SIMMONS SAYS: Hall of Fame coach Hitchcock was the goalie whisperer

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The symmetry of this class of the Hockey Hall of Fame has lined up unintentionally perfect this year: With coach Ken Hitchcock being elected alongside three goaltenders.

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And no coach in hockey history ever padded goaltenders’ statistics the way Hitchcock did.

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A 20-year-old rookie, Steve Mason, had 10 shutouts and a 2.29 goals-against average playing for Hitchcock in Columbus. The year before that, Pascal Leclaire had nine shutouts for the Blue Jackets.

Neither did anything like that again.

Playing for Hitchcock, Roman Cechmanek had a 1.83 goals-against average in Philadelphia. Two years later he was out of the NHL.

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The journeyman Brian Elliott, has stunning goals-against numbers of 1.56, 2.28 and 1.96 in his first three years playing for Hitch in St. Louis. The veteran Jaroslav Halak, a career 2.50 goalie, was 1.97 and 2.14 in St. Louis with Hitchcock.

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And the best goaltender he ever coached, Ed Belfour, had his two best seasons and won his only Stanley Cup playing for Hitchcock in Dallas.

“Our teams committed to checking,” said Hitchcock. “I believed in that. I hear the term ‘team defence’ being used a lot these days. I don’t agree with that. There’s a difference between checking and checking technique and playing defence.”

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The best checker he ever coached, in his words: Jere Lehtinen of the Stars.

And if he had to pick one goaltender for one game among this weekend’s Hall of Famers — Henrik Lundqvist, Tom Barrasso and Mike Vernon — his choice was, surprisingly, Vernon.

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“I loved his competitiveness,” said Hitchcock, a fellow Albertan. “I loved the way he played in big games. He’d be my guy.”

jack Campbell
Maybe we’ve seen enough of struggling Edmonton Oilers goalie Jack Campbell to know that this is basically him. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

THIS AND THAT

This is Jack Campbell’s 12th year in professional hockey. He has had one good, complete, NHL season. The rest have been bumpy, bouncing long ago from ECHL to AHL to NHL. At times, Campbell has been his own worst enemy in his development, beating himself up for every mistake he makes. He has considerable talent, but has undermined it. Maybe he’ll get back to Edmonton, but maybe this is who he is in goal after 12 seasons of trying to define himself … Watching the Oilers play in recent games is like watching 18 skaters who have never met each other. With all their talent, there seems to be zero chemistry with this group … No matter what was expected from Ryan Reaves, pro-con, either way, you couldn’t anticipate him being on for 11 goals-against in 14 games, and no goals-for with very little playing time in the early season … The now-disgraced coach Mike Babcock had a rule that Tomas Plekanec hated for the fourth line in Toronto. Win the faceoff, get off the ice, don’t get scored on. That was it … The noise should be about how great William Nylander is playing, at a level beyond where he’s ever been before. The noise of him taking the subway to Leafs games — pure modern nonsense. When he played for the Raptors, Matt Bonner took the subway to every game. He earned the nickname the Red Rocket. That was 19 years ago … A long-time hockey executive on the Leafs signing Tyler Bertuzzi: “I thought it was a great signing. I thought he’d score 30 goals playing with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. I guess I was wrong.” … Another long-time exec on the Leafs: “They don’t play the score. They just play hockey. You can’t win doing that.”

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Boston Bruins’ David Pastrnak collides with embattled Maple Leafs defenceman John Klingberg in an early-November game. AP FILES
Boston Bruins’ David Pastrnak collides with embattled Maple Leafs defenceman John Klingberg in an early-November game. AP FILES

HEAR AND THERE

When the Leafs signed John Klingberg, I was told: “He’s not as bad as you think he is.” Apparently, he is. The Leafs thought his biggest help would come on the power play and with puck movement. So far he has two power-play points and most of the first power-play reps and hasn’t moved the puck well at all … Entering Saturday’s game against the Leafs, Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes leads the NHL with 10 power-play points from defence, and leads the NHL in just about every category you can name … Is Nikita Kucherov the least-talked about great player in hockey? Don’t know if anyone in the NHL finds the open man better than he does … Do you know the last time Team Canada played Team USA in a best-on-best men’s tournament was the 2014 Winter Olympics. Canada won a one-sided 1-0 game … Four of the top 10 NHL scorers heading into Saturday night were American. None were Canadian … Connor McDavid, wearing No. 97, sat 97th in league scoring at of Friday … Patrick Kane turns 35 on Grey Cup Sunday. In his time in the NHL, only Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby have scored more points. Where will the rehabbing free agent Kane wind up? Probably with some kind of funky contract on a contending team that will promise him top-six minutes … Jaromir Jagr hasn’t played an NHL game in six years, but remains ineligible for the Hockey Hall of Fame at this time, because he still hasn’t officially retired. He is first on the unofficial list of next certain Hall members, albeit with a three-year wait post-retirement. But before that, the Hall should find a way to elect Curtis Joseph, Alex Mogilny and Patrik Elias. Next year is the first time sure-thing Hall of Famers Pavel Datsyuk and Shea Weber are eligible. The line always seems backed up … The Leafs missed the boat on Erik Gustafsson by letting him walk away so easily. He signed on the cheap with the New York Rangers, where he is playing 18 minutes a night and very well for Peter Laviolette … The Boston Bruins have given up fewer than two goals-against per game; the defending champ, Vegas Golden Knights, just a touch more than that. It’s no fun playing against these teams.

