Ken Hitchcock was in his element Tuesday afternoon. The former Blues coach was back at ice level at Enterprise Center.
He drew up drills for his fifth NHL team, the Edmonton Oilers. As his players flew up and down the ice, he barked commands over the shooshing of skates and the clacking of sticks.
Hitchcock, 66, lives for this. He is an elite taskmaster known for engineering quick turnarounds. Coaching opportunities arise regularly given the league’s crazy competitive balance, so the calls keep coming.
Hitchcock’s latest comeback with his hometown Oilers did not stun the industry. Nor did his early success (4-2-1) with that long-frustrated franchise, which plays the Blues on Wednesday night.
Blues interim coach Craig Berube noted the difference in their play. “For sure, they seem like they are a heavier team, more physical,” Berube said.
Hitch is just doing what Hitch does — and what Hitch will always want to do in one form or another. He is an iconic figure in the industry, a role model for other coaches.
“Being around Hitch, playing for him in junior and pro and then coaching with him, alongside him, around him, he’s a very successful coach, obviously,” Berube said last month. “Hitch is a demanding coach. I think that I try to follow in the same lines. I’m demanding, but I’m fair. But my door is always open so players can come in and communicate. I communicate well with players. That’s the kind of stuff that I learned from Hitch.”
Hitchcock didn’t win a Stanley Cup in St. Louis, but he led to the Blues to their first Western Conference finals since 2001 and just their second NHL Final Four since 1986.
“We had a great relationship with the people, the town, the fans, the players, it was a hell of a six-year run,” Hitchcock said after his Tuesday practice. “When you’re in the playoffs six years in a row, you’re in the conference finals ... I mean, we were in a conference and a division that were strong. We’re sitting there with Nashville and Chicago and then you’ve got LA on a roll and we’re right in the mix with those teams.
“In this league, when you make the playoffs that many years in a row, you’ve done a lot of good things.”
After that 20-game playoff run in ’16, the Blues lost captain David Backes and key veteran Troy Brouwer to free agency. The strain of the playoff push wore on Hitchcock, too, and he pondered retirement.
Ultimately he returned, but Blues general manager Doug Armstrong hired Mike Yeo to assist him for 2016-17 and serve as the coach-in-waiting.
“The concept I thought was valid,” Armstrong said last month. “The coach-in-waiting was done because we had a coach who told me he wanted to coach one more year. We were coming off a successful season, we went to the semifinals. I was looking for a continuation coach, that could continue what that group had built, 100-point seasons, a good playoff run.”
But with Yeo waiting in the wings, the players tuned out Hitchcock and ultimately forced his dismissal.
“That group didn’t get it done,” Armstrong said. “We had the coach that wanted to coach one more year ended up coaching a half a year here. We had to make that change. Mike came in, did a hell of a job, pushed us on. It made me feel that was the right decision because he was able to get a group that I believed in at that time to go on a long run, to win a playoff round ... to have a successful 25 games at the start of his next (season).”
During the 2016-17 season Hitchcock dropped hints that he was willing to coach beyond that season. He recharged his battery after Armstrong fired him and returned to Dallas to coach the Stars — the franchise he led to the 1999 Stanley Cup.
This time around he replaced coach Lindy Ruff and prodded the Stars to a 13-point improvement last season. They just missed the playoffs, though, and Hitchcock slid into an advisory role with the Stars.
“I think I’ve had enough,” he later told the Dallas Morning News. “I think the coaching part ... is over.”
Ah, but it wasn’t. Hitchcock shed 80 pounds and got back into good coaching shape. The Oilers hired him Nov. 20 after firing Todd McLellan.
“Ken and I do talk quite a bit,” Armstrong said after that news broke. “I’m not surprised to hear that information. I wish him nothing but the best. He’s a hell of a coach.”
The Oilers don’t have much offensive talent beyond superstar Connor McDavid and forwards Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. So Hitchcock is convincing the group that it must grind out victories.
“I know what is wrong, but it’s not going to get fixed overnight,” he told reporters after getting hired. “If we expect to win hockey games we’re not going to do it on talent, we have to develop an atmosphere where we’re 100 percent locked in playing for each other and not with each other. There’s a big difference in those two words.
“I went through this in St. Louis, we turned it around in eight or nine days, and we started to really play for each other. I think I can help this group turn that around.”
And so his adventure continues. He will coach his 1,544th regular-season NHL game Wednesday night and enjoy still another reunion with familiar faces.
“It seems like every arena I go to I’ve coached in,” Hitchcock quipped Tuesday. “Are there any more left? Am I doing an outdoor rink tour?”