Ken Hitchcock won his 700th game as an NHL head coach Thursday night, and it was an easy milestone to root for. 'Hitch' is obviously one of the most successful bench bosses of his generation, but he's also one of the quirkiest, most approachable and most adaptable.
Flash back to the NHL Awards in Las Vegas, June 20, 2012. Hitchcock had just been handed his first Jack Adams Award as coach of the year after taking over the St. Louis Blues in November 2011, going 43-15-11 and pulling his team within two points of the Presidents' Trophy. He took the backstage podium and turned what could've been a softball question into an insightful answer.
"Is this Blues team the best you've coached since winning the Stanley Cup in 1999 with Dallas?" I asked.
His goalies at the time, Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak, were in the room and within earshot, showing off their shiny new Jennings Trophy. Of course 'Hitch' would play it diplomatically with "yes, easily my best team since Dallas," right?
"No," he said with conviction. "The best team I ever coached was in Philly. The year we lost to John Tortorella. That was the best team I've ever seen. That was the best I've ever seen a team play."
Hitchcock was referring to his 2003-04 Philadelphia Flyers, a powerhouse squad that lost to the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning in a seven-game Eastern Conference final. Hitch went on for several minutes, reminding anyone listening that the Flyers that year were so banged up that Sami Kapanen had to play defense.
"That's how desperate we were," Hitchcock said. "That's the best team I ever coached."
Turning what could've been a one-word answer into a sincere storytelling session sums up Hitchcock, a man known as a tough taskmaster but also an earnest, sincere, highly progressive coach. His resume, on top of the 700 wins, includes:
- 1998-99 Stanley Cup (Dallas Stars)
- 12 seasons with 40 or more wins
- Two Presidents' trophies for the league's top regular season record (Dallas Stars)
- 2011-12 Jack Adams Award as coach of the year (St. Louis Blues)
- First to coach Columbus Blue Jackets to a playoff birth (2009)
And Hitchcock earned those wins largely because he doesn't rest on his laurels. He's determined to understand the mind of the hockey player, particularly because the age gap between him and them widens each year as veterans retire and rookies join the fray.
"I don't just go into coaches' clinics and look at Xs and Os and power plays and penalty killing," he said at the 2012 awards. "I go to millennial seminars for kids and talk to junior coaches all the time. I talk to military people who have cadets who are going through the same issues as our kids are.
"I study people. I pride myself in staying current. I like their music. I listen to their music. I like the things they think and do. I study them to understand what they're doing."
That mentality suggests Hitchcock, 63, will keep evolving and keep winning. At 700 wins he holds strong at fourth all-time, trailing Scotty Bowman (1,244), Al Arbour (782) and Joel Quenneville (746 and counting). The still-active Quenneville and Hitchcock will almost certainly catch Arbour and finish their careers second and third, respectively. A look at the top five active wins leaders:
1. JOEL QUENNEVILLE
Rank: 3rd all-time
Quenneville remains signed through 2016-17 and, with Cups in 2010 and 2013, has a leash as long as anyone's. He'll keep the job as long as he wants it and, given he's seven years younger than Hitchcock, Quenneville is a near lock to finish his career comfortably in second on the all-time list.
2. KEN HITCHCOCK
Rank: 4th all-time
Hitchcock's future is far cloudier than Quenneville's. Blues GM Doug Armstrong extended Hitch's contract one year despite St. Louis' first-round collapse last spring. The team will likely seek a new coach if it exits early again this post-season.
3. LINDY RUFF
Rank: 9th all-time
Ruff has a good chance to pass Hitchcock. Even with Dallas' struggles this year, GM Jim Nill won't give up on Ruff that quickly. It's not like Ruff is a perpetual washout. A 15-season tenure with Buffalo preceded his Dallas hiring. Ruff has plenty of rope left.
4. BARRY TROTZ
Rank: 13th all-time
Trotz has 800-win potential. Like Ruff, Trotz joined his new team following a long tenure somewhere else. He also has Washington aimed back toward the playoffs after it missed last season, and that really ups his job security. Trotz's defensive scheming keeps his teams competitive year-in and year-out. We'll never see him coach a 30th-place team, meaning he should keep racking up 40-win seasons.
5. DARRYL SUTTER
Rank: 16th all-time
Sutter will have a tough time catching the active guys above him. As long as he remains behind the Kings bench, however, he'll join the 700 club, too.
OTHER NAMES TO WATCH
Mike Keenan (672), Ron Wilson (648), Jacques Martin (613) and Marc Crawford (549) can climb the list if they ever earn NHL head coaching gigs again.
Mike Babcock has a No. 2 overall ceiling. He sits 17th at 521 wins, right behind Sutter, and Babock is just 51. Babcock's outstanding regular season win percentage ensures big totals every year, too. Paul Maurice is actually right behind Babcock at 511. Maurice's Winnipeg job may be his last as a head coach given his spotty success record, but he's just 48. The sky's the limit if he can guide the Jets toward perennial contender status.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin