Hitchcock, fired this season by the Philadelphia Flyers, was to be formally introduced as the team’s fifth head coach at a news conference Thursday. Team president and general manager Doug MacLean announced Hitchcock’s hiring shortly before the team took the ice in a 4-3 shootout loss at home against St. Louis.
Hitchcock said what appealed to him about the Blue Jackets was more than their core of young players.
“It’s that, but it’s also that they have veteran players who have won the Stanley Cup before, guys who know what it takes,” he said. “They’ve got people like Sergei Fedorov, Adam Foote and Fredrik Modin who know what it takes to win.”
Hitchcock was asked if he would be behind the bench when the Blue Jackets play his former team, the Flyers, on Friday afternoon in Philadelphia.
“You bet,” he said twice.
Hitchcock replaces interim head coach Gary Agnew, an assistant to Gerard Gallant who was elevated to replace Gallant after he was fired on Nov. 14.
“(Hitchcock)’s a winner. He’s a guy that pushes people to the limit. And we have a lot of guys that need to be pushed,” MacLean said during the first intermission of the Blue Jackets game.
MacLean confirmed that the other finalist was Andy Murray, who went 215-202-63-7 as head coach of the Los Angeles Kings from 1999-06.
Hitchcock’s new contract runs through the 2008-09 season and is believed to be in the range of the US$1.2 million annually he received from the Flyers.
The loss to St. Louis dropped the Blue Jackets’ record to an NHL-worst 5-13-1-1. It was their seventh consecutive defeat.
Columbus has had a reputation for being a talented but soft team which features young stars such as Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev. Nash scored 41 goals during the 2003-04 season to share the Maurice Richard Trophy as the NHL’s leading goal-scorer with Calgary’s Jarome Iginla and Atlanta’s Ilya Kovalchuk.
Zherdev has scored some of the most photogenic goals in the team’s brief history but neither he nor Nash is considered a two-way player willing to help out on defence and the neutral zone.
“I love to teach, I love to coach and I love to build,” Hitchcock told The Canadian Press. “I’m going to a great young team. I’m really looking forward to this. It’s going to be a great challenge.”
Despite a roster that also includes proven pros Sergei Fedorov, David Vyborny, Fredrik Modin, Anson Carter and Adam Foote, the Blue Jackets are last in the NHL in goals this season with 40 in their 19 games.
Hitchcock, with 408 career NHL victories in 750 games, is seen as a veteran disciplinarian who sets high expectations for his players and then grinds at them until they reach them. In 503 games as coach of the Dallas Stars from 1996-02, he had a record of 277-166-60-7. He guided the Stars to the Stanley Cup in 1999.
As those young stars he had helped transform into superstars got older, his effectiveness was seen by some to have waned and he was fired 50 games into the 2001-02 season.
He earned a gold medal as an associate coach with Team Canada at the 2002 Winter Olympics.
During the following off-season, he became the 15th head coach of the Flyers. They made the playoffs each of their three seasons under Hitchcock but many were disappointed with early knockouts in the playoffs despite a lineup that included Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagne.
When the Flyers got off to a 1-6-1-0 start this season, Hitchcock was fired in a purge that also saw general manager and former Flyers star Bobby Clarke step down.
Gallant had coached the Blue Jackets for one full season and parts of two others but was fired last week because his team also got off to a slow start at 5-9-1-0.
“We need to change the culture and I think (Hitchcock) is the guy to do it,” MacLean said. “We have taken a lot of heat and deservedly so. The fans had better expectations and I think there’s no excuses. I just think it’s a positive step. It’s a crossroads and I think it’s an important one.”
Hitchcock cut his coaching teeth as the head coach at Kamloops of the Western Hockey League from 1984-90, posting a winning percentage of .693. He then spent three seasons with the Stars’ top affiliate in the International Hockey League before taking over as the head coach midway through the 1995-96 season.