Gil LeBreton

Save us, Hitch, is the clear message coming from the Dallas Stars

Ken Hitchcock, who began his NHL coaching career with the Dallas Stars, was named their new coach on Thursday, 15 years after he was fired.
Ken Hitchcock, who began his NHL coaching career with the Dallas Stars, was named their new coach on Thursday, 15 years after he was fired. AP

The Dallas Stars have played exactly 1,180 hockey games since they fired head coach Ken Hitchcock in January, 2002.

I can’t say that I remember any of them.

There was a Mike Modano-Fest or something. I vaguely remember that. But it’s not like the Stars ever let Tony Romo dress out and skate around, or something truly important like that.

Just hockey. Another night, another Good Old Hockey Game.

Just the NHL Stars and about 10,000 of their closest friends.

But that’s why Thursday’s press conference ranks as the biggest hockey news in Texas in 15 years. The Stars have churned through four head coaches since Hitch left. They have missed the playoffs in seven of the last nine seasons.

The problem hasn’t just been not winning. It’s been relevancy in the local sports market.

At the turn of the millennium, when Hitchcock took the franchise to back-to-back Stanley Cup finals, the Stars were the hot ticket. You didn’t hear Pantera grinding out a heavy metal fight song for the Mavericks or Rangers back then, did you?

And so the inmates revolted, they say. Hitchcock was too hard on them, and it was affecting their golf swings.

A long darkness settled over the franchise.

Until Thursday, when hockey in Texas came home. That’s sorta trite, I know, but it’s also fact.

As he sat there Thursday, considerably grayer, Hitch was flanked by club president Jim Lites and general manager Jim Nill. The gravity of the franchise’s distress hovered over the proceedings.

It was like that great final scene in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, when the Daisy Ridley character, Rey, hikes the stone steps to the top of the mountain and extends the lightsaber to the only man who can save the galaxy, Luke Skywalker.

(Cue the theme music ... or Pantera. Either will do.)

“This is an emotional day for me, because it’s like coming home,” said Hitchcock, who’s now 65.

Lites, whose tenures with the team span the franchise generations, said he had asked Nill what he was going to look for in hiring a new Stars head coach.

“Without missing a beat, Jim said ‘resume,’ ” Lites recalled.

The gap between Hitchcock’s resume and everyone else’s, he said, “is not even close.”

“Always great specialty teams, strong power play, great penalty kill, gets the most out of his players ...,” Lites said, rattling off the reasons.

OK, maybe, but I keep going back to the lightsaber scene.

Save us, Hitch, the move by Nill clearly seems to be saying. Save hockey in this part of Texas.

Yes, it’s true that Hitchcock carries a reputation for grinding down even his best players.

“Yeah, and I’m proud of it,” Hitch defiantly answered Thursday.

But as he said more than once during the news conference, the NHL game has changed. The Stanley Cup Stars of the late-1990s were a counter-attack team that capitalized on opponents’ mistakes.

“It doesn’t work like that anymore,” Hitchcock said. “You can’t play defense stuck in your own zone. Whoever controls the two blue lines controls the hockey game.”

Hitchcock suggested that he has learned a lot about the modern hockey player during his stops in Philadelphia, Columbus and St. Louis. He talked about attending a non-hockey sports leadership institute in New York recently that dealt with working with so-called millennials.

“I was so impressed,” he said. “I wanted to try that here.”

Well, okay. But as long as he doesn’t stray too far from his moustache. By the way, what happened to it?

Stars fans have missed the old-time hockey. Playoff-winning hockey.

The kind of hockey a guy would climb a mountain for.

Welcome home, Hitch.

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