KEN HITCHCOCK: Coaching great did it all behind the bench

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A big 2023 Hockey Hall of Fame class covers a lot of ice.

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Three goalies, a general manager and a trio of greats among NHL players, coaches and international women’s hockey will join the puck pantheon this Monday. It brings the Hall’s total residency to 298 players, including ten women, 115 builders and 16 on-ice officials.

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Debate on who else should be nominated by the secretive 18-person selection committee is an endless exercise, but won’t take away from a memorable ceremony in Toronto this weekend for these seven inductees. Here’s one of their stories.


BORN: Dec. 17, 1951, Edmonton, Alta.

HALL CALL: Coach of the 1999 Cup champion Dallas Stars, one of his two Cup final appearances with the Stars. Ranks fourth in NHL coaching wins during his five stops in Dallas, Philadelphia, Columbus, St. Louis and Edmonton … Won the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year in 2011-12 with the Blues … Associate coach with Team Canada at the 2002, 2010, 2014 Olympics and ‘04 World Cup, all resulting in championships … CHL coach of the year in 1989-90 with the Kamloops Blazers.

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BY THE NUMBERS: Coached 1,598 NHL games (849-534-88-127 W-L-T-OTL) … First came to prominence with a hometown AAA midget team winning 575 games versus just 69 losses … With Dallas, won two Presidents’ Trophys for leading NHL in regular-season points … Currently 10th in NHL playoff games (168) and tied for 10th in post-season wins (86) with Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper.

THE STORY: Ken Hitchcock began behind the bench with a Chain Gang.

Not a group of convicts doing hard labour, but the name of his Sherwood Park, Alta., midget club that were the first to experience his motivational and strategical style.

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On lunch hour from his job selling skates at a sports store, he’d drop in on University of Alberta Golden Bears practices, run by future Hall of Famer Clare Drake, absorb the drills on pressure defence and aggressive forecheck and eventually improve on them in junior and pro hockey.

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When Drake and other top Canadian college coaches such as Tom Watt, Dave King and George Kingston held clinics, Hitchcock had a front row seat and when the conflab moved to the bar and the veterans would exchange ideas on cocktail napkins, Hitchcock would collect them at the end of the night for further study.

“They gave up every summer so we could learn. It was a combination that they could teach us how to properly run practices, build teams, everything. I was left with a profound knowledge that when they finished the meetings, they said, ‘now, go out and share.’

“The NHL isn’t a league about sharing information, but I felt like I owed it to the people that allowed me to get it.

“So, it was kind of my life’s work. I donated time every summer to give back, and I learned that there’s real value in (that).”

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It’s also why he remained in demand as an NHL coach and came out of retirement for one final fling with the Oilers in 2018.

“In this business, if you get fired and you do a good job, you have good relationships with people, there’s a really good chance you get hired again. I felt really proud of the fact that I didn’t leave places with bad blood.

“The other thing I feel really proud of is the relationships I’ve been able to maintain since I stopped coaching. I’ve had strong friendships that I worked with, and they continue to this day. That’s what matters to me.”

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DID YOU KNOW: Hitchcock, who is also an American Civil War enthusiast, was behind the idea of Columbus firing a ear-splitting goal cannon at the start of each game and after each Blue Jackets goal.

QUOTE: “Coaches are like ducks. Calm on top, but paddling underneath. Believe me, there’s lots of leg movement.”

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