Catching Up with Ken Hitchcock

This week the Dallas Stars hired their new head coach. A familiar face to all at today’s press conference the legendary Ken Hitchcock (currently fourth on the all-time win list in NHL history) and the architect of most of the flags the Stars have hanging from the AAC rafters.   But, this is no Back to the Future situation this is about winning.

IH: How much does it mean to you to return to Dallas?

KH: This is emotional day for me because this is like coming home. This means the world to me. Jim Nill and I go back while I was embedded in the Detroit Red Wings camp.   [Back in 2010 after Hitchcock was fired by the Blue Jackets, he asked to attend Detroit’s training camp to soak up the Red Wings’ Way.] I really came back from my couple of months at that camp reenergized.

The current players and ex-players coming today mean the world to me. This is not going to be fun every day but forming a partnership with you guys is going to more important than anything.

I study history all the time, but I don’t live in it. The history that was brought on here provides great lessons for us. The ultimate team was here before and that is the goal again. The game has changed a lot but you’re not going to change the character to compete and that’s what this franchise was for the 5-6 years I was here and that is not going to change and we don’t want it to ever change. And that’s the one thing that I want to bring forward from that historic time. But it is a new era.

I have to tell you coming here, I was selfish. I am the one guy who coached against the team more than anybody. I saw what this team did to us last year, I saw how hard it was to play this team. I coached 14 games (including exhibition games) last year against them and we out-chanced them 3 times. That is not very good. That’s how much damage they did against us. I saw the reckless energy and I saw the spirit that this team played with and I thought I could really help.

This past season. We’ve all been through these kinds of seasons as coaches you start out on the back burner because of injuries and then you are playing catch up and it’s hard to get going. That is how it is in our sport. I’m banking on a year ago because I saw something special in the captain Jamie, something special in the good players and I saw something special in the spirit and I know I can get that back quickly. From my standpoint, I’m so happy to be here. We’ve got a great captain, a lot of good players and I know I can get that spirit back real quick. I’m proud to be here. Selfishly, it is all about winning and for me I think the best opportunity to win hockey games is sitting right here in Dallas.

IH: When you look at the younger athletes, are they different? It is a different kind of build this time.

KH:   Yes and no. The bad word now is millennials. All they want is to know where they are going before they get going and that is on us to provide that information. I see the players now are way more physically prepared, way more mentally prepared, and way better coached before we get them. I think the athlete that comes to us in the NHL is someone you can hit the ground running with way more. You have got 23 and 24 year olds that are so accomplished. There is not as much teaching for me about being a pro, they are already well on their way. The teaching is to getting everybody to fit into the program and that’s the challenge – to make it bigger than themselves. A lot of players are so well schooled in the technical part of the game because there are professional coaches in juniors and college now. So the biggest difference for me is to everybody to fit together quickly and everybody to make the sacrifices necessary to win. But from a play standpoint they are accomplished players way ahead of the curve than they were before.

IH: After St. Louis how quickly did you know you wanted to get back into coaching? What was the timeline for knowing you wanted to pursue this?

KH: When I got let go in St. Louis, it was really emotional for Doug Armstrong and myself. I didn’t want to get back into coaching. I got the usual calls which lasted about a month. What turned for me was, after I got the sympathy calls that the GM made a mistake, the normal calls you get reacting to what happened. When that was over, I started to get calls from coaches asking for help. Some wanted technical help, some needed help saving their jobs, some really wanted to know how they could become better coaches. That piqued my interest. I started coaching 10-15 guys — American League, NHL, Junior, College. They were calling and I was having the time of my life. I was helping them become better coaches but in the end it helped me. I had a couple of emotional calls yesterday with a couple of NHL guys yesterday about how much they helped me when they thought I was helping them.

I went to New York a little while ago and I sat in on a leadership institute conference. It had nothing to do with hockey. There were Sports teams mostly from Europe. I listened to some presentations by big time teams about dealing with millennials. I was so impressed, I saw these new ideas and philosophies that were really working from much larger teams. So it was a process. First helping the coaches, then I was so impressed by what they were doing and their coaches were doing that I wanted to try that here. When I got the call, I jumped all over it.

