ST. LOUIS -- Before being introduced as the new coach of the Blues on Monday, Ken Hitchcock was best known in St. Louis as the man who tamed Brett Hull.
That is an oversimplification, of course. But after many spectacular seasons of individual accomplishment in St. Louis, Hull was allowed to play out his contract. He signed with Dallas in 1998 and played for Hitchcock. In 1998-99, his 58 points were the fewest of his career for a season in which he played at least 60 games.
However, his numbers went up in one other significant category: Stanley Cup rings. As Hitchcock became the 24th coach in Blues history, the leading scorer in franchise history offered his endorsement.
"It was hard for me when I came to Dallas, after being an offensive guy and scoring and scoring ... your numbers take a hit," Hull said. "But you can go home in the summer and get a pat on the back from your buddies on how great your season was. Or you can go home and get patted on the back and congratulations for winning the Cup, or getting to the Stanley Cup finals, or conference finals.
"And he'll get your team there if you give him the opportunity and buy into the program."
Hitchcock now has the opportunity in St. Louis. Born in Edmonton, Alberta, he grew up the way every kid does in western Canada, playing ice hockey. As a player, he was better than some, not nearly as good as others. As a student, he had few peers. When he presented his new employee at Scottrade Center, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong did so the way Daniel LaRusso might introduce Mr. Miyagi.
"Present company included, Ken Hitchcock is certainly the smartest hockey man in this room," Armstrong said.
Hitchcock always has possessed an innate passion and perception for the game, nurtured through years of instructing from pee-wee level to the pros.
"I don't know why, but when I stand on the bench, the game is in slow motion," Hitchcock said. "I don't have any idea why. I talk to Scotty (Bowman) a lot about the way to do it and little mechanisms that we do on the bench. But the game is in slow motion for me.
"So I don't feel I need eyes in the sky and a bunch of video to tell the players between periods what needs to change. "& I know I look stoic behind the bench, I'm a little like a duck back there. But I have for a number of years found a way to remove myself from the emotion of the game, so I can analyze and make adjustments in between periods."
Hitchcock's ability to plan and adjust on the fly is highly regarded in the hockey community. Rather than reinforce basic concepts, his practices usually are tailored to combat the next opponent. Hull played for a number of championship-winning coaches, including Mike Keenan, Joel Quenneville and Bowman. When it comes to formulation, Hitchcock stands alone.
"I don't think there's a coach that I played for that had a better Xs-and-Os game plan for his team to win every game," said Hull, who won championships under Hitchcock and Bowman. "He takes a look at the opponent each and every game and knows their tendencies and makes adjustments to the team's game plan to help you beat them.
"He also, within the framework of his players, puts together a fundamental system that his players can play in. It's not always pretty, but it's very effective team-wise. If the players buy in to what he has to say and how he wants them to play, they will be successful."
The Blues are the fourth NHL team to hand Hitchcock the reins. He spent the better part of seven seasons in Dallas (1995-2002), guiding the Stars to playoff berths five times. He advanced at least two rounds deep four times, and went to the Cup finals in back-to-back seasons.
With Hull scoring the winning goal in triple-overtime of Game 6, Hitchcock and the Stars beat the Buffalo Sabres to win the 1999 Cup. A year later, they died by that same sword, as current Blues forward Jason Arnott scored in double-overtime of Game 6 to lead New Jersey past Dallas in the 2000 finals.
"I don't like Jason Arnott," he joked during the news conference. "He's broken my heart. I'll never forget that."
When things started slowly at Dallas in 2001-02, Hitchcock was replaced. He moved on to coach three years in Philadelphia, where he advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in 2004. Following a change there in late 2006, he became the coach in Columbus, leading the Blue Jackets to their only playoff appearance (in 2008-09).
Hitchcock has coached a team from the start of a season to the finish 10 times. Those teams have qualified for postseason play nine times, advanced deeper than one round six times.
"There's a way to play to win in the league "& and I think we can make those adjustments really quickly, and get into that style of game right away," he said. "It's going to be really demanding for the players, but it's going to be very successful. I don't think the buy-in is going to be difficult at all. I think the players are going to buy in to this very quickly."
At the same time, Hitchcock comes to St. Louis with a new outlook on coaching. During the 2009-10 season in Columbus, with the Jackets under .500 after 59 games, he was relieved as the coach and re-assigned to a consulting position. The break proved to be a wake-up call. He since has expanded his horizons to embrace relationships and interests outside of hockey. He has lost weight, learned to play golf and re-charged his batteries.
"I just think that you're in the business so long that you don't even know what type of stressful situation you're under," Hitchcock said. "You have no idea, you just live day to day. .. But it's time to get back to work. ... I wouldn't have recommended it for anybody, but I got to tell you that it's a stressful job and you need a break sometimes and this break has been wonderful for me. It's been a chance for me to do other things in my life."
Those other things have included mentoring and exploring hockey methodology. Hitchcock now has 25 former players who coach at various levels of hockey in Canada and the United States. He has spoken and brainstormed with that network, tutoring coaches at the minor league levels.
He also has scouted and kept notes on every NHL team, preparing for the day his phone might ring and an NHL door might open. When Armstrong called at 3 o'clock Sunday, he was eager to listen and quick to accept. There are 18 years of experience between Payne, 41, and Hitchcock, 59. But in hockey acumen, the difference is in age not agenda.
"I've learned over time as a coach, as you get older, that the game changes," Hitchcock said. "I think I'm as current or more current than anyone in the National Hockey League at understanding what changes have taken place, not only in the style of game but in the dealing with the personnel."
One thing is certain, nothing is indirect or inconclusive about Hitchcock. He believes in himself and believes in his blueprint. Asked how long it might take to improve the Blues' comatose power play, which ranks last in the league, Hitchcock did not hesitate: "One practice. We'll get that fixed quick."
Some players on the current roster have experience with Hitchcock. Chris Stewart, Carlo Colaiacovo and Alex Pietrangelo played for him on World Cup teams, and Jamie Langenbrunner was a member of the '99 Cup winning team in Dallas. He also coached many times against the Note while in Columbus.
Germane to a disappointing 6-7 start has been underachievement by a number of the "score" players. Hitchcock knows the personnel, insists he knows what to do.
"My job is to get the best players here to play their best and get everybody to follow that suit," he said. "I think I can do that. I think I can provide the game plan and the structure and discipline that allows the top players to set the direction here. I've had great success in working with top guys and getting them to play. I think there's potential with a lot of guys to be top players here. I really enjoyed my relationship with 'Stewy,' Pietrangelo last year and 'Coli' in the Worlds.
"I saw the potential of those guys and I think there's a lot of good young players here that can move to a whole other level if we provide that structure and discipline."
Perhaps Armstrong best summed up the ramifications of Hitchcock's presence going forward.
"There's no other issues," Armstrong said. "(The players) have one of the best coaches in the history of our game. He's going to put up one of the best game plans on a nightly basis. And the responsibility is for them to perform. I thought this was a time to put that challenge on their plates."