St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong doesn’t speak often, rarely makes public proclamations, but when he does it, the words carry an enormous amount of weight. It’s not often you see the raw emotion and the blunt, brutal honesty that Armstrong displayed Wednesday when announcing that he had fired coach Ken Hitchcock.
And if you’re wondering how authentic it was, consider that their relationship goes back almost 25 years to when Armstrong was the assistant GM of the Dallas Stars and Hitchcock was coaching the Stars prospects in Kalamazoo.
“It wasn’t scripted by any stretch,” Armstrong said. “When a manager speaks, the fuse is longer. I just thought it was easiest to speak honestly and that way there’s no confusion with people in the group.”
Well, that shouldn’t be an issue, since Armstrong made it very clear that both he and the players on the roster are now the ones in the crosshairs for a team that woke up Thursday morning out of a playoff spot. In perhaps his boldest statement, Armstrong said the Blues’ players had become, “independent contractors,” and pointed to the St. Louis Cardinals. “They don’t have independent contractors,” he said. “When they do, they get rid of them.
“I see when we win how guys react when they don’t get what they want,” Armstrong continued. “I see when we lose how guys react when they get what they want. It’s a losing brand of hockey and Ken is paying the price for it.”
If you want to throw down the gauntlet with an athlete, one sure-fire way to do it is to suggest that he’s playing more for the name on the back of the sweater than the logo on the front. The kind of player who’s happy when he scores two goals in a losing cause or walks around with a long lip after going scoreless in a win is pretty much considered a pariah in the NHL.
So now this has the potential to turn out one of two ways for Armstrong. Either the players band together and show some pride and prove him wrong or take Armstrong’s comments personally and mail it in. It’s probably no worse than what they heard from Hitchcock on occasion, but to be called out by your coach in the dressing room is one thing. What Armstrong did was publicly challenge his players to show more pride and be better, and in doing so probably put his own job on the line.
“I’m not that concerned,” Armstrong said. “There have been guys who have been here a long time who know that when we don’t play as a team, you don’t lose the proper way. You expose each other and when you expose each other on a consistent basis, bad things happen. You’re going to lose some nights, the other team wants to win, too, and it’s a competitive league. But it’s about losing with pride, losing the proper way where you can tip your hat to the opposition knowing that they won the game, but you still have a foundation. I want to make sure the players don’t lose all the hard work they’ve put in here.”
Back in 1982-83, Orval Tessier coached the Chicago Blackhawks to 104 points, a 32-point improvement on the previous season and got them to the Western Conference final against the Edmonton Oilers. After losing 8-2 and falling behind 2-0, Tessier said of his team, “We’ll probably call the Mayo Clinic for 18 heart transplants.”
Not only did the Blackhawks drop the next two games, but Tessier lost the team. It dropped by 38 points the next season and Tessier was fired the next season after a poor start.
“Because of what he did, he lost some respect with the players,” former Blackhawks goalie Murray Bannerman said later. “You don’t have to like the guy you’re playing for as a coach, but I think you do have to have respect for him and I think that ultimately led to his downfall.”
There’s likely no doubt Armstrong knew that was he was saying would sting the Blues players. It was undoubtedly a calculated risk. But he’s also far enough removed from the dressing room that it shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, he told THN.com on Thursday that he has not spoken to the players about his comments, nor does he intent to in the future.
“We have to move forward,” Armstrong said. “I think living in the past is dangerous at the best of times. Today, the sun came up and it’s a new day and we’re ready to go to work.”