Ken Hitchcock, the NHL Hall of Famer who never really played the game

One of the winningest coaches in NHL history, ‘Hitch’ might have ended up a school teacher if hockey hadn’t come calling

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The list of Hockey Hall of Fame head coaches who never played anywhere as a pro, in the boonies or the bigs, or even made it as far as junior A for any significant time, is about as long as Mark Messier’s hair.

Captain Video, Roger Neilson, who lost his cancer battle 20 years ago, was a goalie for the Woodbridge Dodgers in 1953 — so says — but that was junior B.

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And it was one game, they say.

And the late Pat Burns, who was a cop before he was a winning NHL head coach, did play for the London Knights as a 16-year-old with NHLers-to-be Rob Ramage and Rick Green but it was only three games of major junior about 50 years ago.

Does that count as preparation for the best league in the world?

So, drum roll for Hall of Famer Ken Hitchcock, the fourth winningest coach in NHL history behind Scotty Bowman, Joel Quenneville, and Barry Trotz. Hitchcock never played above what they used to call juvenile hockey while growing up in Edmonton and hanging around rinks at a very young age. He helped his dad, Ray, make ice, dragging a hose around the local Ottewell community league facility.

As a player, in his early teens, he had lots of talent, but his work ethic wasn’t there.

“I was a very skilled, lazy player. I cut every corner known to mankind but I could get away with it because I could see the ice and had good hands,” said Hitchcock.

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Ken Hitchcock coaching NHL's Edmonton Oilers
Edmonton Oilers head coach Ken Hitchcock on the bench in 2018 in a game against the Dallas Stars, the team he led to Stanley Cup victory in the 1998-99 season. Photo by Larry Wong/Postmedia News

Maybe his playing star would have shone longer but Ray, who worked at the local Imperial Oil refinery, died of cancer when his boy was 14. When dad was promoted into management, a medical found a tumour in Ray’s back. The boy lost his way after his father passed away.

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“I was on my own at a very young age,” said Hitchcock, whose mother, Jan, who worked at CBC, also died of cancer when Ken was only 27, leaving him on his own.

After Ray died, young Ken gained too much weight, noticeably slowed, and, once told Hall of Fame writer Helene Elliott of the L.A. Times that by the time his playing career ended in juvenile hockey, “I couldn’t have played defence on the worst team in the league.

“My dad was the major push for me. I was afraid to let him down. He was sick my last year from 13 to 14 but when I was eight, nine, 10 years old, if I didn’t work hard, he would make sure to let me know. He had very high expectations,” said Hitchcock.

But, if he couldn’t play, he could coach. His dad was the impetus there, too.

“The influence of my father … my father coached midget in Holyrood and Ottewell and I followed him around as he coached those games and my dad also knew (junior Oil Kings coach) Buster Brayshaw and he would take me to the Oil Kings and (pro) Edmonton Flyers’ practices to watch how those coaches ran them,” said Hitchcock.

“While people had a fascination with players, mine was more with coaches from a very young age. For the last six years of my dad’s life, every night my father would have a practice, I would watch, then after that, we would scrape and flood the ice. I was always at the rink.

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“I had this huge influence of coaches very early on. Then it moved to Glen Sather and John Muckler (Oilers), Clare Drake and Billy Moores (U of Alberta), Perry Pearn (NAIT), George Kingston and Dave King. I followed their careers,” he said.

But nobody followed his playing career before he got to the NHL.

NHL outlier

“Ken’s not just an outlier, he’s a complete outlier, to not have that playing background,” said Craig Button, who worked in the Dallas Stars organization as head of player personnel when Hitchcock was head coach of their 1999 Stanley Cup winner, with both names on the silver mug.

NHL coach Ken Hitchcock receives Order of Hockey in Canada, in 2019.
In 2019, NHL coach Ken Hitchcock was named one of the Distinguished Honourees of the Order of Hockey in Canada. Photo by Larry Wong/Postmedia News

“Whether you’re Scotty Bowman, who had his (junior) career end because of a blow to the head or whatever … all the coaches had a foot in the game. Ken didn’t.”

