Bob Gainey recalls giving the coaching reins of the Kalamazoo K-Wings to a still-unknown Ken Hitchcock in the mid-1990s.
The Wings, putting it mildly, were not a minor league dynasty.
“Think of the movie Slap Shot without Paul Newman or any funny parts,” mused Gainey, then the GM of the Minnesota North Stars. “But (under Hitchcock) we went from bottom-dwellers to divisional champions.”
That success quickly spread to the parent team with the 1999 Stanley Cup and three decades later, led Hitchcock into the Hockey Hall of Fame, the fourth-winningest NHL coach with 849.
Five players (goalies Henrik Lundqvist, Mike Vernon, Tom Barrasso, forward Pierre Turgeon and Caroline Ouellette) and builders Hitchcock and Pierre Lacroix were officially inducted Monday in Toronto.
“Ken set a course that led to our (1999) Stanley Cup run,” Gainey praised. “He got everyone to buy into a team concept. Rookies thrived and the stars took on new roles.”
Hitchcock, known as a jovial media interview, but so demanding and intense behind the bench, acknowledged he pushed some of his charges right to the limit. He also shared a recent letter from an unidentified former player who had gone off the radar in the 1990s with drug and alcohol issues. The player thanked his former mentor, letting Hitchcock know he was now clean, a family man and gainfully employed.
“It makes you think they’re worth it,” a visibly moved Hitchcock said. “You have to try anything you can. In the end that person turned his life around. And that’s coaching.
“My heroes growing up weren’t players, they were coaches.”
Turgeon’s greatest moment as a Hab was raising a torch in celebration, not his stick, at the wonderful closing ceremony of the Montreal Forum in 1996.
“That was history,” the one-time captain of the Habs said. “I was the last one to hold it and then opening the Molson Centre was an incredible evening. I was in the right place at the right time.”
Ouellette once felt she was part of a breakaway cult, “the women who weren’t cool because we played hockey.”
That changed dramatically after Canadian women won gold at home in Vancouver in 2010.
“We had gained another level of respect and credibility. Both boys and girls were asking for picture and autographs. So now, it’s just normal for girls to play. My daughter has started playing and she’s having a ton of fun with other girls in the room”.
On Monday, Ouellette didn’t forget to thank her mother for being the parent who finally bought her a pair of hockey skates, though her father wound up as a coach.
HALL SMALL TALK
The late Lacroix’s grandson, Max, and wife Coco, gave an emotional induction speech after Colorado GM Joe Sakic presented his plaque … Lundqvist said he once confided to his grandmother he feared never getting out of the small Swedish town of Are. ‘King’ Henrik wound up on the biggest stage of all, on Broadway with the Rangers, a gold medal winner at the Olympics and the leader in wins among Scandinavian stoppers … Vernon thanked his Calgary Flames goalie coach Glenn Hall, who for nine years gave expert advice through written notes, or over a beer, but never once went on the ice with him. Hall of Famer Hall is now 92 … Among honoured members coming to Toronto for Monday’s ceremony were 90-year-old coaching legend Scotty Bowman. He presented Barrasso’s plaque, the Massachusetts high school goalie whom he stuck his neck out for as first round draft pick in Buffalo and played right away … Al MacInnis presented his former Blues’ teammate Turgeon his plaque, Pierre thanking him for pushing him to greatness on ice and in their shared rides to the rink. … Pierre also recognized his brother Sylvain in the crowd, the second overall pick in 1983 of Hartford who played 663 games himself … Lundqvist played in the Legends game Sunday at Scotiabank Arena, breaking in a new pair of pads … Hall media recognition on Monday went Mark Mulvoy, winner of the Elmer Ferguson award for hockey writing, and San Jose Sharks broadcaster Dan Rusanowsky, winner of the Foster Hewitt Award.