By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Ken Hitchcock never intended to coach hockey--not at the midget level, not at the junior level, certainly not at the professional level.
There's a part of him that would have preferred to stay behind the counter of United Bicycle in his hometown of Edmonton, Canada, where he sold hockey equipment and sharpened skates and waited for nothing in particular. There's a part of him that never forgets his days behind the counter, working at a tiny sporting-goods store that had to compete with mammoth chains offering cheaper prices and bigger selections. Get him talking about the two years he has spent as the coach of the Dallas Stars--the very best team in the National Hockey League right now, partly because of him--and he immediately mentions that old job at United Bicycle.
To Ken Hitchcock, there's very little difference between selling hockey skates and selling his philosophy about the game. It's all about convincing someone they need something they never thought they wanted, whether it's a new pair of skates or a system that puts the team before the player.
"My coaching background or my beliefs in coaching aren't spun from the sport. They're spun from work," the 46-year-old Hitchcock says, sitting behind the desk in his small, sparsely adorned office nestled in the Stars' Valley Ranch practice facility. Dressed in a black warm-up suit, his legs propped on his desk, Hitchcock looks more like a boss and less like the coach of a professional sports franchise. You half expect him to pick up the phone and place a parts order.
"I had to get people to buy what I was selling even though our prices weren't the best, so I had to sell myself, and I had to get people to buy in and have confidence in me and what I was trying to sell," he continues, his Canadian twang filling the room. "A lot of that philosophy is here in my coaching. Getting the players to believe in a system and getting them to believe in each other and making them feel important is a huge part of this business."
Those around Ken Hitchcock often use the same phrase to describe the man who, last season, turned a worst-place team into a first-place team. They all say he is a "great salesman," a fanatic who can convert any nonbeliever. They praise his ability to turn a group of 29 men into a single-celled team. They revere his passion for discipline and hard work, his commitment to winning.
There are, no doubt, some Stars who believe that with 32 wins on their tally sheet this season--the most in the National Hockey League thus far--they could win with any coach. There are surely some in the locker room who do not like his backbreaking work ethic, the arduous practices, and long teaching sessions. There are some who resent his win-or-else temperament, the way he will get angry with the team even after a victory, especially if they do not play as a team.
"He really keeps on ya and pushes ya hard," says center Jamie Langenbrunner.
But they all must know by now that Ken Hitchcock is the best coach in the NHL. The reason is simple: Hitchcock believes nothing in the world is more important than The Team. He says it with such seriousness, such determination, it only makes sense to capitalize the words. They're his mantra.
"I put the team on the pedestal," he says. "The team is everything to me. Nothing can get in the way of the team, and I do that through discipline, I do that through direction, I do that through practice, through off-ice training, everywhere. The whole focus is on what is best for the team. And that's why I make sure every player understands how much he's needed, how much he's valued, and what his role is. That's where the push comes. If the player has a clear picture of what's expected of him, then it's my job as the caretaker of the team to make that player accountable."
That's the reason Hitchcock's Stars could suffer so many injuries this season to so many key players--including leading scorer Mike Modano, Joe Nieuwendyk, Richard Matvichuk, Greg Adams, and Todd Harvey--and still increase their lead atop the Western Conference. Hitchcock does not build his team around single stars but a group of locker-room leaders. A different hero emerges every night.
He has done that ever since he began coaching in midget (youth) hockey in 1982, taking over the Canadian Triple-A Midget team near Edmonton. He did that when he went to the junior-hockey Kamloops Blazers in 1984, and when he joined the Kalamazoo Wings in the minor leagues in 1993 after a brief stint as an assistant in the NHL. He was a winner everywhere he went, racking up coach-of-the-year honors and title after title.
Ken Hitchcock, quite simply, does not know how to lose.
Since replacing Stars coach Bob Gainey in January 1996, Hitchcock has been portrayed in the press as something of a curiosity. Reporters from USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, even The Dallas Morning News have written excessively of his weight loss--the man who lost nearly 300 pounds since 1991. (Almost all of the dozen pieces written in the past year begin with a variation on the theme: Ken Hitchcock is half the man he used to be.)