Commentary

Hitchcock keeps Blues going forward

Updated: February 17, 2013, 9:20 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Scott Burnside is embedded with the St. Louis Blues, traveling on their three-game, five-night road trip to Detroit, Calgary and Vancouver.

VANCOUVER -- When last we left the St. Louis Blues, they were about to board their charter flight to Vancouver from Calgary, where they had whipped the Flames, 5-2.

Not so fast.

"Players, stay on the bus," head coach Ken Hitchcock instructed as the team bus rolled into the charter terminal late Friday night.

Coaches and other staff departed the bus, leaving the coach with his players.

The coach explained to his players that they had produced their finest period of hockey on the road this season.

"But I told them the next step we've got to take to take our own engine forward is to play their own game, not to play the score," Hitchcock said.

He explained that they wasted too much energy getting away from the game plan in the final 40 minutes, turning the puck over in the neutral zone and allowing the Flames to get back in the game with three consecutive power plays and an early third-period goal.

[+] EnlargeJaden Schwartz
Derek Leung/Getty ImagesJustin Schwartz scored his first goal of the season in St. Louis' win in Calgary.

"To me, it's really understanding how to manage the game properly on the road," he said. "Because you can expend a ton more energy by not doing it properly."

Although the Blues' ice time isn't until 2 p.m. local time on Saturday, the coaching staff arrives at Rogers Arena before even the Vancouver Canucks take the ice for their practice at 11 a.m.

When the Canucks take the ice, Hitchcock finds a quiet seat in the far reaches of the lower bowl.

Later, he asks his staff for its input on whether the Blues should skate or rest since they have a number of players who are nicked up, including captain David Backes.

There are varying opinions. Strength and conditioning coach Nelson Ayotte suggests the feedback he's getting from the players is that they'd prefer to not skate, that their energy level is low.

Assistant coach Ray Bennett suggests maybe a group should skate Saturday and another group Sunday morning.

"Sorry. That's not an option, but I appreciate your opinion," Hitchcock responds.

"You've got to think outside the box sometimes," Bennett offers.

In the end, Hitchcock decides to go with an optional skate, mostly to get his goaltenders some shots.

He gathers the team and goes over video, mostly highlighting issues that cropped up after the team had built its 4-0 lead.

At the end, though, Hitchcock goes over the three five-on-five goals the Blues scored in the first period.

That's the Blues game, he explains.

As good as the Canucks are, "they're vulnerable if we play our game," the coach said.

Then, departing from his routine of simply suggesting his players take care of themselves, Hitchcock imposes a 10:30 p.m. curfew.

"Ten-thirty sharp," he said.

When the players who have chosen to skate are identified, rookie Jaden Schwartz is among them in spite of the fact Ayotte believes Schwartz is a little tight through the core body area.

Send him in please, Hitchcock asks.

"Are you sore?" the coach asks the youngster, who has played well during the team's two-game winning streak.

Schwartz said he's not really sore and that since it was mostly a shooting practice, he felt he should take part.

"I just figured I should go on," he said.

"The game's tomorrow," Hitchcock said. "Why don't you take the day off, get yourself 100 percent? You won't miss anything."

With the Blues not slated to tangle with Vancouver until Sunday evening (6 p.m. local, to be exact), there is a sense of recovery, a more leisurely pace surrounding the team as they have won two in a row away from home after going 0-4-1 in their previous five, including three straight losses at home.

Owner Tom Stillman has joined the team, having flown into Calgary for Friday's game.

GM Doug Armstrong stayed behind in Calgary, as he was to drive to watch Edmonton and Colorado play Saturday before jetting into Vancouver in time for Sunday's game.

Associate coach Brad Shaw was going to get a chance to see his son Brady play for the Surrey Eagles of the BCHL in Coquitlam Saturday evening. A fancy goal scored by Shaw's son earlier in the week made TSN television's top plays of the week, rolling in at No. 7 and prompting much ribbing from the coaching staff.

"He's only Brady Shaw's dad now," offered assistant coach Gary Agnew, even though Brad Shaw was an NHL defenseman who played 377 career regular-season games.

