We continue our series on the 1997 playoff series with Dallas Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock. This was Hitchcock’s first full season as head coach of the Stars. He coached 43 games the previous season after replacing Bob Gainey. Dallas finished second in the NHL in 1997 with 104 points. They were a veteran team expected to win, but they were upset in a thrilling seven-game series.
Hitchcock joined Jason Strudwick and me on TSN 1260 to discuss the series and what Hitchcock learned about his team. He gave some great in-depth answers on some individuals.
I hope you enjoy.
Jason Gregor: Your team dominated the Oilers in the regular season going 4-0 and outscored them 19-6. You were pretty dominant. The playoffs is different, was there anything you were nervous about or were you pretty confident if you played well you would have a good chance?
Ken Hitchcock: Well I think that all of us, players, coaches, all of us thought that we were ready to win. But we allowed a goaltender to win the series. The Oilers played with a lot of emotion, they had timely goals, but we allowed a goaltender to frustrate us and we didn’t punch through the last line of defence. It was a major wake up call for the next four years for the franchise. We thought that we were ready and mentally we weren’t because we were discouraged by the last line of defence and Curtis [Joseph] was outstanding. That’s a fine line, but also, we didn’t know how to work the goaltender which is the number one thing if you’re going to win playoff series.
Jason Strudwick: Hitch, if there is anything I know about you, is that you are very prepared, you make sure your players are prepared so you would have known Cujo and what he could do.
When a series starts and it gets rolling and you recognize that the goalie is going to have a huge impact, what can a coach do to get his players to understand what needs to be done to use your words, ‘to break through that last line of defence?’
Hitchcock: Well one of the things quite frankly that you get going on is that you over talk about it. You start making it about the goaltender, you don’t give the rest of the players a lot credit. The Oilers needed a cause to play for and they got it in Joseph. They did a great job in playing for him and it wasn’t just him. They blocked so many shots and put every piece of their body in front of the puck and you can’t get discouraged.
I thought we showed a lack of maturity in the fact that because the other team was playing us so hard, we got discouraged because we felt we had this right that we hadn’t earned yet. And it was a big wake up call. The statement that you’ve got to lose before you win was true for us because we thought that we were ready to win, and it took us a little while longer to get there. But it was a little bit on us too. The Oilers played hard and they played well, but it was on us because we were, for me, too easily discouraged by some people’s great performances.
Gregor: Momentum is a crazy thing in sports. In game three you were up 3-0 and all of a sudden things unraveled for your team in a minute and 56 seconds. What was going through your mind on the bench at that moment and what, if anything, did you say?
Hitchcock: Well first of all when you coach in Edmonton in the playoffs, you weren’t saying much because no one could hear a damn thing you were saying anyways because it was so damn loud (laughs).
But you’re trying to get your best workers out there as much as you could, and I think what rattled us a little bit was our workers were getting outworked. And that kind of rattled everybody because we counted on those guys so much for such a long period of time. They could turn the tide for us. And when our workers were getting dominated over that short stretch it was emotionally draining. And like I said, when you play Edmonton or Calgary, or Winnipeg in the playoffs, you’re playing against the whole city. And you need to have a steeliness about you, and you need to have gone through it or have enough people on your team who have gone through it to experience that because you’re playing against everybody. Every person in the stands is pulling on the same rope, every player is pulling on the same rope. Mentally, I honestly don’t think that we were ready for how dramatic that was and what it felt like and looked like. I think we learned a lot of lessons in that seven-game series.
Strudwick: A player who I always thought was really neat to watch play was Pat Verbeek. Not the biggest man, but boy he was hard to play against, Hitch.
Hitchcock: You talk about second and third effort and he was at the end of his career when he came to us. He’d gone a little bit past his prime but his second and third effort and his accountability brought us to a whole other level. And sometimes Veeker was on the second line, sometimes he was on the fourth line. He played in all situations but his second and third effort made our top players understand what it took to win. And it was guys like him and [Guy] Carbonneau and Mike Keane, they carried our work ethic that brought our top skilled players to a whole other level. And that’s what guys like Verbeek on your team, they can do. It’s not so much what they do personally it’s the effort they give that drags everybody along when things are tough.