Neither does Jon Cooper, the estimable Tampa Bay Lightning head coach, with two Cup rings. Cooper did attend famed Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Sask. to play high-school hockey, but that’s it, before turning to lacrosse in university on Long Island, then coaching when his law degree didn’t satisfy him. Cooper followed a similar “I wasn’t much of a player” path as Hitchcock did, but he’s not in the HHOF, yet.

We’re dealing with Hitchcock. His playing career is not even a footnote in history. Not a single line in, if you scan his long coaching record.

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Quenneville (969 wins) played 803 NHL games as a solid defenceman before turning to coaching. Trotz (914 wins) was once an excellent major junior defenceman with the Regina Pats. Bowman was a junior centre in Montreal, possibly on a pro path, until he got a breakaway one March night in 1952 and chasing defenceman Jean-Guy Talbot swung his stick wildly in frustration and clipped Bowman’s head. The blow fractured Bowman’s skull. Talbot later played for Bowman in the NHL, so no hard feelings.

Bowman, who recently turned 90 and shows up at many Tampa Bay games, because he winters close by in Sarasota, won 1,244 NHL games as a coach.

And now Hitchcock, 71, with his 849, is in the same revered place as Bowman.

Hall of Famers, both.

Behind the bench in midget hockey for 11 years, then moving to junior in Kamloops in the Western Hockey League for six more. After that there was a three-year stint as a Philadelphia Flyers assistant to Paul Holmgren and Bill Dineen, then head coach in Kalamazoo in the minors, coaching youngsters such as Rob Brown, Jamie Langebrunner and Richard Matvichuk on Dallas’s IHL farm team. He then took over for Bob Gainey behind the Stars’ bench, won their only Stanley Cup with later stops in Philly as the head coach, Columbus, St. Louis, Dallas again and closing the head coaching circle in his hometown Edmonton, where he replaced Todd McLellan.

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Around all those NHL stops, he also won three gold medals as an associate coach for Team Canada at the 2002, 2010 and 2014 Olympics. Now a coaching adviser in St. Louis, he finishes with 1,598 NHL games as a head coach.

Hitchcock bet on himself early while on the Riverside public golf course, in the Edmonton downtown area by the North Saskatchewan River. He had one scorecard in his right pocket and maybe 20 other cards in the left with all the gambling games going on against his nicknamed buddies, the Riverside Rats.

“It was competitive, man. You could win $150 one day and lose $150 the next. My friend Don Ovelson’s dad would let me work twice a week, twisting oil plugs in the oil and gas business and I could make $80 to $90 a night. I would use that to bet. But, yeah, the river nearby was full of a lot of our clubs,” he laughed.

Golf was what he loved, the competitive furnace. Same with coaching.

I’ve gotten to do what I love. I had no goal, no plan. I was just good at this coaching

Ken Hitchcock

“I’m the luckiest guy alive,” said Hitchcock, who dismissed the idea that he would have been running the sporting goods store all these years if coaching hadn’t come along. Instead, he said, he would have loved to have been a teacher.

“I’ve gotten to do what I love. I had no goal, no plan. I was just good at this coaching. I’ve never applied for a job. It’s just something I’ve loved doing,” he said.

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“But I really thought I would have been a social studies or history teacher, if not coaching. I’ve travelled the world. I’m fascinated by history and its impact on the world. I love all these books and movies about history. I have this appetite about learning what happened in the past. I don’t like living in the past but I love learning about the past.”

NHL coach Ken Hitchcock works with young players at hockey clinic in Ottawa.
Former NHL coach Ken Hitchcock runs some young players through on-ice drills during a hockey clinic in Ottawa in 2011. If he hadn’t become a coach, Hitchcock says he would have loved to be a teacher. Photo by Chris Mikula/Postmedia News

He’s long been a voracious reader of hockey books but he also got into the Civil War, which seems odd for a Canadian, getting into it in a big way while he was coaching in Philadelphia. He tugged on Civil War outfits and went on battle re-enactments.

Lots of them for over a decade. Gentlemen, grab your rifle-muskets.

“I’ve stopped that now (he is a septuagenarian) but I still stay in touch with my friends. There was a 12-year period where I was going to re-enactments, two or three every summer. I was also doing round-table Civil War discussions every year, but I slowed down,” he said. “I’m fascinated by that part of history. The nice part was there was another life for me with the Civil War. Nobody cared what I did, no one even knew, in most cases. I liked that.

“I was just another weekend soldier, living that lifestyle,” he said. “I worked myself up in rank, not on purpose, but because of age. Towards the end, I was more an observer. Active participation was kicking the hell out of me, whether it was lying in mud or lying in so much smoke you couldn’t see where you were walking. Living in a tent didn’t seem so glamorous after a while. I didn’t want to go through the grunt work.”

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Selling came naturally to Hitchcock

He started as a grunt at the massive local sporting goods store United Cycle, though, working for Wilf Brooks, who ran a fantastic emporium. Same story in the coaching world, in Sherwood Park, a suburb of Edmonton. He started coaching midget hockey or U15, as it’s called today.

“I hired Hitch in his early 20s. He drove me nuts, asking for a job. He was working for Crystal Glass (windshield repair) before coming to us. He really wanted two things in life at that time, to coach hockey and to work at United Cycle. Nothing more, to be honest,” said Brooks, who was instantly intrigued by Hitchcock’s passion and huge work ethic.

“I’ve always said Ken had a gift. He would get people to buy in to whatever he wanted so they would make a (sporting goods) purchase. Our job was to get people what they needed and Ken had a real passion for it. He made a lot of relationships and built a real following at the store,” said Brooks.

Pearn, an assistant NHL coach for over two decades after he started at NAIT (Northern Alberta Institute of Technology), enthusiastically seconded Brooks’ assessment of Hitchcock’s strength. He had lots of dealings with the young Hitchcock when he was not only the sporting goods store rep for NAIT hockey but a sly recruitor for Pearn’s college team, because Hitchcock seemed to have a book on all the good young kids in town.

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“Ken’s people skills are outstanding. He had the ability to talk players into doing the right things. He did it at the midget level, in junior, and he was able to take that to the NHL. He used his communication skills and business acumen to help sell the stuff he was selling. At the end of the day, you really are a salesman as a hockey coach,” said Pearn.

Ken Hitchcock and Team Canada with their gold medal at the 1988 World Juniors in Moscow.
Ken Hitchcock, far right, with the gold medal-winning Team Canada at the 1988 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships in Moscow. Photo by Hockey Canada

“His personality helped him a lot, too … his networking has always been outstanding. He has this ability to talk to other people. Coaches, players. It really helped him.”

It started at United Cycle, where he could alway sell, and work.

“I did sell a lot of skates but the story about me sharpening lots of skates is lore, it’s grown legs. All these people who say I sharpened their skates? Either they’re dreaming or I am,” said Hitchcock.

“He got labelled for sharpening Mark Messier’s skates and that story stuck with him,” said Brooks. “Did Ken understand skates? Yes. Was he a great skate fitter? No, he was mediocre. Did he sell a bunch of skates for us? Yes, he did.”

“But he was really a hockey specialist. Every piece of hockey equipment was important to Ken, because it had to do with their game. He might have had the best knowledge of equipment than any coach in the NHL. He never left that world.”

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Sporting goods was fine, coaching was better

Brooks held the door wide open for Hitchcock with his coaching desire.

