When Ken Hitchcock came out of retirement to take over from Todd McLellan behind the bench of the Edmonton Oilers, it was supposed to be one-and-done for the third-winningest coach in NHL history. It was understood that Hitchcock, 67, would do what he could to salvage the season with the hometown team that he’s always wanted to coach, then ride off into the sunset.
Well, not so fast. For all the challenges on the ice and upheaval off it with an organization that’s facing a makeover from top to bottom in hockey ops this off-season, Hitchcock isn’t necessarily ready to follow that script just yet. He said as much in response to questions from Post Media columnist Terry Jones after a 4-3 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators Saturday.
Jones asked Hitchcock how badly he’d like to have another go with the Oilers if he had more of a team to work with: “That’s hard, Jonesy, because it’s somebody else’s ball game now from a manager’s standpoint. Obviously, there’s going to be a new general manager. I can just tell you what I did this year, I wouldn’t change this for the world.
“This has been fantastic and will continue to be fantastic. I’m so happy and lucky that I got to do this because I thought there’s coaching and then there’s coaching in Canada and this is a whole different animal and something I’m so lucky I get to experience.” Then, Jonesy brought the fastball. For the record, do you want to return as coach next year? “For the record, I feel if I’m good I can coach until I’m 99,” Hitchcock said. The full interview is here.
That Hitchcock would want to coach until he slumps over at his desk is no surprise to me. He’s been a lifer since I first met him in Kamloops in the mid-1980’s. Now, as then, he lives and breathes to coach the game. He is the dictionary definition of a career coach with 1,591 regular season games and 847 wins on his NHL resume. He’s coached 168 more games in the playoffs. He’s won a Stanley Cup (1999) and a Jack Adams Award (2012).
Would Hitchcock like to be back behind the Oilers’ bench next season? Of course he would, even if he didn’t come right out and say it Saturday. That said, his return flies in the face of everything we’ve been led to believe up until now for a lot of reasons. First, there’s a new GM coming in and it stands to reason he’ll get to pick his coach. That’s how it works, or is supposed to work.
Second, at 24-24-7, Hitchcock hasn’t exactly turned the fortunes of the team around since taking over from McLellan, and there’s been rumblings that he’s had some pushback from players because of his hard-driving style. That’s nothing new. Hitchcock always has been a demanding coach, right from the days he was running the bench with the Sherwood Park Chain Gang in midget hockey. He is what he is. That’s not going to change. Is that a fit with this group of players in 2019? Fair question.
Third, having Hitchcock back would be a tough sell, to say the least, to a fan base demanding wholesale changes and a clean slate in hockey-ops. People will absolutely lose their minds if CEO Bob Nicholson, who already stepped in a bucket of dung with his stupid remarks about Tobias Rieder and then compounded it by sounding in way over his head about his plans going forward in an interview with Jason Gregor on Friday, doesn’t give the new GM freedom to call all the shots, including name his coach.
THE WAY I SEE IT
Optics matter when it comes to a city and a fan base that’s been fed a steady diet of failure for all but one of the last 13 years. Surely, the Oilers have to go by the book now. That means due diligence in finding, interviewing and creating a short-list of candidates for GM and hiring the best person, then letting that person make changes in hockey ops as they see fit. It follows, given the history here, that people with their fingerprints all over that failure in one capacity or another are moved out and replaced.
I can’t see a scenario in which having Hitchcock return — beyond, perhaps, being a consultant in a coaching capacity — fits within the best practices Nicholson insists will finally be put in place this off-season. As much as I respect Hitchcock and his unwavering desire to continue to practice his craft, I don’t see how that works or sells here. What say you?