2019 oohic ken hitchcock
Built behind the bench
Through a coaching career that has produced Stanley Cups and Olympic gold medals, Ken Hitchcock has forged a reputation as one of the best in the game
Paul Edmonds
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June 18, 2019
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Contrary to hockey lore, Ken Hitchcock did not start out his legendary career by sharpening skates full-time in his hometown.

Of course as a young man selling sporting goods in the early 1970s, he wasn’t exempt from the duty, but it wasn’t his exclusive responsibility.

As part of the sales team at United Cycle in Edmonton at that time, there were periods where everyone chipped in to facilitate the sales and distribution of hockey, baseball, softball and soccer equipment, but skate sharpening, offered as an additional in-house service, was only an intermittent obligation.

“We were so busy, especially on Saturdays, that everybody had to share in the load,” says Hitchcock, who spent nearly 12 years at the retail outlet. “If you talk to some people though, they’ve said I’ve sharpened 5,000 pairs of skates, but that’s just not true.”

At the same time he was fitting customers for skates, shoes, cleats, gloves and apparel, Hitchcock was also forging his coaching path in an Edmonton suburb.

During his 11 seasons with the Midget AAA program in Sherwood Park, he unofficially compiled an incredible 575–69 record behind the bench. This notable tally spawned a further opportunity in the game and by 1984 he had accepted a job in the Western Hockey League to coach the Kamloops Blazers.

“It was a magical time,” he recalls. “There was a span of 11 or 12 years where the team was awesome. We had really good management, coaching, but more than anything we had an unreal scouting staff.”

Hitchcock – or ‘Hitch’ as he’s known around hockey circles – coached the Blazers for six seasons, winning two WHL titles (1986 and 1990), a Canadian Hockey League (CHL) Coach of the Year award (1989-90) and a gold medal at the 1988 IIHF World Junior Championship as an assistant with Team Canada in Moscow.

For Hitchcock, who has also coached Canada at the Olympic Winter Games, IIHF World Championship and World Cup of Hockey, the 1988 World Juniors title is a beacon in the memory banks.

“That experience stands out,” he says. “They could do a movie on that one and it would be a best-seller. Everything that led up to it, during and after no one would believe. That’s a separate event unto itself.”

It was the first of many successful experiences representing his country on the international stage.

But first and foremost, Hitchcock has been a National Hockey League coach. With 849 NHL wins on his résumé, Hitchcock finished last season as the head coach of the Edmonton Oilers.

His NHL career started upon his departure from Kamloops in 1990 for an assistant coaching job with the Philadelphia Flyers, but he admits his biggest opportunity in coaching came in the off-season following the 1992-93 campaign from he was hired to coach the Kalamazoo Wings in the International Hockey League.

To Hitchcock moving down from the NHL to the minors to coach was anything but a step backwards.

“In professional hockey that was the break of a lifetime,” he admits.

He guided the Stars top minor league affiliate for three seasons before being elevated to take over behind the Dallas bench midway through the 1995-96 season by then-GM Bob Gainey.

“One Saturday night I was coaching in Atlanta against the IHL’s Knights, then on Tuesday I’m coaching against Detroit in Dallas.”

A Stanley Cup followed in 1999, cementing Hitchcock among the NHL coaching elite.

“I know a lot of players and hockey people that Hitch has touched and had an impact on,” says Rick Wilson, who served as one of Hitchcock’s long-time assistants in Dallas and also coached against him in the WHL.

Hitchcock moved on to hold NHL head coaching positions in Philadelphia, Columbus, St. Louis and Dallas before joining the Oilers. After the 2011-12 campaign with the Blues, he was named the Jack Adams Award winner as NHL coach of the year.

According to Wilson, Hitchcock’s teams always had the same characteristics: skilled, fast, aggressive and tough – a template he says was developed back in Major Junior.

“He’d be difficult and demanding and never let (his players) rest. That’s what made him successful and why he was able to sustain the high level of competitiveness and success he’s experienced.”

Along the way Hitchcock continued to foster strong connections with other influential coaches and administrators in the game and his relationship with the late Wayne Fleming evoked a notable 12-year run with Hockey Canada.

In 2002, the opportunity again presented itself to be involved with Canada internationally, this time as an assistant coach for national entries into the Olympics and world championship.

The former was extremely memorable for Hitchcock since Team Canada produced a gold medal at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, but also eventful for the drama that unfolded around the triumph.

“It was really interesting as the Czech (Republic) thought they were invincible,” says Hitchcock. “They were the best team at that time. But the rivalry moved from the Czechs to the Russians to the Americans and finished with the Swedes. We ran the gauntlet.”

Hitchcock continued in various coaching capacities with Hockey Canada through 2014 and formulated firm bonds with the likes of Pat Quinn, Jacques Martin, Mike Babcock, Wayne Gretzky, Ken Holland, Steve Yzerman and Doug Armstrong.

“I can tell you right now that all the stuff you obtain like trophies, rings, pictures and plaques, there’s nothing as near as important to me as the friendships you develop,” he says. “And that is one thing I can never repay to hockey.

“There are certainly pieces that mean a lot to me like group pictures of coaches. And most of the pictures I display are the ones that happened after the game is over that capture the raw emotion and pure joy.”

To date with Team Canada, Hitchcock has been part of three Olympic gold medal-winning teams (2002, 2010, 2014) alongside his World Juniors gold and 2004 World Cup title.

Upon review, it’s rudimentary to understand his service to the game and especially his country and why he’s being recognized this year as a Distinguished Honouree of the Order of Hockey in Canada.

“Fittingly in that respect he’s accomplished a phenomenal amount in his life and in the game,” says Wilson. “He never backed away from challenges. It’s good to see him recognized for the whole package of work. He’s quite a story.”

And the acknowledgement of the prestigious recognition is in no way lost on Hitchcock either, although for him it transcends wins, losses and titles.

“I’m more grateful for the friendships and camaraderie than anything else,” he says. “It isn’t even close. When you develop a friendship in sports, it’s a friendship for life. That’s why, for me, I’m so grateful.”

So is Canada.

For more information:

Esther Madziya
Coordinator, Media Relations
Hockey Canada
403-284-6484
[email protected]

 

Spencer Sharkey
Coordinator, Communications
Hockey Canada
Office: 403-777-4567
Mobile: 905-906-5327
[email protected]

 

Katie Macleod
Coordinator, Media Relations
Hockey Canada
Office: 403-284-6427
Mobile: 403-612-2893
[email protected]

 

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