There was a change in the St. Louis Blues to open the 2011-12 season. A year after the acquisition of starting goaltender Jaroslav Halak, the Blues added veteran free agents Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, Scott Nichol and, most notably, Brian Elliott. However, the season did not start off as planned, as head coach Davis Payne saw his club post a sub-par 6-7-0 record through the first 14 games. However, almost instantly, the season turned around on Nov. 6, 2011.
Payne was replaced behind the bench by a wily veteran. Ken Hitchcock, the man who led the Dallas Stars to their only Stanley Cup championship, was hired by the Blues, despite not coaching since February 2010.
The hockey world was interested to see how the Blues roster would react to Hitchcock’s hiring. After all, the team went 0-2-1 in Payne’s first three games on the job in January 2010. With the coach prior, Andy Murray, the club reacted to the hiring with an 0-2-2 record in December 2006. However, Hitchcock managed to draw blood from a stone.
The 59-year-old coach stormed out of the gate, posting a 4-0-2 record with the organization through the first six games. The accolades instantly started piling up for his team, as Elliott received his first All-Star nomination and, more importantly, he led his group of players to a Central Division title in April. The Blues also won their first playoff series since the 2002 postseason, defeating the San Jose Sharks in six games.
Fast forward to present day. Hitchcock has amassed 153 wins since being hired by the Blues, raising his overall record to 686-418-88-94. In his time with St. Louis, he has surpassed coaching greats such as Jacques Martin, Jacques Lemaire and, most recently, the deceased Pat Quinn. He has sole possession of fifth on the all-time coaching wins list, sitting just six wins behind Toronto and Montreal great Dick Irvin (692).
He reached another milestone on Monday, after his club defeated the Colorado Avalanche on home ice, 3-1. He tied Brian Sutter (153) for second on the Blues’ all-time coaching wins list, achieving the feat in under four seasons.
“When you’re that old, you (have to) have some milestones,” joked assistant captain Barret Jackman after the game. “He’s unbelievable in his technical game. His preparation is great. He comes in every morning the day of the game, and days between games, and gives the best gameplan to succeed. He brings so much knowledge and he’s doing a great job of getting the guys (moving) in the right direction.”
One of those players is Jaden Schwartz. After being drafted by the Blues in the first round, 14th overall, of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Schwartz spent the next two seasons with Colorado College. After his team wrapped up play in March 2011, he signed a professional contract with the Blues and instantly joined his new team. He fluctuated in Hitchcock’s lineup, sometimes being thrust onto a scoring line and spending other times on a checking line.
Schwartz has turned into a complete NHL player since his first season. Only spending the first half of the 2012-13 campaign in the AHL (due to the lockout), he has been a staple in the Blues’ lineup and, currently, plays on one of the team’s top lines with Vladimir Tarasenko and Jori Lehtera.
“(Hitchcock has) done a lot for me,” said Schwartz, who ranks fourth on the roster with 37 points this season. “When I came in, he made me earn my ice time. He’s a guy that’s hard on you if you’re cheating in any way. He makes you be really consistent. When I came in, there were certain nights when you’re on a back-to-back (set of games) and you’re not fully rested. There’s no excuse to not make sure you’re ready to go. He’s kept me consistent and kept me on my toes.”
Hitchcock began coaching midget hockey in the Edmonton area in the 1970s before joining the Kamloops Blazers of the WHL in the 1984-85 season. He coached there for six seasons, earning a sparkling 291-125-15 record to go along with two League titles.
After leaving the WHL and spending time as the Philadelphia Flyers’ assistant coach from 1990-93, Hitchcock moved on to the now-defunct IHL and commanded the Kalamazoo Wings, the affiliate for the Dallas Stars. Boasting success with 119 wins in parts of three seasons, the head coach made the jump to the NHL, replacing Bob Gainey as the Dallas coach on Jan. 8, 1996. It was then that the Stars truly began molding a Stanley Cup-caliber team, as Hitchcock led his team to a playoff appearance the following season.
He was there for Brett Hull’s controversial triple-overtime goal that captured the Cup in 1999. He was there again when the Stars lost to the New Jersey Devils in six games during the 2000 Stanley Cup Final. He was with the team until the middle of the 2001-02 season, when he was let go by management after a 23-16-7-4 start. He is still the Stars’ all-time winningest coach, accumulating a 277-154-60-12 record.
He then moved back to Philadelphia, this time as the head coach. He spent parts of four seasons with the organization, helping the Flyers reach the 2004 Eastern Conference Final and accumulating 130 wins behind the bench. He was dismissed on Oct. 22, 2006, but was hired to become the head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets just a month later. In parts of four seasons, Hitchcock again became the winningest coach of a franchise, recording 125 wins, and was monumental in helping the Blue Jackets reach the playoffs for the first time in franchise history (2008-09).
It seems as if the Edmonton, Alberta native has found his final home before he begins the next stage of his life. Blues general manager has stated in the past that Hitchcock, now 63, will be employed “as long as he wants to coach.” It doesn’t seem to bother his players.
“To have a record like that, he’s had to be around the League for a while and he’s seen some hockey in his day,” Elliott said. “His X’s and O’s are second to none in the League and his attention to detail is getting us prepared for a game; everybody knows what’s expected. That helps when we go out on the ice. We definitely know our jobs.”
It doesn’t seem that he is getting close to retirement, either. He told NHL.com last February that it is hard to view coaching as a job; it’s more of a privilege.
“The energy for me is in the teaching part, not in the record,” he said. “It’s not in the accomplishment. It’s in the enthusiasm to help guys get better. I love teaching.”
Under his watch, the team has improved greatly. The Blues franchise qualified for the postseason just once in the six seasons before his arrival. Since then, the Gateway City has hosted playoff games every year and is well on its way to doing it again in 2015.
“All I know is when Ken got here, we were hoping to make the playoffs and now we’re disappointed when we’re not winning in the playoffs,” Armstrong told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the beginning of the season. “That’s what we want as an organization. I think you have to be honest that the work he’s done here has been very good.”
The next step for the 2011-12 Jack Adams winner will be to push his team over the playoff hump.
However, if anyone is up to the challenge, it’s Hitchcock.
I am a former NHL media member and reporter for the St. Louis Blues, working for various media outlets. Currently, I am an NHL News Writer and Editor for The Hockey Writers. I live in St. Louis and work as a freelance copywriter in numerous industries.