Hitchcock has been there, done that
By Chris Stevenson, SUN MEDIA
Mike Babcock, head coach of Canada's 2010 men's Olympic hockey team and assistant coaches Jacques Lemaire, Lindy Ruff and Kevin Hitchcock hold up the team jerseys. (CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson)
MONTREAL - Ken Hitchcock figures it’s about time he’s earned his own room.
The veteran of Team Canada’s last two forays into the Olympic’s five-ring circus roomed with fellow coach Jacques Martin for the gold-medal winning effort in Salt Lake in 2002 and with Wayne Fleming in the ill-fated trip to Italy four years ago.
Former head coach Pat Quinn always got his own room because, well, he tended to make the environment uncomfortable for a roommate from a smell standpoint, said Hitchcock.
Hitchcock is the only coaching holdover from the 2006 games as Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock was named by Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman to head up the staff for Vancouver yesterday. Joining Hitchcock as associate coaches are Buffalo’s Lindy Ruff and former Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire.
Hitchcock wasn’t sure if he wanted to do all of this again. Two times of “been, there done that, got the medal” and he was ready to let somebody else take over.
But after a good year helping the Columbus Blue Jackets to their first playoff berth, he said he’s been re-energized and accepted the call again.
Hitchcock is the “big-picture” guy on the staff, dealing with game preparation, review and in-game adjustments.
He is also the chief baggage handler.
The 57-year-old brings the experiences - both good and bad - from Salt Lake and Turin, the disappointment in Italy - where Canada failed to win a medal - uppermost in most people’s minds.
Hitchcock has a couple of ideas on what went wrong: one’s not really a concern this time around and the other will require a different approach, perhaps.
First off, Hitchcock felt the 2006 team, with a different cast of players, wasn’t able to deal with the pressure that came with being defending champions and following up Canada’s first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years.
“The pressure for a lot of players, defending a medal they had never won, was great,” he said. “There was unbelievable pressure on players who had no experience dealing with it because they were defending a medal that they knew nothing about except watching it on TV. All of a sudden they walked into this thing with a ton of stress and a ton of pressure and they weren’t mentally ready for it.”
That kind of takes care of itself, doesn’t it?
After flaming out in Turin, dealing with the pressure of defending gold won’t be an issue for this team.
The other factor Hitchcock said Team Canada should revisit after the 2006 experience is the issue of injured players.
“A lot of guys were really banged up getting on that airplane. We got on the plane and we were like, “oh my God.” It was tough,” said Hitchcock. “We lost three or four who couldn’t play and we had three or four who were banged up big-time. They tried to get through it, but it was a hard go.
That was really difficult.
“Some guys were so banged up, they couldn’t perform. We learned a lesson. As much as you want the player, if he’s physically unable to play, at the end of the day it doesn’t do him any good and it doesn’t do you any good.”
Preparation will be the mantra for this coaching staff. The advantages Canadians used to take for granted - channelled emotion, passion and the willingness to play a physical style - are no longer the exclusive qualities of the guys wearing the maple leaf.
Hitchcock remembers seeing it in the faces of the Russian players in the quarterfinal in Turin.
“In the Russians we saw a team that matched our passion and, at times, bettered it. The first time we saw that, it was like a shock,” said Hitchcock. “You think you had a lock on something and then you find out that you don’t.
“We know how important the game is in our country, the game of ice hockey. But it’s just as important in other countries. They’re just as passionate and they wear it on the sleeve the same way we do and when you get in these competitions, you learn those lessons. You learn that we’re not the only ones who sacrifice.
"We’re not the only people that put our faces in front of pucks, we’re not the only people who play at both ends of the rink. There are other countries that do it just as well as we do.”
There will not be, Hitchcock said, any surprises this time around.