ST. LOUIS — Ken Hitchcock didn’t get the game puck on January 22, 1996.
The hockey coach had just won his first NHL game, a 6-4 road victory against the Vancouver Canucks. Still, the newly-appointed leader of the Dallas Stars left the rink empty-handed.
“Allan Bester [the Stars’ new goalie at the time] stole the puck,”Hitchcock recalled Tuesday. “It was my game puck, and he stole it … We had a wrestling match in the locker room, and he won. So, I never saw that game puck.”
Seventeen years and three teams later, Hitchcock watched win No. 600 arrive when his St. Louis Blues beat the, you guessed it, Canucks 2-1 in a shootout at the Scottrade Center.
“It’s basically because I’m old,” the 61-year-old with hair as white as the ice said. “If you last long, and you’re old, you get this.”
But it takes more than just time to enter the 600-win club. Only 10 coaches had done it before, five who coached the Blues at some time: Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, Mike Keenan, Joel Quenneville and Jacques Martin.
“Just playing in 600 games is damn hard,” Blues captain David Backes said. “To win 600 is pretty special. He’s put his time in, and it’s good to see.”
Hitchcock, whose career record now stands at 600-381, has carved out wins with a taskmaster-like leadership style and an emphasis on defense-first play. It’s ruffled some feathers, sure. It’s also led to a Stanley Cup win with Dallas, 10 playoff appearances and a current Blues team that is high on confidence as the push for the postseason continues.
“We have a little bit of a younger team,” Blues goalie Brian Elliot said. “We know if we execute his game plan, we will usually be on the winning side. It’s good to have him back there.”
Tuesday was the perfect example. Hitchcock, arms crossed tightly over his chest, watched his team push, shove and fight its way to a thrilling win, snapping a streak of 92 missed shots in the process.
Jay Bouwmeester erased the Canucks’ lead when he scored midway through the third period. Then, Alexander Steen and Andy McDonald both found the net in the shootout to seal Hitchcock’s milestone win.
The game puck went to the coach. And this time, no one wrestled it away.
“He got the game puck,” Elliot said. “I’m sure he will take that one and put it on the wall.”