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Center ice

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.)

They refer to his obsession with the Civil War and the reenactments in which he often participates. (He has been promoted through the ranks, from private to second lieutenant.)

They talk of his days working in that sporting-goods store sharpening the skates of a young Mark Messier. (So the legend goes.)

Mostly, they paint him as a kindly, round man with the Captain Kangaroo smile and the demeanor of a shopping-mall Santa. Reading myriad stories written about Hitchcock these past two years leaves one with the impression he's a doughy, hapless, giddy oaf who lucked his way into the National Hockey League--actually, tripped is more like it, stumbling over his bulky frame and his bayonet until he landed in Dallas.

Such an impression couldn't be more wrong.
What makes Hitchcock fascinating is the way he reconciles image with reality. He's a walking contradiction--a sweet-hearted man given to fiery fits, a family man who married at the age of 45 (to a woman with three children, no less) yet is still blindly devoted only to hockey, a team-first guy who loves the isolation of golf. Moreover, he's the accidental coach who somehow turned a stumbling hockey team into a Stanley Cup contender.

"He's like Sybil," says Stars color analyst Daryl Reaugh, who played his junior-league hockey under Hitchcock in Kamloops. "He really is, because he is so driven to win and to succeed, but on the other side of the curtain, when the game's out of the way, he's a good person--no, a great person--with a huge heart who wants to do a lot for a lot of people."

Here's an indication of how single-minded Ken Hitchcock is: Not only has he never seen an episode of Seinfeld--he can't even pronounce it, referring to it as Sein-field. The last television shows Hitchcock remembers watching are Happy Days and M*A*S*H.

The man is so serious, he never smiles once he reaches the rink. During practice, he stands on the ice with his players, barking simple orders--"Move your feet! Move your feet!"--and diagramming positions on a board. But most often, he leads in silence.

"When it's time to play and it's time to practice, I'm really businesslike," Hitchcock says. "Any opportunity I have to sell the game of hockey, I want to take it. Any chance I have to sell the Dallas Stars as an organization in the community, I want that opportunity. But when it comes time to get ready to practice or to play, I want no distractions. I want nothing in the way of that, and that's why I have no flexibility with the time you come on the ice and the effort you give regardless of whether it's in a practice or a game. I'm not flexible at all."

He expects his players to win every day. He is hard on them, quick to yank a guy into his office and chew him out. But that is only because Hitchcock is convinced he can turn a mediocre player into a good one, a good one into an All-Star.

Such a player was Mike Modano, whom Hitchcock called into his office at the end of the 1995-'96 season and convinced he needed to do more than score goals. He sold Modano on the idea that he could attack instead of retreat, as he often did throughout the early years of his career. Hitchcock matched Modano against the best players in the league, and Modano responded: Going into Monday night's game against Toronto, he had played in 38 games and amassed 45 total points. But more importantly, he has evolved into a dominant two-way player.

Another example is 22-year-old center Jamie Langenbrunner, the Stars' second-round selection in the 1993 entry draft. Langenbrunner played sporadically with the Stars from 1994 to the middle of '96, appearing in 14 games; most of those years he spent with Kalamazoo, Petersborough, and Michigan, learning the majors by playing in the minors. Hitchcock coached Langenbrunner during his tenure with the Michigan K-Wings, and the coach saw how good the young center was (he was runner-up for the IHL Rookie of the Year award) and how dreadful he could be (he was the model of inconsistency).

 

From the moment Langenbrunner came up in the 1996-'97 season, Hitchcock got on his case: He told him he would never be a guy who could score a lot of goals in the NHL.

"Now, in his mind, I don't think Hitchcock really thinks that," says Reaugh. "I think he thinks Langenbrunner needs to do certain things to be a goal-scorer, but by just telling him he isn't, Jamie's now going, 'Well, I'll show you.' I think Hitchcock takes more credit for being a psychologist than he really is, but he is pretty good. He can push the right buttons on a lot of people in a hurry."

Langenbrunner finished last season sixth in the league in rookie points, posting 26 assists and 13 goals for a total of 39 points. As of last week, Langenbrunner's already got those 39 points--17 goals and 22 assists. Only Mike Modano has more total points on the team.

"He's hard on players," Langenbrunner says. "He demands a lot of them. But again, he's real competitive. He wants to win, and that's what he does--he pushes you to win, to do your best. He's not afraid to yell at me, to bring me in the office and tell me I'm playing bad when I'm playing bad and give it to me."

But no one demands more of Hitchcock than Hitchcock. He traces this to the days when his father, Ray, who worked in an oil refinery, ran a neighborhood hockey rink outside Edmonton. Ken, while in his early teens, was a good hockey player, and his father encouraged him to become better. But Ray died when Ken was 14, and two years later, Ken had grown to 5-foot-10 and 240 pounds. Without his father to boost his confidence, Ken gave up on hockey and retreated to the solace of the golf course.

For the next 20 years, Ken was accountable to no one. He showed up for work, did his job, went home, and ate. By 1991, when he took a job as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers, he weighed close to 500 pounds. He began to drop the pounds only when he realized he would never get any further in the coaching ranks if he didn't lose the weight; owners didn't want to take the risk, and players often didn't take him seriously. Hitchcock was an overtime away from a heart attack.

So now, he doesn't want to hear excuses. He has heard them all before--most of them from his own mouth.

"I'm hard on people who don't work," he says. "I don't go away. I don't quit on them. I work with them, but I push, and I push those players to get up to the level that's needed for the team. I feel like those types of players have a lot to give, and I try to get them to understand first about themselves and then about the team."

He stops for a second, glances out the window, then begins again.
"From the day my dad died, when I was 14 and really on my own, until I was probably 35, I never needed to look in the mirror. I never wanted to look in the mirror. I never had to. I was accountable to nobody other than I had to be at work. I learned all of the ways to hide and all of the ways to say, 'I'll get to that tomorrow' and all of the ways to say, 'Well, I didn't hear those people talking about me.' So I know all those crutches. I've lived them. Deep down, I'm a stubborn son of a bitch. I know the difference between giving it all and not."

And that is why Ken Hitchcock is the best coach in the


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