Hitchin' a ride to history

TERRY JONES, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:10 AM ET

When you win your 500th NHL game as a coach and return to your old hometown, it makes you marvel.

How did you, a massive man who could barely bend over to tie your skates, a guy who never really played the game at any level, end up becoming only the 13th coach in NHL history to reach the 500 win mark, joining only Scotty Bowman, Al Arbor, Dick Irvin, Mike Keenan, Jacques Lemaire, Pat Burns and Toe Blake as the only coaches to reach that number and win a Stanley Cup as well?

Then you pass Blake with your next win.

"Toe Blake? That's just a little bit scary," said Ken Hitchcock.

The old rink rat, born in Edmonton on Dec. 17, 1951, trudged off the ice after practice yesterday, parked his considerable frame on a stool outside the dressing room and took a trip back in time.

"My first hockey game, I was four years old. My dad took me to see the Edmonton Flyers and the Detroit Red Wings," he said of a preseason game between the farm team and the NHL team that used to hold training camps here.

"All my dad's friends played for the Flyers. I followed my dad around as a kid. At 10:30 at night I'd be dragging hoses around as my dad flooded the ice at the Ottewell Community League," he said.

What started out as a one-on-one interview gradually grew into what Hitchcock does better than any other coach, which is hold court.

His skates still on, he went on for half an hour about his life and times here.

"When I was a kid we used to play 40-on-40 hockey on Sunday," he remembers of making it to a low level of midget hockey.

"When my dad died, in 1967, I had a substantial weight gain over a two-year period and went from a centre to a sixth defenceman. But I still played hockey 12 months a year, outdoors, indoors, on grass, asphalt.

"It was so much fun that in my twenties I was still playing."

That's when he started coaching community league hockey and decided he'd better learn as much as he could.

"Three times a week, I used to go watch Clare Drake, with Billy Moores, run a practice with the Golden Bears.

"I look back now at all the crisis points. Like getting my first real break coaching," he said of the Sherwood Park AAA midgets.

"I didn't get the job. Clarence Dyck, an older guy with his son on the team, got the job. Two days later he quit. He told them they had to give the job to me because I was his assistant."

The first time Hitch was fired was from that same job.

"One year in Sherwood Park I had all 15-year- olds and two 16-year-olds. We only lost three or four games, but I got fired after the season.

"Billy Warwick led the charge to have me come back. I don't know what I'd be doing today if Billy hadn't got me my job back."

Maybe he'd still be working at United Cycle.

"I had no great goal to leave United Cycle," he said of the sporting goods store job Wilf Brooks gave him as a troubled teenager.

"Wilf was like my dad. Still is. We're best of friends. He came in at a time when there was a lawlessness about me. I was going through life on the wild side."

Hitchcock left when the Kamloops Blazers gave him a chance to coach in the Western Hockey League.

"I still have a copy of my resume. I wrote it in pencil on the way to Kamloops to interview for the job. I didn't know you needed a resume."

Hitchcock would be hired as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers. Fired, he was headed back to be a WHL coach when fate dealt him another great hand.

"I'd exhausted every avenue. That's when Les Jackson called and told me the Stars were moving to Texas and they were looking for a coach in Kalamazoo. He told me to fly to Minnesota to talk to Bob Gainey, who hired me."

That led to a job with the big team.

Even in the NHL, where he won a Stanley Cup coaching Dallas, all the stars and planets and moons fell in place for him.

"I had an arrogance from watching the Oilers play that I took to the NHL," said Hitchcock. "I believed the only way to play was all-out, in-your-face hockey and if you couldn't play, there was something wrong with you.

"I owe a lot to Bob Gainey, Doug Jarvis and Rick Wilson," he said of his GM and assistant coaches.

"I was perplexed, bewildered and shook up. They guided me. At every turn, somebody helped me."

TERRY.JONES@SUNMEDIA.CA


Photos