Post-lockout era not kind to Hitchcock
Let's start with this.
No one talks the game of hockey better than Ken Hitchcock.
No one better articulates the nuances of the game, the back story of how and why a player or team plays, how and why they react under certain situations, what makes them tick or not.[+] EnlargeJamie Sabau/NHLI/Getty ImagesThe Blue Jackets fired coach Ken Hitchcock less than a year after making the playoffs for the first time.
Watch how reporters congregate around Hitchcock wherever he happens to be, like moths to a flame.
It was so in Philadelphia when he coached in that hockey hotbed, and ask any reporter who covered the team if they miss their daily hockey chats with the funny, insightful, often biting Hitchcock.
It was so when reporters gathered for the Canadian Olympic orientation camp this past August in Calgary, where Hitchcock was reprising his role as an assistant with the Canadian team.
And it will be so when reporters from around the world gather to cover the Olympic hockey tournament in Vancouver in a little more than a week.
The difference is, when Hitchcock arrives in Vancouver, he will speak not as an NHL coach, but an unemployed one, as he was relieved of his duties as the bench boss of the Columbus Blue Jackets late Wednesday afternoon.
The fact the firing doesn't come as much of a shock for a team that has stumbled through the first 58 games of this season (22-27-9) says as much about the Blue Jackets organization as it does Hitchcock's ability as a coach.
Still, the post-lockout NHL has not been kind to Hitchcock.
After taking the Philadelphia Flyers to Game 7 of the 2004 Eastern Conference finals, a series they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champs from Tampa Bay, Hitchcock's Flyers were waxed in the first round in 2006 by a faster, more skilled Buffalo team. Philly was embarrassed twice in that series by scores of 8-2 and 7-1, a harbinger of what was to come for Hitchcock and the Flyers.
The team started the next season off poorly and Hitchcock was fired on Oct. 22. The Flyers went on to finish dead last in the NHL, while Hitchcock was unemployed for exactly one month before Columbus snapped him up.
The Blue Jackets were a moribund franchise that had quickly fiddled away the honeymoon period of their existence in Columbus. Hitchcock, in large part because of his ability to articulate the game, soon became the face of the franchise, even bigger than star player Rick Nash.
He coached his brains out and the Blue Jackets went 28-29-5 through the balance of the 2006-07 season. The team was 34-36-12 in his first full season in Columbus before breaking through last season as he guided the Jackets to the playoffs for the first time. The Blue Jackets swooned down the stretch in 2008-09, winning just twice in their last eight games and were swept in the first round by second-seeded Detroit.
But the buzz returned to Columbus with the expectation that this team was ready to step forward again this season, following the trends of other young teams like Pittsburgh and Washington.
It didn't happen. Not even close.
Steve Mason, last season's rookie of the year and the main reason the Blue Jackets enjoyed such success, went off the rails. The young players who were supposed to carry the team forward, like Nikita Filatov, Jakub Voracek, Derick Brassard and Derek Dorsett, by and large did not progress in the way the team needed. (Filatov went home to Russia in a snit over playing time.) Brassard has just seven goals, Voracek eight.
Was that Hitchcock's fault, an inability to coax more out of young players? Or was it a failure on the part of GM Scott Howson to provide the appropriate tools and leadership to get the team out of the funk that saw it win just three times in 24 outings between Nov. 21 and Jan. 5?
Hitchcock, always tough on his players and especially tough on his top players, was credited with helping franchise forward Nash develop into a complete hockey player. If it's true Nash chafed under Hitchcock's tutelage, it wouldn't be the first star player to be at odds with a coach with a big personality. If it's true, it will now be up to Nash to show he is a leader and not a coach killer.
Back in 2005-06, Hitchcock's Flyers seemed ill-suited to play in the post-lockout NHL. GM Bob Clarke also fell on the sword, which seemed to suggest it was as much the tools in the box as the man wielding them.
This time, Hitchcock took the fall alone. Time will tell whether Howson found the right handyman behind the bench in longtime minor league coach Claude Noel, who takes over on an interim basis, or just a cheap replacement for the highly paid, high-profile Hitchcock.
As for Hitchcock, we figure he won't be long unemployed again, although it may take him longer than a month. His is a big personality, and we imagine him going toe to toe with the media in Toronto if GM Brian Burke grows tired of Ron Wilson's failures there. And it's certainly not hard to imagine Hitchcock returning to his roots in Western Canada if things continue to go south in Calgary and ownership decides to de-Sutter the Flames this offseason.
In the interim, there are the Olympics. A gold medal turn by Canada in Vancouver over the next few weeks will go a long way in restoring the mythology surrounding Hitchcock as one of the game's great coaching minds.
A failure there will extend Hitchcock's post-lockout misery and further tarnish the reputation of a man who can talk the game like no one else, but whose ability to coach the new game is now, sadly, in question.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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