“I don’t think Ken took a holiday to go camping or on a trip. He was never sick. It was always just hockey. If he wanted two or three days off in the summer, it would be because Clare Drake had a hockey school. The irony is he didn’t go through all those coaching certification clinics. But later, when he would talk at a coaching seminar, he would have the whole room eating out of his hand,” said Brooks.

Drake was his main mentor growing up in Edmonton. So was one-time New York Rangers and Oilers assistant coach Moores, who would follow Drake as the Golden Bears’ head coach. The U of A rink was about 15 minutes from United Cycle and Hitchcock was the Bears’ hockey gear rep. It was nothing for Hitchcock to hike over there to watch practices and games on weekends. He watched, soaked up drills, wrote them down, often would be invited to sit in with the coaches to talk. He took everything he learned there to Sherwood Park and midget hockey and beyond.

“The years he coached in Sherwood Park, that was his idea of going to school. Every month, every year, he was learning, working on his degree. He was a hands-on learner. He was also buying coaching books,” said Brooks. “He probably had more of those than libraries have. He was always studying Clare.”

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The midgets were a staggering 575-69 in his decade with the nicknamed “Chain Gang” and two of his kids from those midget days, Ian Herbers and Shaun Clouston, followed his coaching path. Herbers was an Oilers assistant coach under McLellan and is the University of Alberta’s head coach. Clouston has been a junior coach in the Western Hockey League in Medicine Hat and Kamloops.

Pat Quinn, Ken Hitchcock, Wayne Gretzky and Wayne Fleming coach Team Canada in 2004 World Cup.
From left, Pat Quinn, Ken Hitchcock, Wayne Gretzky and Wayne Fleming during the announcement of the Team Canada coaches for the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. The team won the championship with an undefeated record of 6-0-0. Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images

“We graduated a lot of doctors and dentists, accountants and professors. They got into other parts of society. Not a lot of coaches, though,” said Hitchcock, who started as an assistant coach but got the midget gig one day after a player’s dad resigned because he knew Hitchcock knew more than he did.

Herbers loved his time with Hitchcock, soaked up every word up. “It’s fantastic Ken is going to the Hall of Fame now … To see how long he’s been working at this, how he’s contributed, the amount of people he’s touched along the way. He was always talking to people, always learning,” said Herbers, who played defence for the Oilers, Tampa Bay and the New York Islanders in the NHL before turning to coaching.

“I know Ken came down to watch Coach Drake’s practices. He took his own time to go down and talk to people and if you do that, you’ll do well and move up the chain.

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“When I look back, those years in midget really showed his perseverance,” said Herbers, one of the most successful Canadian college coaches. “The years I played for Hitch, we were so prepared. Hitch went through every detail with us. Maybe he wasn’t a guy who played 20 years in the National Hockey League but he was able to get his point across so we understood him. He worked at talking to players. He was good at it.

“He preached team conditioning. His work ethic was high, too, and he made sure we were prepared for every weekend. He put the time in.”

Junior hockey in Kamloops next step

Hitchcock was not into conditioning himself, though. When he got to Kamloops, he was well over 400 pounds. He became half the man he once was through much healthier eating habits and a doctor, Bob Smiley, telling him in 1989 when Hitchcock was 38 that he wasn’t going to survive as heavy as he was.

“He said I’d be dead in 12 months if I didn’t lose the weight,” said Hitchcock, who listened up and became a Nutrisystem advocate, putting away the chips. Chicken and fish, lots of salads. Treadmill, exercise bike, StairMaster.

“I made this body, now I have to break it,” he said.

While heavy, he still got the junior job in Kamloops, though.

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“He enjoyed the standard of excellence in midget hockey, but he was very afraid when he left for junior (Kamloops). He was worried about his weight,” said Brooks. “After his first interview, I asked how it was, and he said he was in tough (shape). They offered him a Diet Pepsi. I said, ‘What did you expect? Did you tell them you were 160 pounds?’

“But the next weekend, he said he was going back to play golf with the team owners and I said, ‘Hitch, the job’s yours.’ I said he would own them by the time the round was over. That was his gift, people buying into Ken,” said Brooks.

