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
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.