A Renewed Thirst for Learning Lured Ken Hitchcock Back Behind the Bench With the Dallas Stars
BROOKLYN — “Alex, sit your ass right there and start asking questions.”
The directive arrives from the training table where Ken Hitchcock lies flat on his back, white hair against the headrest, sneakers dangling off the edge. It’s early last Wednesday, three hours until the Dallas Stars’ morning skate in Brooklyn, and the visiting area at Barclays Center is beginning to stir. Equipment managers hang jerseys across the hall. Hitchcock’s assistants cut video in the coaches room. The ice machine grumbles. Massage therapist Dan Garcia enters.
“Come on, big Dan,” says Hitchcock. “We’re going to multitask.”
My ass finds a stool.
He should be retired by now. That’s what the hockey world heard, at least. Nineteen months ago, upon signing a one-year contract extension with St. Louis, Hitchcock promptly announced that the ‘16-17 season would be his last behind an NHL bench. The farewell tour ended more abruptly than expected, Feb. 1, when the Blues called upon coach-in-waiting Mike Yeo and dismissed Hitchcock, who at the time sat one win behind Al Arbour for third place on the career list. It stung, obviously, but Hitchcock figured that was that.
First question: So what the hell is he doing here, left leg bent toward the ceiling, getting his muscles kneaded and hips stretched by Garcia before the 32nd game of his 21st season on his fifth NHL stop, which also happens to be where his career launched during Clinton’s first term?
He reflects on getting fired. “When I got out, it was a relief,” Hitchcock says. “I was really enjoying getting back into a normal routine. You got up when you wanted. I don’t want to call it an older-person routine, but my time was my own. For the first six weeks, I really enjoyed it.”
Specifically, he enjoyed the workout club. They met one day at the gym in his St. Louis condo complex, a diverse group of men ranging from mid-50s bankers to a 90-year-old who didn’t exercise but still sat on the benches for good conversation. Pretty soon, they were coming four days a week together, spending several hours at the machines before hitting up one of their two usual breakfast joints. “No one was in a hurry,” Hitchcock says. “I learned a lot about things other than hockey, listening to those people. One guy was a banker. Some were financial people. They were impressive people. And different. And they didn’t really care what I did for a living, which was a good feeling. They knew what I did, but we didn’t talk hockey.”
Most nights Hitchcock returned home from a round of golf and channel-surfed through NHL games, keeping tabs at a distance. Only twice was he interrupted by calls. The first batch once St. Louis let him go, colleagues extending condolences. Remember that six-week mark Hitchcock mentioned? That’s when the second flood arrived, also from fellow coaches, albeit with different tones. Switching legs on the training table, he relays how those sounded.
Hey, can you look at these clips?
Can you watch our team play?
I’ve got these problems, can you help me?
“So then on a whim I started to travel,” Hitchcock says. His 2013 Yukon Denali had ventured few places in St. Louis beyond the rink and back, but with endless free time Hitchcock hit the road. (Never on an airplane.) Fiddling through four channels on the XM dial—Kenny Chesney’s No Shoes Radio, The Highway, The Blend, and the Garth Brooks-specific station—he relished the solitude and thinking time. “Coaches are strange creatures of habit,” he says. “We’re never very good at living in the present. We’re always looking at, what are we going to do tomorrow? So driving gives you a chance to daydream.”
Lest we forget: That is Hitchcock on the massage table, oldest coach in the NHL (66 as of Sunday). The SUV wasn’t exactly headed for a relaxing weekend getaway among the hokey attractions of Branson, Mo. Through the Blues’ public relations staff, Hitchcock was instead obtaining credentials to games—juniors, colleges, AHL, NHL, virtually anywhere with a working scoreboard—and watching incognito from the stands, never in the press box. Only once during 20 trips did anyone spot Hitchcock, so smooth was he at sneaking in past puck-drop and leaving around the last dry scrape, back to whatever hotel he had chosen on the drive down.
“No time constraints,” he says. One thing you’ve got to realize, every day in this business, you’re on the clock. Meetings, buses, meals … it was the first time in a long time I was on my clock. You get treated like gold when you’re in the NHL. All of a sudden, you’re finding your way to a rink that you don’t know where the hell it is, you’ve never seen it before, you’re finding a place to park and you’ve got to pay for parking. And you’re doing this because you want to help a friend.”
HItchcock will not specify the coaches who called him, though he ballparks between six and eight professional teams received consultations and upwards of a dozen overall. He always liked the teaching part of the gig, and here he could dig into video from home while still making breakfast four mornings a week. “I thought I had my own little coaching enterprise going, where I didn’t want to get paid or anything, but I was really enjoying it,” he says. “Then I really got into it, to try to help some people. They were in a little bit of trouble with their team, so I tried to help them as best I could. Then a couple of the teams started to really turn it around.
“I started thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing?’”
They met outside security at Albuquerque International Sunport, in a small conference room reserved for the interview. There were many specifics that Stars general manager Jim Nill planned to address with his head coaching candidate, but really everything hinged on how Hitchcock reacted to a much larger question: “Are you ready to take this on again?”