In junior, people would mock him. He deflected it and eventually he got the last laugh

right-winger Rob Brown

His weight was troublesome, but he overcame it.

“In junior, people would mock him. He deflected it and eventually he got the last laugh. It’s not easy losing the weight that he had,” admired his former Kamloops junior star Brown, who got no argument from another Blazers teammate, goalie Daryl Reaugh.

“Look at some of the morons running our sport back then and they just couldn’t get past that (weight),” said Reaugh, the Dallas Stars’ longtime TV commentator who remembers all the slights Hitchcock took.

“He’s got the thickest skin in hockey, going back to when he was coaching us and he was pushing 450 or whatever. He takes it, tons of it. I don’t know how he’s dealt with it,” said Reaugh.

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Back-tracking, it’s amazing he ever got to Kamloops. He wasn’t prepared for the interview in 1984. He felt he was only getting a courtesy call, because more experienced people such as Doug Sauter and Jack Sangster were in the running. He’s long said he got the job because he was the cheapest hire, that he took a pay cut from United Cycle to coach junior.

NHL Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock works out
Head coach Ken Hitchcock watches the news as he works out in the Dallas Stars facilities in 2003. Photo by Postmedia News Files

“Bruce Haralson (longtime NHL pro and amateur scout, now retired) pushed me hard to go for it. I didn’t know what a resume was. I bought a pencil and some lined paper at the airport in Edmonton before flying to Kamloops. I was on the pay phone for half an hour with a fellow named Bob McGill who had all the records about my time in Sherwood Park (to fill out the resume). I had no idea,” said Hitchcock.

He was 291-125-15 in Kamloops, the second-best record in WHL history. He coached Mark Recchi and Scott Niedermayer, two Hall of Famers. Also, Blues coach Craig Berube, longtime NHL defenceman Darryl Sydor, Brown and other NHLers-to-be, including Greg Hawgood, Rob DiMaio and the goalie Reaugh. The team reached two Memorial Cups and Brown, who once scored 49 goals playing on Mario Lemieux’s wing in Pittsburgh, had a front-row seat to early greatness.

Brown and Hitchcock were often at loggerheads as player-coach, but they are close friends today, with Brown saying Hitchcock is the second-most influential hockey guy in his life next to his dad, Bob.

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“Hitch is a bigger-than-life individual. Like Madonna and Cher, he’s one name. When you say ‘Hitch,’ everybody in hockey knows who you mean,” said Brown. “When he walks into an arena, everybody knows him and he knows everybody. It’s his comfort zone. When he starts talking hockey, that’s when you see his eyes light up. Only 80 per cent of the stuff is true but the other 20 per cent is interesting,” kidded Brown.

Brown had a whopping 212 points one junior year playing for Hitchcock. There were no 200-point seasons for Hitchcock, the player, but maybe you don’t have to play to be a great coach. The standard, “You didn’t play the game, so what do you know?” refrain didn’t work with Hitchcock, as far back as coaching in junior.

“Years ago we were on a junior bus trip and all the guys were playing cards. Ken came back to watch and started giggling,” said Brown, who works on the Oilers radio broadcasts today. “I remember we went up to the front of the bus and played poker against him and we lost every game. He could just read it in your eyes what you had and what you didn’t have. He outsmarted the opposition (as a coach). He could read what they were going to do. That’s what set him apart.”

He talked the talk, and walked the walk. And his talk was understandable.

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“You can’t be too technical when you’re talking to a bunch of midget hockey players in Sherwood Park or juniors. You have to dumb it down at times. Hockey players aren’t always the brightest bunch when they’re young,” said Brown.

Some coaches are hard on people and become cruel. Hitchcock was demanding, but fair. He had his run-ins with Brown, for sure.

