Ken Hitchcock is shown during an interview in Columbus, Ohio. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Jay LaPrete, File
COLUMBUS, Ohio - A day after he was fired as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Ken Hitchcock declined to take any parting shots at the club's management and said he is eager to see how the franchise's young talent develops.
His biggest regret is that he won't be an integral part of the future success.
"My message is that these are the actual growing pains that every organization goes through to get to a high level," he said of the Blue Jackets' disappointing 22-27-9 record a year after making the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time.
"If you look at the Pittsburgh Penguins, San Jose, Chicago - this is the natural growth things that go on. Now, coaches come and go and so do some players. But there's a core group of guys here that by the time they're 25-or 30-years-old, everybody's going to be marvelling at how good they are and how sound they are. They're doing it the right way here."
Many fans think the young Blue Jackets didn't respond to Hitchcock's checking, defence-oriented style.
If that's the case, Hitchcock was not apologizing.
"If checking is my style, then I'm guilty as charged. Because that's the only way you can win," said the man with a 125-123-36 record in Columbus.
"But it's going to take a big buy-in. You have to check to score. Every coach who has a winning program knows that. If you're capable of doing that, you're going to have real success."
Another theory for why the team went belly up, winning just three of 24 games after starting out 12-6-2, was that Hitchcock could not relate to young players.
Hitchcock had won 408 games in Dallas, where the Stars captured the 1999 Stanley Cup, and in Philadelphia before he took the Blue Jackets job in November of 2006. Coming into a job without a tradition of winning and with a mix of budding young stars and a few journeymen was something new for him.
"I came here to Columbus with my eyes wide open," said Hitchcock, who will be an assistant coach for Team Canada at the Vancouver Olympics.
"I'd never started anything on the ground floor. I wanted the challenge. We made obviously significant progress in moving this thing forward. We took a step backward this year in some avenues. But in my thought process, the step backward was visible and natural when you try to integrate more, younger and new players into the program. We struggled at times and we had success at times. We were inconsistent."
Assistant Claude Noel was tabbed as interim head coach on Wednesday. Hitchcock said he called Noel and wished him well in the rest of the season.
The players were uncertain of the impact of the firing.
"Claude's going to bring out some different things to our game," captain and top player Rick Nash said. "There really isn't that much time. It's tough to change things when you're 50-or 60-some odd games into a season. We'll see in the long haul how it changes. ... But it's an easy change. Bringing someone in right now will shake up the room pretty good."
Hitchcock, who said he'll be choosy about his next opportunity to be an NHL head coach, expects marked improvement out of the Blue Jackets.
"I would be just devastated if this team doesn't have success," he said. "Because I came here for the right reasons and I want to see the job get finished. I think these guys are more than capable."
Just a year ago, the Blue Jackets and their coach were the toast of the city as the club made its first run to the playoffs. They would eventually get swept in the first round by the Western Conference champion Detroit Red Wings, but the game at Chicago that clinched that long-awaited trip to the post-season stands out as one of Hitchcock's proudest moments.
"It's interesting because it's the first time I've ever coached in my life where the coaches on the other bench were clapping for you. Usually they're swearing at you," a smiling Hitchcock said of the Blackhawks staff.
"They weren't thrilled with the players on the ice for their own team, but when that game went to overtime and we had the point (to make the playoffs), their whole bench looked at ours and started clapping. It was pretty impressive."
And with the memory of that moment hanging in the air, Hitchcock nodded his head and walked away.