Gregor: Derian Hatcher, Oiler fans hated him. But they also respected him, I think, in a way because they’d have wanted him on their team. However, the wars that him and [Ryan] Smyth specifically had were fierce. Smyth, you could literally club him over the head, and he would just keep playing. Hatcher seemed to love those battles. How important was he in the makeup of your team?
Hitchcock: Well his greatest strength was his unpredictability. You knew that he was going to get the opposition’s greatest players, sooner or later. You just didn’t know when. You knew he was going to get after Smyth. You knew he was going to get after [Jeremy] Roenick, you knew he was going to get after the other team’s top players, you just didn’t know when. So sometimes it was at the start of the game, sometimes the game would be just moving along and then a guy would be flat out on the ice.
Derian had this attitude that he was going to take charge of the hockey game physically, and he was going to show, without saying a word, he was going to take out the other team’s top players. And he really, both him and [Richard] Matvichuk took pride in taking out the other team’s top players and they had some battles. To see the shifts of Derian versus Peter Forsberg, it just makes you cringe (laughs).
And that type of hockey was allowed to be played during playoffs at that time, but Derian had this responsibility he felt he was there to take out the other team’s top players or more importantly, the teams that the players that he thought had the biggest impact against his own team. Smyth was a major factor and he felt he had to take Ryan out of his comfort zone in order for us to win.
Strudwick: You know it’s funny, you had Hatcher who was a very difficult man to play against in a physical way and then on the other end, Sergei Zubov who was just as important. Talk about his impact as a player.
Hitchcock: Well you know what those type of players are like, you get a player like that on your team and it seems like everybody else becomes a better passer, everybody else plays with more composure, everybody else plays a much calmer game. And that’s what Zubie brought to us. Without Zubie we played with this frenetic pace, but not with a lot of precision. When Zubie came he added calmness. There was a trust factor that we can move the puck through the middle of the ice because we were so strong through the middle of the ice. We didn’t bang it off of the boards, we didn’t just chip it out, we had the calm to make plays.
And Zubov brought that to us and he just brought it to everybody. Everybody all of the sudden, they could make the extra play, or they could hang onto the puck a little bit longer. There was a calmness that came over our hockey club because of guys like him.
Strudwick: He was one of those guys who when you were sitting on the bench would always watch the other team’s players. I loved Hatcher, but I really respected the way Zubov and the way he walked the blueline. He was like there was no one else around. I would get on that blueline and I was chopping that thing up like a sushi chef.
Hitchcock: You know what was unbelievable, he and [Daryl] Sydor backed the power play for three or four years and they played with their skates outside of the blueline. And people forget about that. They added extra distance, they made you come out further to get them. That’s how confident they were that they could make those tape-to-tape passes, like literally right on the blue line. And that’s what Zubie was able to do, he was able to create angles that were very difficult for defending players because he knew how to take space on the ice with and without the puck. You know he was just a really unique player.
I tell people this one story: he left the NHL, he couldn’t play anymore. He had no ACL. He didn’t get surgery, he went to the KHL and on one leg, two years in a row, he won defenceman of the year. That’s how good he was. He played the last two years of his career in the KHL on one leg, and still was the best defenceman in the league.
Gregor: I remember Oiler fans when the Stars would get on the power play and Zubov had the puck on the blueline, they would literally watch it through the palms of their hands and just open their fingers a little bit because he was that good. And then he threw in [Mike] Modano, everybody remembers the jersey flapping when he would light it up.
He had four goals in seven games. He was really good. He was an offensive catalyst for your team moving forward when you won the Cup, so what was it about Modano that impressed you most as a coach in the playoffs?
Hitchcock: He changed. He became a player that would fight for space and not look for space. We weren’t going to win anything, we weren’t going to win any important games until our top skilled players made that decision to fight for space. Mike made that decision. It took a little while in his career, but once he made that decision it brought us to a whole other level and that’s to me why you’ve got to be really impressed with where the Oilers are now and where they’re going to go because their top players are willing to fight for space now and not look for space.