Hitchcock instructs goaltending coach Corey Hirsch to tell rookie netminder Jake Allen that he will get the start Sunday, his third in a row. Then, Hitchcock gives his former junior netminder and longtime goaltending coach at both the NHL and international levels the gears, saying that when a team is going well the teachers call themselves goaltending coaches but, when a team goes south, they quickly become goaltending consultants.

If Hitchcock and the coaching staff were justifiably disappointed in the execution of the team's game plan after building a 4-0 first-period lead against Calgary -- a disappointment the players shared -- that is only one element of the ongoing and constantly evolving relationship between players and the coaches.

From day to day, moment to moment, there is balance to be either restored or achieved. There is levity to be balanced with constructive criticism; there is preparation to be balanced against rest and recuperation.

One of the interesting rituals introduced by Hitchcock is the pregame ceremony of announcing the starting lineups. After Hitchcock reminds the team of key elements a few minutes before the start of every game, either he or Scott Nichol or Kevin Shattenkirk read aloud the starting lineups for both teams.

The opposing team's names are predictably greeted with mumblings, murmurs and quiet slurs. Then, each Blues starter is introduced with a humorous, sometimes off-color jab that lightens the mood before the team takes to the ice.

"The more off-side the better," said Nichol who has come up with the witticisms the past two games, both wins for the Blues.

"It's kind of like the calm before the storm. We have a good time with it."

"Hitch used to do it, but we kind of took it over. We can push the envelope way more than Hitch can."

At one point, team-building often involved structured outings, bowling competitions, maybe motivational speakers and the like. Over time, though, Hitchcock said they're less enthused about that kind of structure. So there has been evolution. The team tries to set up meals after games at which players can gather together and eat and maybe play cards, relax, talk about the game or just simply communicate.

If the coaches take part in the meal, they do so quickly and then leave the players to themselves.

"They cried, 'uncle' on the organized team-building events. They said, 'we can't stand them,'" Hitchcock said.

"This generation is becoming less and less interested in those things that you, as an organization, structure for them. They get structure every moment of every day."

Another thing Hitchcock has learned over time is that players also don't like to spend a lot of time during practice looking at plays being drawn on the rink board that hangs from the glass at virtually every hockey practice at virtually every level of competitive hockey.

"They want the teaching to be done in the tempo [of the practice]. They want to get going hard, fast and get off the ice," Hitchcock said.

He admits to taking pride in reducing any kind of reliance on the board for in-practice instruction.

"I'm trying to pride myself in going as little to the board as I can," he said.

Agnew, who was an assistant on Hitchcock's staff with the Columbus Blue Jackets, recalled that when he started this process Hitchcock would offer a series of instructions verbally to the players and then skate away leaving the players befuddled.

"The players were like, what? Because he didn't draw it on the board," Agnew recalled with a laugh.

But soon, they got into the habit of listening to the instruction as opposed to watching the drawings on the board.

The relationships with the players aren't the only ones that have to be managed.

It's obvious that Hitchcock and his coaching staff spend an inordinate amount of time together doing the work of preparing and coaching a professional hockey team.

What's unusual about their collective relationships is that they spend time together away from the rink on the road, as well.

"We're a unique group because we eat a lot of dinners together on the road, which is not normal for a lot of staff," Hitchcock said.

Just as Hitchcock and his staff try to keep their finger on the team's emotional pulse, the head coach feels the same responsibility for his own staff.

"I think it's my job to read the coaching energy and dynamic, and if I feel like there's, animosity? Tension? If there's tension, my job is to clear the air," Hitchcock said.

"Sometimes, if I've caused it, I'll be the first to apologize."

Although there is, in general, a sense that Hitchcock -- the defending Jack Adams Trophy winner as coach of the year -- has mellowed, or at least evolved, he insists he can still be as ornery as he's ever been.

"If [I] bark on the bench, 'what's with your guy?' or something like that, I'm the first to apologize," he said. "I feel like I'm a guy who has to keep the group together."

It's not just about avoiding having ticked-off coaches; it's the bigger picture of what discord does to the team machinery.

"If there's tension, one of the issues I have is if there's tension in your staff, the players all know about it. They know about [it] even before you do sometimes."

Hirsch said there are times when coaches do get angry.

"But it's always professional, it's never personal," he said.

"I think that, genuinely, we all get along pretty well. You can see there's a great mix of personalities."

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