“Some coaches are bullies. You could hate Hitch at a practice and an hour later you would be sitting at a pizza place, laughing at his stories,” said Brown. “In junior, he kicked me off the ice once a week for my work ethic, but I’m a much better hockey player because of him.”

Brown was far from a great skater but nobody in junior hockey thought the offensive game better. It got him to the NHL, and, with his smarts, he easily could be an NHL assistant looking after a team’s power play.

“What I learned from Hitch was how he always cared about his players. I bet he could name every player who he had, going back to midget hockey,” said Brown. “If they run into him on the street, they would introduce their families to Ken.”

Hitchcock listened and learned with a firm hand

Hitchcock has never thought he was the smartest guy in the room.

“With us in Dallas, he had Bob Gainey as his GM, and that was perfect for Hitch. If Hitch had any questions about playing the game, then Bob was going to give him as intelligent an answer as you’ll ever get,” said Reaugh, who was part of the leadership group in junior — a group Hitchcock leaned on in his early WHL days because he was new to that gig, but also something he carried into the pros.

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“In Kamloops, the intimidation was I thought players knew more about the game than I did,” Hitchcock told Postmedia’s Ben Kuzma. “I formed a partnership with Reaugh, Mark Ferner, Dean Clark and Greg Evtushevski. I trusted their information and knowledge, even when making trades. That was one of the smartest things I did.”

When the game was on, he let the players’ skill shine through, with some guard rails. They had to check, too.

Ken Hitchcock coaches Dallas Stars in 2017.
Dallas Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock watches the play in a home game against the Carolina Hurricanes in 2017. Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images

“He was incredibly demanding, incredibly hard on the players but he got the absolute most out of you. Sometimes you did it out of spite, sometimes you did it out of love. I know I’ve never played better than when I played for Hitch,” said Brown.

“In my era, a lot of offensive hockey players were being forced to play defence and stifle the creativity. Hitch was the opposite. Hitch had a rule with me. When I had the puck, I could do whatever I wanted, but when I didn’t have it, I couldn’t. That was fair. It was like you know more with the puck and I know more without it.”

In Dallas, Hitchcock was a breath of fresh air, coaching an older team that won their only Cup. He coached the Stars for five years, got fired, started his NHL coaching carousel, and came back later for a second go-round.

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“Down here, he made this franchise,” said Reaugh. “Hitch and Mike Modano. Mike for obvious reasons. Hitch, at his core, he’s a teacher. He taught the media the game, with so many stories. He gave them all the time in the world. He loved to talk shop,” said Reaugh.

“Hitch had a bunch of players who had won and they were excellent players but they were brash and arrogant in a good way. They believed in their minds they could win with anybody behind the bench. I remember (Craig) Ludwig and Carbo (Guy Carbonneau) had good debates with Hitch,” said Reaugh. “The aggravation was the way he coached. He wanted the players to do it right. He didn’t want to be known for his buckle-down defence. If he had come along 10 or 15 years later, and the sport was the way it is now, more wide-open, more creative, he would be an unbelievable coach, too.”

Reaugh said Hitchcock, “could coach any style, any way. But that was the era where he was in his wheelhouse, where he suppressed goals. If you give up more than five chances, that was bad. But he had forwards going after people, fore-checking. It was a great game until Dallas was up 1-0, then he would hold the game under water, until it almost drowned.”

Working with NHL stars in Dallas

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Hitchcock knew he had to get Modano and Brett Hull on board.

“I hard-matched Mike against the No. 1 centres on other teams, all the top guys. Messier, Sakic. He changed his game,” said Hitchcock, who had many meetings with the team’s biggest gun, also throwing him out to kill penalties to round out his game.

“He was still playing 20 minutes a night but they were 20 hard minutes. We weren’t running him off the ice or afraid to play him against somebody because he might get beat up. We just played him against the other team’s top players and eventually Mike’s pride took over. That’s what made him such a great player. He was always a great talent but there’s a difference between great talent and great player.”

