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Photo Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Home at Last

For all the times since 1990 I had Ken Hitchcock’s name at the top of my list of coaches I thought would be the perfect hire for the Edmonton Oilers, I didn’t even have him on the list of possible replacements for Todd McLellan when the proverbial axe fell, as it did today. Knowing Hitchcock as I do, I should have known better.

When I contemplated candidates to replace McLellan, who today got the sack that should have had GM Peter Chiarelli’s name on it, just this week, I never once thought of Hitchcock. Now 66, Hitch had retired with nothing left to prove, with his name on the Stanley Cup, a Jack Adams Trophy and his place in the NHL history books long ago secured.

Yet, here we are today. With the Oilers on a 1-6 skid and having dropped to 9-10-1 as they open a three-game trip to California in San Jose tonight, McLellan is out and Hitchcock has finally come home to Edmonton, where he began his rise through the coaching ranks with the Sherwood Park Chain Gang. There’s likely been half-a-dozen times over the years that I thought this hire could or should happen, but late finally takes the place of never.

Can Hitchcock, at this point in his career, turn the Oilers around and somehow squeeze more success from the roster Chiarelli built than McLellan did? My respect for this man I’ve known almost 35 years makes me believe so, but I can’t say I know so. That, as I see it, is the job. With the spotlight glaring more than ever on Chiarelli, Hitchcock is under contract only for the rest of the season. After that, everything, including Chiarelli’s status, is up for review.

LONG WAY HOME

Dec 5, 2017; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock watches his team take on the Nashville Predators during the third period at the American Airlines Center. The Predators defeat the Stars 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve known Hitchcock was what we call a lifer in the coaching fraternity since I first got to know him during the six seasons he spent running the bench for the Kamloops Blazers in the mid-1980s. During the years I rode the bus back then, Hitchcock had players like Rob Brown, Mark Recchi, Scott Niedermayer, Darryl Sydor, Dave Chyzowski and Len Barrie.

Hitchcock had some terrific teams in what fans called Little Montreal back then, but he never won a Memorial Cup. The Cups would come when the likes of Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan, Darcy Tucker, Tyson Nash and Jason Strudwick finally came along after we’d moved on – Hitchcock to the Philadelphia Flyers as an assistant coach and me to the Edmonton Journal.

On any given night, if we weren’t on the road and the Blazers weren’t playing at home, if you drove past the Blazers’ office across from old Memorial Arena downtown, you’d see Hitch’s car parked outside. He’d be in his office fiddling with the satellite dish watching games, breaking down video. Early, late, it didn’t matter what time of day. Hitch was as dedicated a student of the game as I’ve ever seen. He put in the hours – so many of them it made you tired just watching him. Same thing on the road.

My phone at The Journal rang in 1990 when the Flyers hired Hitchcock as an assistant. That’s the first time, as I recall, thinking the Oilers would be smart to hire him. It didn’t happen, of course, and Hitchcock went on to win a Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999. He made a habit of bouncing the Oilers out of the playoffs for years on end as payback for that post-season upset in 1997.

I thought Hitchcock would be the man for the job in 2009-10 after Craig MacTavish was let go, but the Oilers hired Pat Quinn. When the Oilers dumped Quinn, I wanted Hitchcock, who’d been let go by Columbus, but the Oilers instead ran a carousel of coaches that included Tom Renney, Ralph Krueger and Dallas Eakins before McLellan arrived. Seems to me the Oilers could have cut out a lot of those middle-men in that span and just hired Hitch, but things never lined up. The years zipped by. Until today.

HERE AND NOW

After cooling his heels since an encore with Dallas last season, Hitchcock steps out of retirement and behind the bench in San Jose with the Oilers tonight. A lot of people have Hitchcock pegged as an old school coach, and in many ways he is – he knows how he wants the game played and he expects a level of defensive commitment from his players. At the same time, he has evolved as the game has. He knows how to communicate, how to push the right buttons.

I’ll guarantee you this much, Hitchcock will poke, prod and coax everything out of this group of players they have to give in the 62 games that remain this season. That’s the mandate under the circumstances that have landed him here and that’s exactly what you’re going to see. If this roster is good enough to contend, the Oilers will contend. If it’s lacking, as just about everybody not on the team payroll believes it is, he’ll drag what he’s provided as far along as he can.

From where I sit, this is a hire that should have happened years ago, but that’s water under the bridge. Better late than never will have to do. A short-term fix? Sixty-two games and done? The way the cards are stacked, and with Chiarelli’s job on the line based on what happens the rest of the way, I’d have to say that’s most likely the way it plays out. Then again, knowing Hitch as I do, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Previously by Robin Brownlee

  • Odanada

    Hitch was an assistant coach with Team Canada at least 3 times – making him a known entity to Bob Nicholson. Is it fair to say that this is Nicholson’s hire? Chia looks gelded.

  • Serious Gord

    Hitch is the Casey Stengel of the NHL. Stengel was pulled out of retirement to be the Mets first manager at the age of 72. Hitch is less than a month away from 67. Casey was a throwback to another era – Hitch arguably is as well.

