TORONTO – Time has not taken away any of the joy that Ken Hitchcock gets from being a hockey coach.
Even after spending the past 13 seasons in the NHL – a highly successful tenure that saw him reach 500 career wins Thursday – he still thrives on the endless preparation and constant pressure that comes with a position that is more lifestyle than job. In fact, he’s happiest at the rink.
“I get to come to a place every day that doesn’t feel like work and I don’t think many people can say that,” Hitchcock said Thursday. “We all have various jobs – I’ve worked in the workforce for years – and this just doesn’t feel like work. It’s a passion.
“It’s like I get to do something that’s my hobby.”
Hitchcock’s enthusiasm for hockey is evident in every discussion you have with him on the topic. A competitive streak is never far from the surface, either.
Those two personality traits help explain why Hitchcock is as demanding a coach as they come. His preparation is meticulous and he’s unafraid to let players know when they can be doing something better.
While that style doesn’t always make him popular in the dressing room, it’s hard to argue with the winning pattern he’s established – a Stanley Cup in Dallas, a trip to the Eastern Conference final in Philadelphia and now the first ever playoff run in Columbus.
“He knows the game of hockey, he knows it inside and out,” said Blue Jackets defenceman Mike Commodore. “He makes sure that you are prepared – that you know what the other team’s going to do, you know what you’re supposed to do.
“And then if you don’t do it exactly how he wants it, you’re going to hear about it.”
Rick Nash has never seen a coach who spends as much time on preparation. If the Columbus captain had his druthers, that’s one thing he would have Hitchcock dial back.
“He loves his video, he loves having tons of meetings,” said Nash. “When you’ve got 82 games a season some of those meetings get long.”
The players won’t be getting any sympathy from other coaches.
Ron Wilson happens to think that Hitchcock’s style is one of the reasons his teams have been so successful. The head coach of the Maple Leafs is an admirer.
“Geez, this word that is out there – he’s very demanding – like that’s a bad thing for coaches,” said Wilson. “I would think a synonym for coach is demander. If you don’t demand excellence you’re not a coach in my book.
“I have a great amount of respect for him. Great coach.”
That opinion is backed up by the record book.
Hitchcock has steadily been climbing the all-time win list for NHL coaches this season. He earned the 500th victory of his career when Columbus beat Toronto 4-3 in a shootout on Thursday, leaving him tied with Toe Blake and one behind Pat Burns.
After the game, the team presented him with game puck.
“It was nice,” said Hitchcock. “They were genuinely happy. I told them the reason you get to 500 is because you get old. I’m proud of it and I’m proud of the people I’ve worked with but I’m really proud of this group here. This is a really gutsy group we have going here right now.”
Even after reaching the 500-win milestone, the 57-year-old has no plans to walk away from the game any time soon. He hopes to coach as long as the passion is there.
“I owe the players 100 per cent of my undivided attention and preparation,” said Hitchcock. “My view is that if I feel like I get sloppy, I’m going to shut it down. If I feel like I go behind the bench and I’m surprised by something the opposition does, I’ll probably just shut it down. I’ll do something different.”
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Hitchcock attend his third straight Olympics with Team Canada in 2010. He was an assistant to Pat Quinn in Salt Lake City and Turin.
Interestingly, there was a time not long ago when Hitchcock suggested that he shouldn’t be a coaching candidate for Vancouver because he believed others deserved a chance to have the experience.
That stance changed less than an hour after Canada lost to Russia in the gold medal game at the IIHF World Hockey Championship last spring. Hitchcock was coaching the team and didn’t like some of the questions he was asked by a Finnish reporter afterwards.
“I didn’t feel good after the world championships because some people from other countries made comments that really pissed me off,” said Hitchcock. “Just some comments about, ‘Has your country lost your standing as a world power and all this crap.’
“That kind of got the fuel going. That kind of pissed me off. If I get a chance to get involved, I’ll get involved.”
In the meantime, he’ll continue doing everything he can to help turn the Blue Jackets into a contender – just as he did previously with Dallas and Philadelphia.
Hitchcock believes he’s been able to coach for so long because he has other passions to pursue in the off-season. His interest in history is well-known and he often attends Civil War tours and re-enactments. He also enjoys playing golf.
“I don’t do hockey 24-7 (for) 12 months a year,” said Hitchcock. “Some guys can do that and they can go and do all the clinics. That was the life I had before.
“When I break now, I get away.”
Inevitably, he never stays away too long.
The man is clearly a hockey lifer and he really wouldn’t want it any other way. There isn’t anything outside the game he’s yearning to pursue.
“I don’t know that I would now in my life be good at anything else,” said Hitchcock.