Ken Hitchcock’s dramatic impact in St. Louis this season isn’t just about a head coach falling back on to the job like it was riding a bicycle.
Far from it.
The 60-year-old bench boss came back prepared for his fourth NHL coaching gig armed with a little knowledge about today’s young player.
“If you really want to be a good coach, you have to stay current, and stay current with everything -- not just current with the X’s and O’s,” Hitchcock told ESPN.com Thursday. “That only takes you so far. You better stay current with how to deal with your athletes and how to deal with adversity. How they deal with adversity. This group of athletes deals with adversity in a much different way than you or I did. Way different.”
Hitchcock took in a symposium the past two summers that taught him about today’s younger athletes. He took notes. He listened. Notoriously hard on players, Hitchcock said that education made him return to the game with a bit of a softer edge.
“The thing that’s softened for me is having to deal with the athletes of today,” said Hitchcock. “Some of it comes from experience but also some of it comes from the fact I’ve worked really hard at understanding this age group and what they need to be successful. It’s different working with this age group -- it’s a lot different. It’s way, way different from 10 years ago.”
Case in point, just simple communication away from the rink.
“If you want a player to call you back on the telephone and you actually want to talk to him, then you have to text him,” said Hitchcock. “If you call him and leave a message, there’s a good chance you won’t get a phone call back for a little while. But if you text him and tell him you want to talk to him, you’ll get a call right away. It’s just the way it works with this age group. Those are little things you have to learn.”
Hitchcock is texting, yes, but don’t ask him to go all social media on us. There are some limits.
“I’m not going to Twitter, no,” he laughed.
Another thing, Hitchcock said, is that today’s players want to be included in everything. They want to know why things are happening, why decisions are being made.
“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.”
Take Wednesday night during an intermission in the midst of a 3-2 loss at Colorado.
“We talked about something in between periods last night and the players were asking questions that in my mind only coaches would ask,” said Hitchcock. “That’s how into it, and how much today’s players study.”
Technology has changed so much, Hitchcock said. He pointed to a moment before Wednesday night’s game.
“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.”
It’s not just about keeping up with today’s players, though. Hitchcock turned 60 last Saturday. Time and experience have taught him to view his profession in a different light.
“I think as you get older, you learn to appreciate other things in the business,” said Hitchcock. “After a while, you learn that you don’t coach hockey -- you coach people who play hockey. As you get older, you learn to appreciate the relationships in the business, the relationships with the players, the camaraderie. I think getting away from it made me appreciate that part. "
Winning still matters a ton to the Stanley Cup-winning coach, but he also realizes that he wants to walk away from the job one day having appreciated other things as well.
“I think the thing I softened about is that over time you learn that coaching is what you do and it’s not who you are,” he said. “At the end of the day when you get to be a veteran coach, it can’t be just about running practices and coaching games and then retiring. You have to have a good feeling about the people that you’re working with and for. I want to leave with that good feeling at the end of it all.”