    While it’s all well and good to expect him to bring the hammer down – he has a 62 game contract – most of the players have years and millions of dollars of contract to wait him out.

    And yet another FOK/FOG hiring. Will that never end?

  • jjsa145

    Hey Robin,

    Love the work, long time reader but I rarely comment. Just looking for your perspective, although it makes sense from an outsider looking in (connection to the city, well established acumen of the sport, every possible accolade), do you believe this was the RIGHT hire for the Oil at this particular juncture? Or would have the Oil been better off pursuing an up and comer or even Coach Q (assuming there was any mutual interest of course). I guess what I’m really asking is two parts, is Hitch absolutely the best man for the job? and two, do you see this as something that extends beyond this current season?

    Thanks for all your hard work!

      • Glencontrolurstik

        Further to your point Robin, if I may? I believe Hitch will also show us if this has been a GM or a Coach issue. Or maybe just the players not committed enough? In 62 games we will know what holes this team has.
        Because I, like you, remember those old Sherwood Park Midget days. The post game dialogues at Earl’s with the coaching staff & the prep for the Air Canada Cup.
        I still have my 1985 Blazer puck on my desk from Hitch & R.T…
        I share your thoughts about him being the answer, for a long time since 2007.
        He is what BM calls, “the Answer”. To my mind anyway.

  • camdog

    Hitch will be able to give an honest/independent assessment of this team to Katz. Whether it leads to changes is to be seen. Done are the fake forensic asssessments.

  • nqmt

    Spector made a great point in his article. He said that no marquee coach would take this job long term knowing that the GM has the rest of the year to make the playoffs before he’s fired. Only Hitch was willing to take the short term job and not care about a long term commitment. I feel if things don’t improve this year, there’ll be a new GM and he’ll hire his own coach.

  • Gravis82

    This is just an assessment of how bad the team is vs. how bad McLellan was.

    The only way Chiarelli is still here is if they are lights out for the rest of the year and make the conference finals. But if a new coach makes absolutely no difference, its the team. And let’s be honest, we all know it is.

  • Derian Hatcher

    If a player like Cagguila makes another lazy, don’t give a crap play like he did Sunday when the pass went off his skates and he just kept on skating under Hitch, he may as well just head back to the dressing room rather than take a seat on the bench (and Benning can follow him for serving up that pizza). It’s called accountability, and based on Hitch’s history, he will not be nice about it.

  • CMG30

    Nice words of encouragement for Hitch. The players do need some kind of motivation to show up and play with urgency and passion from the time the puck drops till the final buzzer.

    If Hitch is the guy who can get that through the players heads then great. My suspicion is that we’ll see a small bump in motivation before Hitch starts tearing out his hair trying to get butts into gear.

  • Chiarelli’s future now rests on the shoulders of Ken Hitchcock.

    Of interest to me, is how the next 60 games go. If a winning record is achieved, Ken is a hero and Todd is a bum. If not, will management tear down this roster?

    Oilersnation is such a high at times and low at others. A couple of weeks ago, Oilers were 8 – 1 – 1, and followed that up with 1 – 6 – 0. How do you do that. I think Hitch will find a way to even this out. Maybe.
    Oilers have broken many great men.

  • Finnaggled

    i think he’s been hired as the gm in waiting. Get to know the team for the rest of the year (week?) until the job is vacant, sort of thing. Why else come out of retirement, like as Robin said, has nothing left to prove.

  • ScottV

    Wow. I’ve been rooting for Hitch or hitch like since the Eakins days.

    Never liked McLs deal even when they were winning by the seat of their pants.

    A systems coach in an organization like the Oilers. It will be a challenge but hitch will get it done.

  • ed from edmonton

    PC’s options for a new head coach were basically promoting Guletzen of finding someone who is okay with the “interim” tag. No A list guy like Quenville or Alain Vignealt would take a job hired by a guy who more than likely will not be here after the end of the year. I have to think Hitch took this job due to his Edmonton connection.

    • Ohlyr

      Peter Chiarelli traded Tyler Seguin to Dallas…..
      Ken Hitchcock coached Tyler Seguin (last season) to his best offensive season in the NHL. Folks this should be interesting.

  • Burnward

    Robin…i had a crazy theory this afternoon.

    I think they’re tanking.

    They have decided this year is shot and there is no need to kill Connor trying to win. Word from his agent and owner that 24 per is unacceptable probably came down.

    McLellan would push him to that every night because he was fighting for his job.

    Hitch can now come in, rein in Connor’s minutes and hopefully improve the defensive structure ahead of next year.

    Also helps explain the Strome trade. Money gone after this year.

    I see them shipping out Talbot for futures and maybe a Klefbom before Christmas.

    They have to rebuild for when Pulju, Yamo, Bouchard are ready.

    This year might be toast.

  • Aquavid

    He’s a cerebral coach that has structure. The Oilers have a great coach in Hitchcock. Sadly, I don’t think he has the right personnel and that is on Chia.

  • Big Nuggets

    I’m really curious to see what kind of line up changes Hitch will make, and generl strategy changes. Will he continue to play McDavid 24 minutes a night? It was really apparent that Todd was out of ideas. Pretty happy with the change, we’ll see how well it works.