks and was lucky that the Blue Jackets were an even worse team—thus sparing the Blues the last place slot in the Central Division.

And yet the hiring of Ken Hitchcock by the St. Louis Blues did not surprise me at all. Actually it was quite in keeping with their history of hiring head coaches.

It must be something they put in the beer in all those breweries in St. Louis. Throughout its history the St. Louis Blues franchise has been a breeding ground for great NHL coaching talent—but with the brutal irony that the coaching talent always has to leave St. Louis to achieve greatness elsewhere. Five coaches on my top-fifty ranking list made their NHL coaching debuts with the St. Louis Blues: Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, Jacques Martin, Brian Sutter, and Joel Quenneville.

The St. Louis Blues have also been a junkyard for the careers of some of hockey’s greatest coaches as well. Throughout its troubled history the Blues have represented a great challenge for some of hockey’s greatest coaching minds—a challenge that has always ended in futility. Six coaches on my top fifty-list have unsuccessfully tried their hands at winning the Stanley Cup for the Blues: Sid Abel, Emile Francis, Jacques Demers, Bob Berry, Mike Keenan, and, now, Ken Hitchcock.

When the NHL expanded from six teams to twelve in 1967 the Blues were part of the expansion movement and swiftly became the most successful of the six brand new teams—making three consecutive Stanley Cup finals appearances. But again the brutal irony is that since 1970 the Blues have never appeared in the Stanley Cup finals and remain the only team from the 1967 expansion group (not counting the now defunct and forlorn California Seals) never have to won the Stanley Cup.

Scotty Bowman was the first to make his NHL coaching debut with the Blues. It was Bowman who led the team to its only Stanley Cup finals appearances but by 1971 Bowman wanted to focus solely on his general managing duties and so he plucked defenseman Al Arbour from the ice and installed him as head coach of the Blues—thus launching Arbour’s distinguished coaching career. It was the mutual misfortune of Bowman and Arbour (and by extension the Blues franchise itself) that interference from the Salomon family that owned the team resulted in the departures of both Bowman and Arbour from the Blues (one wonders how the history of the Blues franchise would have changed; not to mention the collective histories of the Montreal Canadiens, the New York Islanders, and the NHL as a whole would have changed had Bowman and/or Arbour been allowed to stay in St. Louis).

The Blues went through seven coaching changes from 1973 to 1976 (the late Sid Abel was one of the seven coaches who tried their hand at coaching the Blues) before they were able to hire Emile Francis to repair the damage.

But when Francis took over in 1976 the question that would dog him as Blues head coach and general manager was not how to make the Blues champions but whether the Blues would survive as a franchise. Francis only coached the Blues briefly with Leo Boivin, Barclay Plager, and Red Berenson doing most of the coaching. (Berenson is another interesting case. His coaching stint with the Blues was his NHL debut but he would go on to greater glory coaching NCAA hockey. He remains one of the greatest hockey coaches in NCAA history).

Francis stepped down as Blues coach and GM having kept the team alive and kicking inSt. Louis. It was now time for Jacques Demers to try his hand at leading the team which he did for three years before being fired in 1986. Demers would later win the 1993 Stanley Cup coaching inMontreal. It was then that Jacques Martin made his NHL coaching debut with the Blues. Martin would go on to greater success leading the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadiens.

Martin failed to match Demers’ success and he was fired in 1989. It was then that former Blues legend Brian Sutter made his NHL coaching debut. Like Demers Sutter only lasted three seasons. Former Blues assistant coach Bob Berry was head coach for a brief period before Mike Keenan came along.

Mike Keenan tore the Blues apart before wearing out his welcome in 1997. It was then Joel Quenneville made his NHL coaching debut trying to calm the roiling waters left behind by Keenan’s wake.

Joel Queeneville is so far the last of the great NHL coaches to make his debut with the Blues before going on to great glory coaching the Chicago Blackhawks to the 2010 Stanley Cup.

That is the tragedy of the St. Louis Blues franchise. If you are a young coach looking to break into the NHL head coaching ranks then St. Louis is the place for you because sooner or later the head coaching slot usually opens up there but if you want to make your name as a great coach then eventually you’re going to have to take your act elsewhere St. Louis is usually where great coaches go to die—a junkyard of lost coaching hopes and forlorn championship dreams.

The challenge for Ken Hitchcock is whether he can break this vicious cycle and lead the Blues to the Promised Land of Stanley Cup glory? Right now the Blues’ offense is paltry; they have the worst power-play offense in the NHL; and their penalty-killing is near the bottom. The only assets they have are Winger Alex Steen and goalie Brian Elliott (despite the Blues’ losing record Brian Elliott is among the top-five goalies in GAA and save percentage).

Considering the fact that Ken Hitchcock has always been one of the finest defensive coaches in NHL history, his acumen in the defensive sphere is badly needed. The Blues are also a very young team and, again, Hitchcock’s ability at tutoring young players has always been tops. Again, St Louis’ selection of Hitchcock is the right choice and, hopefully, that will translate into playoff success for the long suffering Blues.

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