When it comes to being perched at the podium in the mass scrums that are the standard in the NHL, and all sports leagues, these days, Edmonton Oilers’ coach Ken Hitchcock would rather talk about his team and winning games than blather on at any great length about himself.
That held true at Rogers Place this morning even though tonight’s game against, fittingly, the Dallas Stars is as much about Hitchcock as any game can possibly be. After 1,539 regular season games as an NHL coach, 824 wins, a Stanley Cup and a Jack Adams Award, Hitchcock is coaching his first home game in his hometown for the Oilers, a team he grew up cheering for dating back to the WHA.
The return of Hitchcock, who used to work sharpening skates for Wilf Brooks at United Cycle, who cut his coaching teeth with midget teams in Sherwood Park and studied the game at the feet of the great Clare Drake, is a wonderful storyline if ever there was one. A lot of people, like me, could go on, and have gone on, about the good old days with Hitchcock, now 66 and nearing the end of a career that has him sitting third in NHL coaching wins.
Those strolls down memory lane have a place. Likewise, less warm and fuzzy memories for those of you who have cursed Hitchcock for how he used to seemingly beat the Oilers for fun during his days coaching in Dallas. Same thing. All of that said, what matters most to Hitchcock now is what happens next. He’d much rather talk about winning games. I’m guessing long-suffering Oilers’ fans can get on board with that.
Having posted a 1-1-1 record on a road swing through California after replacing Todd McLellan, Hitchcock faced the obligatory questions about his return to Edmonton today. By the way, there’s a terrific piece about Hitchcock’s homecoming by Tim Campbell that you can find here.
“I don’t know,” Hitchcock said when asked what it means to finally be behind the bench with the Oilers. “You’ve been at it so long, it’s just, to me, I feel just fortunate that I got a chance to coach them. I mean, it’s been a team that I’ve followed since the WHA days. Coaching at home is important, but for me, just getting a chance, at this stage in my life, is really, at times, overwhelming to be honest with you.”
He added: “The emotional part for me is based on former players. Not pro players, but, I mean I spent 12 years in Sherwood Park and I went through a lot of hockey players. I know who are the suite holders and who are the season ticket holders and I know they live and die with the Oilers. That’s the pressure for me. It’s those guys. They put me in a spot where I could make a living at the game.
“I just ran into Bob Green and he gave me a list of who is rolling in. It’s a big deal for them, so it’s a big deal for me. That’s the one part that makes me nervous. I don’t want to let that group – they gave me a lot of success for a long period of time, allowed me to go and coach in junior hockey, allowed me to get in the NHL. I don’t want to let those guys down.” You get the drift. The entire interview is here.
JUST WIN, BABY
While it’s widely perceived that Hitchcock has been brought in as a short-term fix by GM Peter Chiarelli in an attempt to save his own job – and it might play out that way – the former Sherwood Park Chain Gang coach isn’t here to play out the string and go quietly into the night with his long-awaited homecoming now a reality. Hitchcock is here to win. He doesn’t know any other way to wake up in the morning.
Of course, whether he can manage that, whether he can squeeze enough out of the players he’s got now or might get in the coming months to coax this team back into the playoffs, remains to be seen. I can tell you this much, Hitchcock will knock himself out to make it happen and he’ll expect the same from his players for however long their time together lasts. It’s in his DNA.
On a personal level, I’m thrilled as hell to see Hitchcock behind the bench of the Edmonton Oilers after all these years, and I think you should be too. Not for the sake of nostalgia and what he’s accomplished in the past, but for what he and the team he grew up cheering for might do next. I wouldn’t bet against him.