Modano was buying what Hitchcock was selling. There was huge trust from Hitchcock in his best player.

“We talked about the game, we talked about our team and a lot about what he was expecting from me personally,” said Modano, in a terrific piece by The Athletic’s Mike Russo on Modano being ranked No. 51 in the 100 Greatest Players.

“When your coach puts you out there and tells you what’s expected, it really puts the onus on (the player). That was the challenge every night,” said Modano, now an adviser to Wild GM Bill Guerin, looking back to the late ’90s and Hitchcock having him on the ice late in games to protect leads, because he was willing to go the extra mile.

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NHL coach Ken Hitchcock with the Dallas Stars in May 1998.
Ken Hitchcock watches his Dallas Stars in a Western Conference final against the Detroit Red Wings in May 1998. The team won a Presidents’ Trophy that year and the next, as well as taking home the Stanley cup in the 1998-99 season. Photo by Stephen Dunn /Allsport

“When you’re younger and you’re told by your coach (about responsibilities and playing a two-way game), you’re like, ‘That doesn’t sound like fun at all.’ Then after a while, you’re getting all these opportunities.”

And when the Stars won in 1999, Modano was overwhelmed.

“His emotion really came out, and it said everything about him. He felt the pressure of the entire organization, the entire market and he was finally able to exhale,” said Hitchcock in The Athletic.

Hull, while a phenomenal scorer, was another story. Modano adapted. Hull fought Hitchcock but they co-existed. Hull chafed at the coach’s defence-first style.

“The guys that after-the-fact think the world of Hitch, you wouldn’t have thought that back then. They see it now. Hitch and Hullie,” said Reaugh. “The greatest story was when Hitch kicked him off the ice. They were doing 3-on-1 or 3-on-2 rushes and Hullie shot the puck into the corner. Hitch would yell at Hullie, ‘What the hell are you doing?’’’

Hitchcock knew he needed Hull’s talent. And he scored the Stanley Cup winner in 1999 against Buffalo deep into overtime in Game 6, his foot in the crease, a no-no back then, but the goal was allowed, much to the howls of the Sabres’ fans.

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“I’ve never been around a better player like Hullie. I was almost a fan, his shot, his passing ability. The way he could find quiet space. I stayed away from hockey talk with Hullie,” said Hitchcock.

In Dallas, Hitchcock knew he needed his veteran players on-side, his leadership group, as Button remembers. “I’ll share a story down the stretch of the 1998-99 season. Ken was at the practice rink and told Bob (Gainey) that Carbonneau had come into his office. Carbo told Ken that everybody’s goal was to go deep in the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup and that the older guys would give what they had, but they wanted some latitude in terms of practices,” said Button. “They weren’t looking for a free pass if they didn’t perform in the games, but they couldn’t always go full-out in practices.

“Ken asked Bob what he thought. Bob asked Ken, ‘Did Guy come in on his own or was he representing the team?’ Ken said no, he was representing everybody and he’s part of the leadership group. Bob said, ‘Well, Ken, who put the leadership group together?’’’

“I did,” replied Hitchcock.

“OK, so you listen to what they’re saying or you don’t,” said Gainey.

“Ken left his office thinking, ‘I can’t believe how dumb I am,’” said Button. “That was exactly what Bob did for him. Those stories went on all the time.”

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Taking page from Hitchcock’s coaching heroes

Dave King, the former Calgary and Columbus head coach, was another influence. Hitchcock went to a coaching seminar in 1976 that Drake and King were talking at. It was about keeping a diary.

Hitchcock took that idea and ran with it.

Ken Hitchcock and Team Canada win gold medals at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
A white-haired Ken Hitchcock with the coaching staff and players after Team Canada won gold over Team USA at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

“I kept copious notes, ask my wife (Linda) about that. I kept binders and binders all on paper in those days. All my practice plans, all the notes I took during games, what I said to players. I just felt I needed that resource and if I ever needed to look back, I had it at my fingertips,” said King, in a phone call from Vienna.

