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Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Hitchcock: 'Your job as coach is to provide hope'

By Scott Burnside

[Editor's note: As part of Scott Burnside's in-depth look at the Devils' early-season struggles, he spoke with former NHL coach Ken Hitchcock on how one can lead a team out of a slump.]

Ken Hitchcock has ridden out the slides that seem to have no end. He has also received the call telling him the slide has gotten the better of him.

But regardless of how it has played out, the man who coached the Dallas Stars to a Stanley Cup in 1999 and was part of two Olympic gold medal-winning coaching staffs for Canada believes there are basic truths about coaching from the dark to the light.

"The first thing you learn is that you come out of these slumps in steps," Hitchcock told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "To come out of these dips, it's not an immediate process. It's a gradual process"

When a team loses five or six in a row and is struggling, it's rare that it suddenly wins five or six in a row, he said. Usually a team will start to play well, or at least better, even if the points don't necessarily reflect that improved level of play. That improved play usually involves a coach returning to the very foundation of whatever is the character of his team.

"It's like re-establishing your identity," said Hitchcock, who remains employed by the Columbus Blue Jackets after being replaced by Claude Noel on an interim basis with 24 games left in the 2009-10 season (Scott Arniel now coaches the club).

The challenge for any coach is to keep his players from looking too far ahead at the results -- did they win or not? -- and keep them focused on that foundation. It's not an easy task.

Although Hitchcock was talking in general terms and not about the specific plight of the New Jersey Devils, that is exactly the kind of talk that permeates inside the Devils' locker room, the sense that they are close even though their record doesn’t necessarily suggest improvements are being made.

Another area that can confound the coach in trying to pull out of a slump is struggling teams often find it difficult to score. And when that's the case, the focus often goes to simply scoring goals, as if that in and of itself will right the ship.

"I always cringe as a coach when a team isn't doing well and all they talk about is scoring goals and that becomes the obsession," he said.

When that happens, the tendency is for players to start cheating in other parts of their game to try and get those goals.

While the players on the ice ultimately control their own fate and the fate of their team, the light shines hotly on coaches during tough times. That's just the way it is. And that light shines not just from the media and the public, but also from the players themselves. How a coach deals with adversity is as important as the drills he introduces in practice to correct bad habits.

"They're looking for help and they're looking for your leadership," Hitchcock said. "They're watching you. ... You learn that as poorly as you, the coach, feel, the players feel worse. Your job as a coach is to provide hope. That's your job every day."