Blues coach Ken Hitchcock itching to get back to NHL action

Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock. (MIKE STONE/Reuters file photo)

Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock. (MIKE STONE/Reuters file photo)

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:54 PM ET

You ask Ken Hitchcock how he is doing just to be polite, not because you're curious about how he's doing.

Anyone who has spent time with the career coach and hockey junkie knows exactly how he's coping with the NHL lockout.

Might as well put on a plastic poncho and ask a drug addict how he's liking the first few days of withdrawal.

"Glorious," the NHL's coach of the year says in a perfectly dry delivery over the phone from St. Louis. "Just glorious."

There is little time for self-pity, though, because Hitchcock has more important battles to fight than his behind-the-bench dependency.

His waking hours during these dark days and nights are spent trying to keep the momentum the St. Louis Blues gained in finishing first in the Central Division from bleeding away like air from a slow leak in a tire.

"We want to do everything we can to keep this going," the 60-year-old Edmonton native said. "I call it fighting for the brand. You're in a fight to keep your name out there and keep the brand alive so people come back."

Otherwise, in a city like St. Louis, they might not.

"I went through this seven years ago in Philly (during the 2004-05 NHL lockout) and when you live in the United States it's different than in Canada," said Hitchcock, who has been an NHL coach for most of the past 16 years with the Dallas Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets and the Blues.

"In Canada, people wait (for hockey to come back). When you live in Canada you take that for granted. In the U.S. you can't do that.

"Most cities have four pro teams and all the colleges. There are so many other things for people to do with their entertainment dollars in the U.S. that if they're not going to spend it with you they're going to spend it with somebody else and a lot of times if they leave they don't come back."

So, spending what used to be coaching time, Hitchcock and his staff are holding symposiums, hockey camps and whatever else they can to keep the Blues relevant in a market that has the defending World Series champions, a winning NFL team and an array of NCAA programs.

"These are imperative because, if you don't, people just find other things to do and they don't come back," he said.

Hitchcock joined the Blues 13 games into the 2011-12 season, and guided them to a 43-15-11 record. After winning their opening playoff round against the San Jose Sharks, they were swept by the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Los Angeles Kings.

"We built a lot of goodwill last year, people are really excited about our team and you just don't want to take a backward step on all the goodwill. You don't want to start all over again.

"The biggest challenge is to keep everybody's interest here, not just the fans, but the media, the business people ... It's a huge challenge because other sports can take over the landscape."

He still manages a little coaching on the side, even if it's only vicariously through his former players.

"I have so many former players who coach for a living," he said. "I get two or three calls a day from guys. That's my fix. I enjoy the mentoring part. I enjoy when guys call and say 'Here's my problem, can you help me out?' They know when the season starts they don't call, but now they know we've got some time and they can get some help. That part has been fun."

It's important work but, for someone whose life revolves around the game, symposiums and phone calls are not enough to fill the void.

The shakes don't come on Saturday night, but rather in the morning, when instinct tells him he should be on the ice teaching.

"I really miss practice, running and organizing practice and preparing for games. I love that part. You get this nervous energy. There's an excitement that comes over you.

"The actual game, I feel like that's the end result of all the preparation, but I love the organizing and preparing. That part I really miss a lot. When I'm done coaching, those are the two things I'm always going to miss."

robert.tychkowski@sunmedia.ca

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