Ken Hitchcock takes first step in altering struggling Blue Jackets

“We can’t hang our heads and roll our shoulders,” Hitchcock said at a Nationwide Arena news conference. “We’ve got to strut and we’re going to start doing it tomorrow.”

Hitchcock, the team’s fifth coach in six years, was referring to Friday’s game against Philadelphia. The Flyers fired Hitchcock on Oct. 22, and he said the return will be emotionally difficult.

“When I was on the plane flying here, I felt like, man, I’m in the ‘Twilight Zone.’ I hope the players have a lot better day than I’ll have tomorrow,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough day.”

Hitchcock declined to say if he’d make any immediate lineup changes, saying he needs more time to evaluate his players.

Team president and general manager Doug MacLean announced Hitchcock’s hiring Wednesday shortly before the team’s 4-3 shootout loss to St. Louis. It was the Blue Jackets’ seventh consecutive defeat, leaving them with a 5-13-2 record.

Columbus has had a reputation for being a talented but soft team which features young stars such as Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev.

Despite a roster that also includes proven pros Sergei Fedorov, Fredrik Modin, Adam Foote, David Vyborny and Anson Carter, the Blue Jackets are last in the NHL in goals this season with 43 in their 20 games.

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Co-owner John H. McConnell started Thursday’s news conference by introducing Hitchcock as, “the guy we hope is going to save us.”

Hitchcock wouldn’t disclose what he told the team at practice. He told reporters that it’s his job to help players move on quickly after games, whether they win or lose.

“That’s what needs to change here – we can’t get too high and we can’t get too low,” he said.

Hitchcock, who has 408 career NHL victories in 750 games, is seen as a disciplinarian who sets high expectations for his players and then grinds at them until they reach them. But he rejected any notion Thursday that he’s solely a defensive-minded coach and said he knows how to run an offence.

The Flyers fired him after the team got off to a 1-6-1 start this season. In 503 games as coach of the Dallas Stars from 1996-02, Hitchcock had a record of 277-166-60-7. He guided the Stars to the Stanley Cup in 1999.

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.