When Davis Payne was fired and replaced by Ken Hitchcock, I wasn’t very subtle – I didn’t like the decision (Ryan Lambert didn’t either). While I still feel that Davis Payne shouldn’t have been let go, I’ll admit this: I was wrong about Hitchcock, and not just because the Blues are kicking ass.
My general gripe with him was simple – professional hockey players aren’t like they used to be, and old-school coaches (as I had him classified) are generally unwilling to accept that, which hinders a team’s growth. It’s why Pat Quinn, a good coach and a great man, was just about the worst hire the Oilers could’ve made a couple years ago. I think it’s part of why the Leafs have struggled over the past few years under Ron Wilson. And it’s why Mike Keenan shouldn’t get another head coaching job.
Those guys are tailor-made to be successful during my Dad’s era (’74-’88) and a decade beyond, where absolutely everything was on a need-to-know basis for players. When decisions were made and left unexplained by coaches, and the player’s job was to do one thing: play. When guys weren’t coddled to the point where they needed to be told they’re playing well.
Like the way the game (and people) have changed over the years or not, it’s a reality – damn near every young NHLer in the League today has had smoke blown up his backside since he was eight, and you have to figure out how to make that kid play hard for you. Closed-door coaching is getting less and less effective.
ESPN’s Pierre Lebrun wrote a piece called “Time has done wonders for Ken Hitchcock” yesterday, and in it, showed how aware Hitchcock is that things have changed, and how well he’s adapted.
Over the past two summers, Hitchcock has attended symposiums on how to deal with today’s younger athlete, something all professional coaches should do. Laugh if you must, but the coach has learned small things (like the importance of texting vs. calling to my generation and younger), and big things (that guys today like to have input and a relationship with their coach, instead of being treated like robots).
“They don’t just want to be told what to do — they want to be included in the why’s and why not’s,” said Hitchcock. “They want input, and you have to give it to them if you want your team to respect you and play hard for you. That’s just the way it is.”
While bag-skating today’s NHLers still occasionally has some value, hollering about “hard work” is ridiculous. The competition for those roster spots is so intense that the days of smoking darts and drinking gin at a pub the night before a game are gone. There’s too much money involved, and the lifestyle is too good for guys to not care and play lazy hockey, to the point where motivational coaches are headed the way of the dinosaur. Telling them to ”work hard” is borderline offensive.
“Two hours before the game last night, I’ve got a player watching all of his shifts on his own iPad from the game before,” Hitchcock said. “So they know everything about what’s going on.
“By the time you practice the following day after a game, at least half or more of the players on your team have already watched all their shifts from the game before.”
(Hitchcock, iPad, same sentence. Didn’t even include the phrase “doesn’t know what a.” I’m impressed)
So credit where credit is due – it’s not easy to evolve for any of us, and it must be harder when you’ve reached the pinnacle of success in your career doing things one way. Hitchcock has recognized how he needs to operate today – smarter and softer – and adapted accordingly.
The Blues are a talented young team that sit sixth in the West and they’re creeping up on a home ice spot. If he has those young guys on his side there in St. Louis (as it appears so far), I certainly wouldn’t bet against them.