The education of Ken Hitchcock: Summer school 2013 has paid off for Blues
ST. LOUIS — Ken Hitchcock was curious. He needed answers.
The St. Louis Blues’ coach has always been interested in picking up tips about coaching wherever he can so he can use them to his advantage at some point down the road.
So, last summer, after his team’s first-round playoff series loss to the Los Angeles Kings, the veteran hockey coach went searching for answers about what made certain teams in other sports successful, why those teams seemed to win all the time.
"The sports were soccer, field hockey, rugby," Hitchcock said. "Those were the sports. They were championship teams on an ongoing basis year in and year out, so we had a plan together to focus on what the coaches brought to practice, what the expectations (were). We talked to a couple coaches. We talked to three coaches. We talked to some of the players, some of the ex-players, and then we talked to people that coached against them."
He’s still searching for little edges all over the place.
Blues captain David Backes on his coach, Ken Hitchcock
Hitchcock, whose own coaching resume includes leading the Dallas Stars to the Stanley Cup in 1999, receiving the Jack Adams Award in 2012 and winning more than 600 career NHL games, isn’t interested in giving away any of his secrets, of course, so he keeps the details to a minimum. He won’t reveal the teams or coaches he studied.
But it was the lessons he learned last summer that Hitchcock put to practical use during training camp and in practices since to help the Blues (52-23-7, 111 points) to one of the best regular seasons in franchise history.
"It was a plan that I put in place to see why teams win all the time," the coach said. "It just can’t be based always on talent. There’s other attributes. What was very interesting was it was the same attributes in all three teams — completely different sports — but it was the same attributes in all three teams."
Hitchcock said he had never done a case study before. He’d looked at other things. The summer before he even spoke with NBA coaches to gain whatever advice he could about how to handle the impending lockout and the shortened regular-season schedule that would follow.
"I wanted to see the internal make-up," he said. "… With the records these teams had there had to be something that was integral in the buy-in from the players. It’s like, ‘Why did they always win big games? Why did they always win championships? Why did they always perform at their best when it was on the line?’ I wanted to know that stuff."
One of the commonalities he found was that each coach had internal competition during practice. They had games within practices, finishing drills where they would keep score.
Sometimes the winners won lunches, he said. Sometimes, in the case of the field hockey and soccer teams he studied, the players from the losing side would be punished by having to run after practice.
Hitchcock saw value in those exercises and added finishing drills at the end of practices. The coach has attributed at least part of the Blues’ balanced goal scoring this season, with five players — Alexander Steen, David Backes, Jaden Schwartz, T.J. Oshie and Vladimir Tarasenko — scoring at least 21 goals, tp those competitive drills.
When the Blues overcame a two-goal deficit after one period against Columbus to rally for a 6-2 victory in early January, Hitchcock referenced those finishing drills during practices.
"I think we’re scoring because of all the work we did in training camp and during exhibition season in the competition phase," he said. "I think guys are staying with it longer and I think they are having success and it just kind of breeds confidence. But I think we stay on it, hard. I think we’re committed to finishing. I think what we did at training camp and the little games we played and the little times we kept score to me have really shown up in the competition, really shown up."
Even with a late-season scoring slump, the Blues still finished with 239 goals this season, which tied San Jose for the sixth-most in the NHL. That is a marked improvement from the previous two seasons, when St. Louis ranked 14th in 2013 and 22nd in 2012.
Beyond the in-practice competition approach, Hitchcock is holding his cards close to his chest regarding what he learned. But his players appreciate his devotion to his research.
"He’s been around the block 400 times," Blues captain David Backes said. "There’s not a lot that he doesn’t know himself, but he’s still searching for little edges all over the place and that’s part of his research, I guess."
That research has paid off for Hitchcock, who has coached more than 1,200 games in the NHL with the Stars, Blue Jackets, Flyers and Blues and has now guided 12 teams into the playoffs.
"I think the one thing we all know about Hitch is that he’s a real student of the game and he really just loves coaching and appreciates every aspect of it," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "It doesn’t surprise us that he’s traveling all over the place to get different perspectives on it."
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at email@example.com.