The first time I met Ken Hitchcock was in the early 1990s. I had been named GM of the American League’s Hershey Bears and spent that season working under a Hershey legend and Hockey Hall of Famer, the late Frank Mathers.
The Bears’ NHL affiliate was the Philadelphia Flyers and GM Russ Farwell was in town for a press conference introducing current University of Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves as the new coach in Hershey. Hitch was an assistant coach with the Flyers.
The presser was held at the Hotel Hershey and there were television cameras and sports anchors present from four local networks, as well as broadcasters and hockey beat writers from Harrisburg, Lebanon, Lancaster and York. The room was also packed with Hershey employees and fans.
Hitch looked longingly at the assembled crowd and said to me, “Seeing all these reporters and media, maybe I made the wrong decision staying in Philly and should have taken this job.”
I have been a fan of Hitch’s ever since and I think he got a raw deal last week. Once again, a bright, hard-working coach pays the price because the organization cannot fire 23 players. Columbus GM Scott Howson praised Hitchcock and said he tried to give him as much time as possible to turn things around. Ultimately, Howson felt the team was “not responding to the message” and firing Hitchcock was in the “best long-term interest of the club.”
Hitchcock has been a winner at every level of coaching. His .693 points percentage in Kamloops is still one of the best in the history of the Western League. He won in the minors in Kalamazoo. He has coached more than 1,000 games in the NHL and has a career regular season record of 535-350-158 according to hockey-reference.com.
In 11-full seasons behind an NHL bench he took his teams to the Stanley Cup Playoffs nine times, including leading the once-hapless Blue Jackets to their first-ever playoff appearance in 2009. His NHL clubs have won the Presidents’ Trophy, six division titles and a Stanley Cup. He has gold and silver medals from international competitions where he represented Canada as a head, associate and assistant coach. In short, Ken Hitchcock is a winner.
A U.S. Civil War history buff and battlefield re-enactor, it’s too bad he didn’t go into medicine. Perhaps then he could have healed or avoided altogether the injuries to key personnel the Jackets suffered this season. Or maybe he should have been a goalie coach or a psychologist who could diagnose why his No.1 goalie, Steve Mason, suffered through a horrible sophomore slump this year. Too bad Hitch isn’t a ‘young-player-whisperer’ who could float tepid, non-threatening hockey suggestions to his young players, but not too many of them, lest he overload the poor young lads with ‘too much information.’
As soon as the Jackets stumbled this season, the usual suspects attacked Hitchcock for being “too tough and demanding” and providing “too much information” to his young players, turning them into robots and killing their creative hockey juices. Howson denied it had anything to do with young versus old.
How convenient for the players. They express sadness, tell us how terrible they feel that the coach got fired, then point out “it is a business” and bad things do happen to good people. Well, this one stinks. Once again, a coach who actually expects and demands accountability and who wants to try to build a proper foundation under young players so they can become legitimate NHL players rather than rushed-along, under-developed, journeymen gets the axe while the players give us bromides and cliches.
Here’s hoping you’re standing in the middle of a giant media scrum in the bowels of an NHL arena as the front man for a new NHL club in need of your proven brand of coaching real soon, Hitch. And here’s hoping for a happier ending next time.
Jay Feaster is a former GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he took over in 2002 and helped build the team into a Stanley Cup champion in 2004. As he did last season, he will blog on THN.com throughout the 2009-10 campaign. Read his other entries HERE.