EDMONTON, Alberta — In one of those strange juxtapositions of sports, the Flyers' latest crash-and-burn of a season intersected with the NHL’s latest resurrection story last week – spearheaded by a coach who knows both sides of the Flyers' seemingly endless saga.
Replacing Bill Barber as the Flyers coach after a disastrous first-round playoff loss and player revolt in 2002, current Edmonton Oilers coach Ken Hitchcock – who won a Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999 – logged two great seasons behind the Flyers bench.
His team was 45-24–13 in his first season (2002-03), losing in the conference semifinals. The following season, behind the strong play and leadership of captain Keith Primeau, the Flyers finished first in their division and came within a Game 7 loss to Tampa Bay in the conference finals of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. However, when a 1-6-1 start in 2006-07 was punctuated by a 9-1 loss to the Sabres, Hitchcock was fired by the Flyers.
He has also been replaced in Dallas, Columbus, and St. Louis.
Now, at 67, Hitchcock has been lured out of a brief retirement to coach the Edmonton Oilers. Despite possessing arguably the league’s best player, they got off to the kind of struggling start that seems to imply impending doom for current Flyers coach Dave Hakstol. Under Hitch, the Oilers were 9-2-2 before Sunday’s game against Vancouver.
Below is an abridged transcript of a private sit-down last week involving Hitch and three reporters.
It shouldn’t be hard to read between the lines.
Usually when teams make in-season coaching changes, there’s a two-to-three-week period where teams begin to catch on. You got them playing well right away.
A lot of the work was done by [former coach] Todd McLellan and his staff. We’re part of the same coaching tree. Todd, Bill Peters, Mike Babcock, myself. So the terminology was easy. That part was already up and running. And then I do what I do. It’s just concepts, it’s not X’s and O’s. A lot of concepts quite frankly were in place. And I think we had some things that went on early that allowed us to have some confidence. We won a game in a shootout. We won a game in overtime. We won in a rink in San Jose that has not been nice to us right off the bat. So we were able to grow kind of quicker. … I didn’t have to touch anything. I’ve had three hockey practices, full, since I started. … So we’ve been able to do this without practicing.
» READ MORE: Ken Hitchcock has flipped fortunes in Edmonton
So is this just a matter of the players hearing another voice?
No I don’t think that’s right necessarily. I think it’s the same stuff but a different approach. I’ve learned over time that the pregame preparation is one of the most overrated things in our sport. Because you’re saying the same things over and over again. But postgame preparation is not. It’s really important. And how you move the train along the tracks is all in your postgame review. I’ve learned that critical stuff back when I was in Dallas and in Philly. Everything you do on non-game days matters. So I drill down hard on things that I know are going to come up the next day when we play. We’re very brief on our pregame presentations, but we’re not brief on our review. It’s very detailed.
Do you do that right after the game?
No. I stay away from them until the next day. So I might go into the locker room every third or fourth game, but otherwise I don’t go into the locker room. I don’t see them until the next day. But when we’re in there the next day before we practice or before we do anything, there is a lot of detail that gets dealt with. And I believe that’s my job — to keep the train on the tracks and keep the players out of the ditch for a long period of time. And I believe you do it with hard review. If you really review the details, then they start to become absorbed. Because there isn’t much that gets absorbed on the day of a game.
You’ve carried that over from Dallas and Philly, where it was said you eventually wore on your players. Is there a lighter side to you since your days in Philly?
I don’t believe there’s a lighter side. But I’ve learned over time. … When I first started in this game, you told players what to do and that was it. Then you got to what and how to do it. And that became relevant. And now it’s what, how, and why. And what’s in it for them. And you better be prepared to go the distance in explaining all of those in detail or you’re not going to get a buy-in. … The athletes now are better prepared than they’ve ever been, physically and mentally. You better be prepared for the dialogue and the debate. And you better have the patience for it. That’s a daily conversation that you need to have with guys all the time and you better have that time. Because if you don’t it gets away on you.
Could you ever tell when your message wasn’t getting through Could you hear the tick, tick, tick?
Oh, you know it. My job is to get players to do things that are really uncomfortable, and find value in that. … Your job is to get them through the wall and out the other side. That’s very difficult to do. The feel you have as a coach is, when it’s inconsistent, you know that there is some resistance in the room. They do it, and then they don’t do it. And they do it, and they don’t do it. The feel that you have is, somebody or something is stopping them. I don’t find it makes that big a difference to change the coach. I think you have to dig a lot deeper than that … and find out what, who, or whatever is stopping them from going deeper.
So is Edmonton a perfect team for you in that sense? Because they were receptive?
Sometimes teams are in the position where they’re ready to listen. That happened to me in Philadelphia, and we just took right off. The year we lost in the conference final we had the best team by a mile. If we stay healthy there’s nobody that touches us. We win a Cup. I’m dying on that vine with that one, because I knew how good we were.
Sometimes they’re just ready to listen. … Maybe my approach is a little different than Todd’s, but they were already on their way there for me. … Sometimes teams aren’t ready to listen. Doesn’t matter who’s the coach. But I was lucky, in Philly and back in Dallas and especially in St. Louis they were ready to listen.
You were retired. Why aren’t you on a beach in Florida?
[Laughs] I just had coffee with [Flyers assistant] Rick Wilson and we both said, ‘Are we friggin’ nuts?’ We were the mayors of the coffee club. But I’ve got to tell you. Both of us miss one thing and that’s the thing that drives us -- we both love having a stake in the game. Whether it’s a coach or as a consultant or whatever, we love having a stake in the game. That’s the fuel that is our fire. It’s not like I have to be the head coach or I have to be this. I know what makes me feel fulfilled. I’m part of a group that has a stake in the game.
There’s an outcome that matters to me. I’m not just watching it as a fan. I can’t watch hockey as a fan. … Once I saw what I needed to see, I just switched to the History Channel or Discovery and I just moved forward. … I need to be part of an organization where my opinion matters and we’re involved in an outcome. I’ve had long talks with Tony La Russa. I’ve had long talks with Andy [Reid] about this stuff. That’s why we don’t want to get out.
Is there a coach then that you look up to?
I like the way Andy does business. I like the way he runs his operation. I like the way Tony did it. There’s a group of us. I really admire the way Babcock does it. I really admire the way Mike does things. He’s not afraid to go into the tough areas with emotions with the players and I like the way he does business.