The diary idea resonated with Hitchcock. He says he now has 35 to 40 boxes of old daily diaries in his garage, every word he said to players at pregame skates, or between periods. One day’s chapter would end, and the next would begin.

“Since 1976, I’ve kept a diary. Every day I’m at the rink or our team plays. I keep a diary of the game plan, the roster, the post-game plans. And everything I’ve said to the team before the game. I write it down. And in between periods. So I can go back and look at the information I was given but also the tone of that information,” said Hitchcock, in a terrific Coach’s Site podcast interview in 2020.

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“I can remember doing coaching conferences for Hockey Alberta when Hitch was coaching triple-A midget and they would invite Clare and George Kingston, and I would come over from Saskatchewan to make a presentation, and Hitch would be asking questions,” said King. “At the end of every presentation, you would open it up for questions and Hitch would always ask one. Then when you were closing up your briefcase and putting the mic away and you thought it was all over, he would be up there asking another one.

“His questions were always really good. You knew he understood the game. Sometimes he was looking for information and other times he was looking for justification that he was doing things right himself (as a coach),” said King.

“The one thing that resonates with Hitch right away is this: when he starts to talk hockey, it makes total sense. Appearances might deceive a player where they’re thinking, ‘Well, this guy never played,’ but as soon as Hitch opens his mouth and starts to speak, you go, ‘Whoa, this guy makes sense, what he’s saying isn’t off the wall.’ He overcame things with his coaching sense.”

Hitchcock learned from all walks of life

“I’ve spent time with an English Premier League team,” Hitchcock said. “I spent a week with a Hungarian handball team. I’ve been around baseball teams, in the dugout, observing, learning. I’ve watched the Ted Lasso (Netflix) series, three times. I don’t know who wrote it, but they had a good idea how a team works.”

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He knows teams, and he knows coaches.

That’s why he’s helping Berube now. Before that, he was an Oilers adviser and around current Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft when Woodcroft was coaching in Bakersfield. Like Bowman, he watches hockey, all the time.

He knows the current young players, the coaches, the systems.

“He watches about four hockey games at once. He’s got these TVs set up in his living room,” said Brooks.

NHL's St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock in 2012.
St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, with the Jack Adams trophy after being named coach of the year at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas on June 20, 2012. Photo by Julie Jacobson/The Associated Press

“I love what I’m doing now (mentoring). Once a week, I’m with the Blues’ American League coaches, too,” said Hitchcock, who had video of training camp practices sent to him at his summer home in Kelowna.

“Out of a sense of pride, I have to stay current. I have them send me the video of the practices when they are over. I have a lot of guys who I’ve worked with who are head coaches. They call and ask for advice. I can share that information. That’s what happened to me with Bob Clarke (Philadelphia), Bob Gainey and Scotty. They helped me along the way or when I was in a tough spot. I feel that should be my responsibility now, helping them.”

He’s never really been away from a hockey rink. He’s lost NHL jobs, but he’s never been out of work longer than about a year.

“What worried me more than anything was not whether I would get another NHL spot if I lost a job, would I be able to coach anywhere else,” he said. “Where I coached didn’t matter. Coaching mattered. I was a little scared of that — was I going to lose the opportunity to coach again. It didn’t matter what level or if I was on a championship. It was just the freedom to do what I did best.

“When I was out a short period of time (NHL), I drove myself and everybody else nuts because I wasn’t able to coach. That void to not coach and instruct … I was at my worst.”

Coaching. It’s truly been Hitchcock’s life. If they were doing a Netflix documentary on Hitchcock, the cameras would be rolling mainly at a hockey rink, somewhere.

“His head changes when he walks through those doors,” said Brooks.

Longtime Edmonton Sun and Journal hockey writer Jim Matheson has known Ken Hitchcock for 50 years. Hitchcock is part of the 2023 Hockey Hall of Fame class.

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