'Hitch' scratches his coaching itch

Originally Published: October 27, 2004
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

When this NHL lockout is finally at an end, he might consider spinning out a book. Why, any interested publisher should know the manuscript comes with a snappy, ready-made title to slap on the cover: A Hitch-hiker's guide to hockey.

Hitch has certainly been doing his share of hiking lately.

"To be quite honest with you, this whole thing,'' confesses Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock, travellin' man, during a stopover at the formidable campus of Princeton University, "is more about boredom than anything else.

Ken Hitchcock
Flyers coach Ken Hitchock, itching to teach players, has taken his coaching on the road during the lockout.
"I get back from the World Cup, all juiced up by the experience, ready to go, and I find myself in the stands watching the (AHL) Phantoms practice, envious as hell, wishing I was at a rink somewhere, down on the ice barking at players. But I'm not doing that. I'm sitting in my office, on my rear end, doing nothing. And hating it. I'm a teacher. I want to teach. I'm a coach. I want to coach. But right now, I can't. At least not at my regular job. It got to be ... every day seemed to be Ground Hog Day. I got good and sick of my desk. I had to get busy.

"I felt so ... useless.

"I understand that the Flyers need me in Philadelphia, to be around for community and PR purposes. But the players are either playing overseas, skating by themselves or working out. They're trying to keep as sharp as possible for whenever this issue gets settled. I want to do the same thing.

"When we do resume playing, I think I owe it to the Philadelphia Flyers, to our players and to myself to be as ready as I possibly can.''

Hence: Have chalkboard, will travel.

Just because there's a lockout doesn't mean Ken Hitchcock is willing to tune out. He's too shrewd for that, too workaholic, too professional. While others bunker down, he has no intention of turning into a zombie waiting for Gary and Bob to stop dithering like petulant schoolboys and at least try and make some headway on this collective bargaining impasse.

In order to stay sane, he's accepted invitations to become a sort of a roving instructor, already doing more guest spots than Tim Conway. Who knows? If this work stoppage goes on anywhere near as long as pessimists forecast, the man might wind up with more stickers on his luggage than Robin Leach.

"I'm having a ball," he says. "It's a real learning experience, being in unfamiliar cities, in different leagues and different levels. A couple of weeks ago, I was just sitting around, reading all the stuff in the sports pages about how long this (lockout) might go on and just being, well, pretty depressed. Doing this has really helped my frame of mind. The Flyers have been very supportive. And I hope while it's helping me, I'm helping out a little bit, too.''

Modesty becomes the man, for what coach in complete possession of his faculties wouldn't leap at the chance to have someone with Stanley Cup-winning, Olympic gold-medal winning and World Cup-winning credentials impart a bit of his hockey knowledge to his players?

Hitchcock has shared his experience with teams from the minor leagues to the Ivy League to, he hopes, the Canadian major junior leagues. He's spent time with the Central Hockey League's Corpus Christi Rayz and New Mexico Scorpions, the collegiate Tigers of Princeton and is scheduled to head off to Philly's ECHL affiliate in Trenton in the near future. From there, who knows? A nice fit could be the Canadian west coast, where both Don Hay, coach of the Western Hockey League's Vancouver Giants, and Dean Clark, bossman of the Kamloops Blazers, would be in the market for special guest appearance. Hay, a former head coach of the Calgary Flames, assisted Hitchcock during his successful tenure in Kamloops, while Clark once played for Hitch.

"That's really how it got started," he explains. "Voice messages from friends on my phone at the office. People asking if I might be interested in lending a hand for a little while. And I thought to myself 'Why not? It's not as if I've got anything else pressing?' A lot of these people have been of enormous help to me during my career. I figured maybe this could be payback, at least a little payback, for all of that.''

A lot of these people have been of enormous help to me during my career. I figured maybe this could be payback, at least a little payback, for all of that.
Ken Hitchcock
His departure from the big time has been refreshing on a number of counts.

It's easy to take life in the NHL for granted once you've established yourself, achieved a certain level of success and become accustomed to first-class accomodations and world-class pressure.

"What's really hit home with me is just how popular our game actually is," Hitch says. "For instance, I'd never been to a place called McAllen, Texas, before. It's right on the Mexican border. But they've got a beautiful facility there that seats between 5,000-6,000. Same thing in Laredo. And these places are sold out to watch hockey.

"I never would've imagined.

"You go to the minor leagues, the players are barely making a living. But these guys are out there promoting their team, doing charity work, visiting schools, trying to sell the product. It's almost as if they have two full-time jobs.

"You come to Princeton, they're literally running into the rink from class, throwing their knapsacks down and hustling to get changed to go on the ice. At the junior level, which I'm really familiar with, of course, same thing. Hockey is a part of their lives, a big part, but not the be-all, end-all. It kind of allows you to re-evaluate your priorities.

"They're all playing the game for the right reasons.''

And, well, at least they ARE playing the game. This in-and-out, pinch-hit, guest-starring role has served to fill some of the void created by the absence of NHL-calibre hockey for Hitchcock, but not all of it. Not by a long shot.

Almost everyone involved in or who cares for the game has an opinion as to how long this work stoppage will last. It's a dilemma that obviously hits very close to home with Ken Hitchcock.

"I have to believe we will be playing for the Stanley Cup this season,'' he replies quickly. "I know a lot of people might think that's optimistic ...''

He stops. There's a pause on his end of the telephone line.

"I'm sorry," he says, "but I just have to believe that.''

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.