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Is Joey Votto headed for the Jays? If so, fans need to understand he’s not the player he once was. GETTY IMAGES
Is Joey Votto headed for the Jays? If so, fans need to understand he’s not the player he once was. GETTY IMAGES

SCENE AND HEARD

Ed Rogers is taking all kinds of heat for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment failing to bid on an WNBA franchise. But if chairman Larry Tanenbaum truly believed the $65-million expansion fees to get into the WNBA was a wise investment, he’d make it himself. One, he can afford it. Two, if he doesn’t want to pay for all of it, he could find partners rather easily. Three, he just sold a portion of MLSE ownership for essentially what it costs to get into the women’s league … And this is a time to get involved in women’s professional sport. The WNBA is charging $50 million for expansion teams. The Women’s Pro Soccer League is charging $53 million for expansion fees. The WPSL just did TV deals with ESPN, CBS and Amazon for more than $200 million a year … Don’t feel sorry for Vince McMahon, as he’s pushed out of the wrestling company he founded and built. When his stock gets sold, he will walk away with some $700 million … It’s nice that Jays GM Ross Atkins believes Alek Manoah can return to form next baseball season. But his belief is based on what? … There is a feel-good element to the possibility of 40-year-old Joey Votto signing as a designated hitter with the Blue Jays. But it has to come with an understanding: His numbers are in decline. If Votto comes home to play, he’s nowhere near the Hall of Fame-calibre Votto. But he hit a home run every 15 at-bats in Cincinnati while Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit a home run every 23 at-bats with the Jays … There are eight great quarterbacks in the AFC, nine if you count Aaron Rodgers, but just one, by my definition, in the NFC. And is there a better NFL team right now, a more complete team than the Baltimore Ravens? … The WPHL is set to begin in the new year. Still no team names. Still no schedule. Still no logos or jerseys for sale. Still no marketing. Kind of hard to get excited about something new without any detail … I saw goaltender Vernon at the Hall of Fame ring ceremony. I asked him: What were you doing 44 years ago today? His answer: “Talking to you.” Vernon played tier-two junior hockey with the Calgary Canucks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. It was the first team, first league, I ever covered.

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AND ANOTHER THING

How valuable is a big-league manager? If you follow the Blue Jays, you probably think not too much. But the Chicago Cubs just spent $8 million a year to woo Craig Counsell from Milwaukee. That’s the most anyone has ever spent on a manager … Chad Kelly should become the seventh Argo to win the CFL’s most outstanding player award next week. The other six: Bill Symons, Condredge Holloway, Pinball Clemons, Doug Flutie, Damon Allen and Chad Owens … If the Winnipeg Blue Bombers win on Saturday night, that will be four straight trips to the Grey Cup for coach Mike O’Shea … So many baseball people expect Shohei Ohtani to remain in California, either with the Dodgers or the Giants. But don’t rule out Seattle. Ohtani loves the place … Ohtani returned home to Japan and bought thousands of baseball gloves for high schools. If there’s such a thing as a perfect superstar, it is him … I thought the Raptors would be 1-7, not 4-4 after eight games. Obviously, I thought wrong. I didn’t count on wins over Milwaukee, Dallas and against Victor Wembanyama in San Antonio … Toronto is a fascinating sporting city at this moment, with Nylander lighting it up and Scottie Barnes and O.G. Anunoby playing the basketball of their lives … Masai Ujiri has to find a way to sign Anunoby … My spell-check hates the names Votto and Anunoby. Wants to change them to vote and annoy every time … It’s early, but they are in love with Nick Nurse in Philadelphia. The 76ers are playing very well in the young season and the joke in Philly, where sports are taken so seriously, is that a Nurse is better than a Doc (Rivers) …This isn’t the best of times to be a sporting legend: Bill Belichick, Ken Holland, Lou Lamoriello, all of their teams struggling at the same time … Ted “Teeder” Kennedy’s closest hockey associate growing up in Port Colborne was a player named Don Gallinger. The two are the best-known players in the town. Kennedy went on to captain the Leafs to five Stanley Cups, get enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame and have statue tribute outside Scotiabank Arena. Gallinger went on to get suspended for life for gambling on hockey while playing for the Boston Bruins. Just finished reading the new book Gallinger, A Life Suspended by historian Fred Addis. Highly recommend … At least one big-league team considered John Gibbons for its managerial opening this off-season … There was a lot to dislike about the late Bobby Knight, but his basketball IQ was off the charts. Before Michael Jordan played a game in the NBA, he called him the best player he’d ever seen … Barrasso’s all-time favourite goalie: Tony Esposito … Many are calling for the now-struggling Barry Melrose to get Hockey Hall of Fame recognition, which would mean winning the Foster Hewitt Award for broadcasting. But the truth is, under the rather small rules of the NHL Broadcasters’ Association, he isn’t eligible. Neither is Ron MacLean, Dave Hodge or Don Cherry. Only play-by-play men and colour analysts are eligible by the rules of the play-by-play men and analysts. Hosts are not eligible. Somebody from inside the Hall needs to change this. It should have happened years ago … Melrose, who was essentially the voice of hockey in America for 30 or so years, should be recognized by the U.S. Hall of Fame as well … Happy birthday to Al Michaels (79), Elias Pettersson (25), Mark Hunter (61), Tonya Harding (53), Tomas Hertl (30), Michael Moorer (56), Sammy Sosa (55), Neil Young (78), Paolo Banchero (21), Russell Westbrook (35), Jason Grilli (47) and Nadia Comaneci (62) … And hey, whatever became of Johnny Rodgers?

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