IH: You are taking over a team that finished 29th in goals against last year. Is this toughest turnaround you have to do?

KH:   It is not the toughest. Quite frankly this is the easiest because of the history from a year ago. This past year was a wash. Throw it out. it doesn’t mean anything. I know what this team is capable of leadership wise. I know what their good players can do, I coached against it. I am not going to even spend 5 minutes worrying about what happened this past season. It is the year before that I want to focus on. I had a very difficult time getting my team to reach the emotional level that the Dallas Stars could play at. After talking to some of the players – we’ve had our meetings already – I know the trigger points and we’re going to get back. It will be really hard making the playoffs from the Central Division. Winnipeg is now a player big time. There are a lot of good teams, they are all young, they are not going anywhere. But I feel very comfortable with this group that we can trigger this thing.

IH: How has the game changed in what a defensive minded coach did 20 years ago and what a defense-first coach tries to do today?

KH: The game is now won in the neutral zone and the offensive zone. You can’t play defense stuck in your own zone. Whoever controls three quarter ice game controls the hockey game. I think that is what happened to Dallas this year. They got stuck on the three quarter ice game too much. Who ever controls the neutral zone controls the offensive zone. Everybody says play fast. In order to play fast, you have to play fast defensively. You have got to make sure you got no time in your zone so you can spend time in the neutral zone and then the offensive zone. So the only way you can play good defense is by occupying the offensive zone. How quickly you get through the neutral zone is going to determine the success of your team. What has changed from before is you could be an elite team, like we were back in the late 90s and early 2000s, by being counter attacking. We were always what we called pressure positioned. We controlled the positional play and forced you into mistakes. It doesn’t work like that anymore. This is about controlling the possession time in the game and the only way you do that is to be great in the neutral zone. To me, when you look at all the analytics, whoever controls the two blue lines controls the hockey game. And that’s what you have got to get really good at. And the teams who do it, no matter what your talent level is, you usually control the outcome.

IH: How much are you looking forward to working with General Manager Jim Nill again?

KH: It is about this guy, that is the key for me. Anybody who knows me, knows it is about the guy I work for that is the most important part. I don’t coach to coach. I love the team building part of coaching, but I love the working relationship with the general manager and the president. I love that part of the game more than anything. I told people 7 years ago about Jim. After returning from Detroit, I said that is a guy I can work with. I need someone who I can be vulnerable with as a coach. I take risks with people as a coach. I do that on purpose. really believe in the players and I believe that to get 100% out of them and maximize potential, I need to take risks. I worked with Doug for 16-17 years and he had my back. <Doug Armstrong is the general manager for the NHL’s St. Louis Blues. He is also a former general manager of the Dallas Stars.> I knew I would have that working relationship with Jim. When I got the call, I knew this is the place I would want to come to.

IH: How do are you different? How are you better than you were when you left?

KH: I think I am better on the off days. I think I know when to get lost and when to stick around. I think if you are going to ask the players to max out you have got to give them some space. I put people in place to make sure they tell me when to get away. I think that is where I’ve really improved. I know how hard it is I know what a grind it is. I think in this generation, the constant looking at a coach’s face can wear a player out. I have a pretty good record on knowing when to get lost. I was five and a half years in St. Louis. I went in we were in last place after 13 games, a week later we were in the playoffs and we never left. I have learned when to get lost and stay away. I think that is a real asset in our business. We coaches are all pains. We are asking the players to do things that make them really uncomfortable and then say, hey guys do you want to enjoy this? It is hard, but it is allowing them to have some space without me hovering over them all the time.

IH: One of the perceptions is that you really grind on guys. Is this a fair assessment?

KH: Yes, and I am really proud of it.

IH: When do you know that it is time to pull back a little?

KH:   When you see the guys I bring in, I don’t bring in window washers. I bring in people who will challenge and keep me in line. I think one of the problems we have as coaches is that we don’t know when we are out of line. So I bring in people that aren’t going to just do the technical stuff, they are going to do the work that I want them to and that is to make sure they have a guard on me. Everybody says there is a shelf life for coaches.  Every coach has a shelf life. Sometimes you are able to push through it and the reason is that you are asking people to do things that are really challenging. One of the reasons that, at my age I am able to last is that I do know when to pull back.