Getting wiped out 9-1 by Detroit was probably not how coach Ken Hitchcock imagined his 1,000th NHL game would unfold.
But a day later, the 57-year-old coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets had already put it behind him and, when he spoke to reporters on a conference call Thursday, was looking ahead to the team’s next game at home against the Anaheim Ducks
“No. 1001 is (Friday), so get ready for that,” was how the Edmonton native put it.
On the night that Hitchcock became the 16th coach in NHL history to work 1,000 games, the Blue Jackets were taught a lesson by the veteran Red Wings. He sees that as part of the package of running a young team that is still building in only its ninth season in the league.
Last season, Hitchcock’s third in Columbus, he took them to the playoffs for the first time. Now the task is to make sniper Rick Nash and his teammates into Stanley Cup contenders.
“In any coaching position I’ve had, I’ve never started on the ground floor,” Hitchcock said. “I never started when a team is down and out and trying to get into the upper echelons.
“That would be the biggest reward I ever had – to go the distance – and that’s why I signed on, to see how far I could take this group. We made huge steps in the last 12 months, but it seems the steps get bigger and bigger every day. I’ve enjoyed building this team but I’m finding out that when you reach a certain level, the next step is the hardest one.”
Hitchcock’s response to the loss was to bring a TV monitor to practice and show his players why they were trounced by Detroit. Then he put the players to work at trying to fix it.
“I’ve never done that before, bring video to the bench,” he said. “I showed a sequence of videos leading up to two drills we did and I thought the players really responded.
“These are things we’ve got away with the last two games against Atlanta and Carolina. We were making the same errors and we paid for it against Detroit.’
“It was one element on our forecheck, ” he added. “Detroit makes you pay for over-pursuit and we were over-pursuing the puck.
“Detroit was able to snap it through the middle of the ice on us all night. It’s really difficult to teach patience with a young team. The puck becomes a magnet. We got sucked into the puck and gave up the middle of the ice so many times. They came out of their zone far too easily and came at us with a lot of speed.”
Call it another interesting day among many for Hitchcock, who started out with the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League in 1984-85, went to Philadelphia as an assistant coach in 1990, went back to being a head coach with Kalamazoo in 1993 and then graduated to the IHL team’s parent club, the Dallas Stars, on Jan. 8, 1996.
Since then he has built a 520-351-129 record and is one of only 13 coaches in NHL history with 500 wins. In 1999, he took the Stars to the Stanley Cup.
By coaching his 1,000th game, he moved into a tie for 15th place all-time with legend Roger Neilson.
“Roger was an icon for all of us,” he said. “Everything he did was coaching, from hockey schools to coaching symposiums. He was a coach we all admired because we thought of him as The Coach.”
Hitchcock was the second coach this season to reach the 1,000 milestone. The Stars’ current coach, Marc Crawford, did it on Oct. 30. Before the season is done, both should pass Jacques Demers (1,007), Pat Burns (1,019) and Brian Sutter (1,028).
The all-time leader is Scotty Bowman with 2,141 games coached.
Hitchcock isn’t sure that he’ll hang around that long.
“As long as I don’t lose that fire and energy to teach and build teams, I can do this at a high level a long time,” he said. “If I lose that energy, I think I’ll knock on the general manager’s door and just leave, because the minute you lose the energy to build your team, your days are pretty much numbered.”
It has been a long run already for a coach who surprised himself by landing his first major junior job in Kamloops.
“When I phoned Kamloops for the interview, I called from the airport,” he recalled. “They said ‘be sure to bring your resume’ and I started gulping.
“I wrote the resume for that job on a piece of paper in pencil. They still have a copy of it. I had no clue what I was getting into. I was so ill-prepared for junior hockey. I’d basically BS’ed my way into the job, telling them I could do everything. If not for the veteran players they had there, I’d have never made it through the first year.”