The answer had crystallized behind the wheel of his Yukon Denali. “I’ve always been this big believer that the minute I stop learning, that’s when I should get out,” Hitchcock says now. “ I thought the thirst to learn was drying up a little bit. And that’s when I started to talk to these coaches, which changed me. I felt like listening to them and watching them and observing them and watching their practices, I got excited about learning again.”
Minus breaks for coffee, food, or a simple leg-loosening stroll around the terminal, Nill and Hitchcock spent four hours holed inside that conference room. They swapped family stories, shared management styles, discussed Hitchcock’s opinions on the Stars after six seasons in the Central Division. At one point Nill asked about Hitchcock’s health, to which Hitchcock replied by explaining the workout club.
For his part, Hitchcock was sold after an hour. “To me, everything’s about the connection,” he says. “I just connected.” But not for reasons some might think. Though Hitchcock coached 537 games in Dallas, won five straight division titles and helped capture the 1999 Stanley Cup, most of the organization had been overturned long before he considered returning. And besides, Hitchcock says, “on purpose I didn’t want to live in the past. I know there’s history there with me and there’s a lot of success in that run we had. But more than anything, I felt like I had a healthy respect for the organization because I’d coached against it so much. I felt like I knew the team.”
According to Nill, the Stars were considering two candidates but felt Hitchcock offered “the right fit.” Following a meet-and-greet with ownership in Vancouver, the hiring became official on April 13. Thirsty to learn again, Hitchcock placed early calls to defenseman Dan Hamhuis and former Dallas forward Patrick Sharp, whom he helped coach at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. “I wanted to know all the issues,” Hitchcock says. “I wanted to know all the problems. I had a lot of information and dialogue. They were able to be very direct and truthful with me, so I felt like I knew what was going on before the season would start.”
It all confirmed what Nill already knew. Seven years ago, between jobs after getting fired by Columbus, Hitchcock had attended Red Wings training camp at the invitation of Mike Babcock. Then with Detroit’s front office, Nill saw similarities in how Hitchcock approached their airport interview, which stretched from early afternoon into evening. “He hadn’t lost his passion at all,” Nill says. “That’s what makes Hitch special. He still had that same fire in his eyes.
“I think he realized he wasn’t done yet. He’s got a story that he’s still writing.”
Thanks to a mailslot missile from winger Andre Burakovsky in overtime Tuesday night, the Capitals handed Dallas its third straight loss, 4-3 and kept Hitchcock from joining an 800-win club that currently contains just Scotty Bowman (1,244) and Joel Quennville (868 and counting). Shame, too. It would’ve been extra sweet reaching the milestone against one of his best friends in the business—and his partner in a grand summer tradition.
Every offseason, Washington coach Barry Trotz and Hitchcock meet to exchange ideas. They pick a mutually convenient restaurant or coffee shop, crack open their laptops, and spill. Nothing is considered private at the table. “Every piece of trivial information that we can get our hands on, we trade to help each other get better,” Hitchcock says. “It’s like a four-hour individual coaching symposium.”
This year’s event took place in Falkland, B.C., population 600, on the outdoor patio at one of the small town’s two pubs, which transforms into a honkytonk at night and doubles as a popular stop for motorcyclists passing through the Okanagan Valley. Trotz and Hitchcock arrived when Falkland Pub opened for breakfast around 9 a.m. and stayed through the lunch rush, at which point they began noticing bikers doing double-takes. “They’re Canadian,” Trotz says, likely explanation enough. “They go, ‘I know you from somewhere. What are you guys doing here?’
Learning, of course. What else? As the Capitals tore toward a second straight Presidents’ Trophy last spring, Trotz had asked Hitchcock to watch two games and lend his input on several matters. By Hitchcock’s estimation, Dallas now runs “seven or eight things that [Trotz] has done that made sense to me.”
Their relationship dates back to the 1980s, when Hitchcock coached the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers and Trotz worked as Washington’s head western scout. In other words, Trotz knows Hitchcock too well to think that their symposiums would end. “I knew he wasn’t done,” Trotz says. “Everybody who knows Hitch well knew he was not done yet. I think he wanted that one more challenge. He’s gone full-circle now. He was re-energized. Ending with Dallas has something historical, poetic, nostalgic. I think that’s sort of how he looked at it.”
Sentimentality aside, the Stars have certainly rebounded from a dismal ‘16-17 season that ended with a 30-point regression and coach Lindy Ruff’s exit; despite falling to the Capitals, they were tied for both Western Conference wild card spots through Thursday with a top-10 shot rate at even strength. The Central Division became an even larger quagmire this season when Winnipeg emerged, but he is encouraged by early returns. As Garcia finishes on the training table, Hitchcock gushes about a “hard-charging, hard-forechecking hockey club starting to understand what areas of the ice you have to control to win the game. Players are able to talk through difficult times. They’re starting to really dig in and help each other. You can hear it in the locker room and you can hear it on the bench. I really believe we’re going to keep growing.”
Last question: Is Dallas the end? Really, truly the end?
“For me?” he says. “Oh, f---, for sure. I’m locked in for whatever. It feels like the first and the last, so that’s how it feels right now.” He stands from the training table and stretches. Then Ken Hitchcock walks out the door, back to work.