And that’s what happened with guys like Modano, they had had enough. They had had enough of getting pushed around and you didn’t do it by running over people, he did it by just battling for his own space with the puck and it completely changed our hockey club. Instead of running and hiding from match ups when teams would trot out [Mark] Messier or trot out Forsberg to play against Modano, we allowed it to go head to head and it changed everything.
LEARNING TO WIN…
Strudwick: Hitch early in my career in Vancouver and I remember one night we got a penalty so our coach, Jack McIlargey he sent me out and goes ‘Hey Struddy kill this penalty.’
So I skate out there, it’s Zubov and Sydor on the point, [Brett] Hull, Modano, [Jere] Lehtinen. Seven seconds and four passes later, Hull slaps in a goal. I just skate back to bench and he’s like ‘Welcome back, how did it go?’ (laughs). Not very good, not very good. But the PP was so dialed in, it was like pass, pass, pass, pass, shot, goal, done. And it was just like they were all business. So when you talk about that mentality, like we’re setting the tone, that’s what you see from those top teams. But it takes time to build it, doesn’t it?
Hitchcock: Well what happens is when your power play is so strong, like ours was skilled but we were also strong on the puck. We were willing to fight and work for the puck and to me it was a lot like the Oilers are right now. It intimidates you. So it changes all of your tactics when a team has a powerful power play. It changes the way you coach against them because you are on your heels, you can’t take penalties, you’re nervous about giving the extra shot and getting caught.
You know it can swing in a big way and you know if you go down five on three, you’re dead and so it changes your aggressive mindset and that’s what our power play did. Before all of the numbers and percentages were kept as close as they are now, we ran in the 2000 season, we ran it for the first 45 games at over 40%. And I mean that’s just incredible, but that’s what powerful power plays do, is they scare teams to death. And you’re nervous and you’re tight and it takes away any aggressiveness that the opposition has.
Gregor: I want to go back to game seven, 1997. It is overtime. Matvichuk and Buchberger have taken penalties, and Curtis Joseph made the save on Joe Nieuwendyk. That’s still one of the greatest saves I’ve ever seen in a game seven overtime. You’ve seen a lot in your career — where does it rank?
Hitchock: It became a nightmare for all of us and we thought it was over because we had a perfect view from the bench. We thought it was over and when that save was made, our bench went quiet. And then you start thinking we might never score here. And now you’re one mistake away from winning the hockey game. And I look back on that game a few times before the next season, we played awfully well in that game. But timely goals and goaltending, that wins you playoff series and that’s exactly what happened.
That’s to me why the Oilers had timely goals and a lot of goals from unlikely people. But Joseph, he got in your head like the same way that Eddie [Belfour] got in your head, the same way that [Dominik] Hasek got into people’s head. There were so many good goalies at that time in the NHL that they could physically control hockey games. And there was nothing that you could do about it. The more you shot, the more they saved, the more they almost laughed at you. And you know, there was five, six, seven goalies in their wheelhouse at that time in the NHL and Edmonton had one of them.
Gregor: It was a tough learning experience. You beat the Oilers in 1998 and you went on to win the Stanley Cup in 1999 and then lose it in 2000. I know you talked earlier about how sometimes you’ve got to learn how to lose to learn how to win. I remember the Stars coming in here in 2000/2001 and the Oilers weren’t as good as they were in 1997/98. Arnott and Guerin weren’t there anymore. Curtis Joseph was gone. Overall they just weren’t as skilled. You always used to say, ‘We respect them, they work really hard,” but is it fair to say that those ‘97 and ‘98 Oiler teams were much different than the 1999- 2001 teams?
Hitchcock: Yeah there was more skill but there was a certain resilience to that team in ’97 that the Oilers had that made them special. They were emotionally connected to the city. They were emotionally connected to each other at a really, really high level and that was a really tough nut to crack. And then like I said, you’ve got to give the Edmonton fans all kinds of credit, because you’re walking into a hornet’s nest. I’ve said this before but you walked in Rexall, when you stood on the bench, it felt like you were, because you stand up higher as a coach, you felt like you were in the Rome coliseum because you felt like everybody was on top of you and everybody hated you. It was mentally intimidating, and they used it to their advantage, boy.