Ken Hitchcock has the opportunity to make a huge impact on the Blues. Al Arbour on the Isles kind of huge.
[this article was originally published in last night's St. Louis Game Time paper. It was written by Dominik Jansky of Lighthouse Hockey.]
Every time the Blues play the Islanders, I get all nostalgic. As luck would have it, I'm stupid enough to have rooted for both teams all my life. Which means I'm painfully aware of how their shared history opened a wound Ken Hitchcock just might be the man to close.
See, throughout their history the Blues have had this thing they do with good coaches. At first it was cute, then it was annoying, and finally it became downright haunting.
What the Blues do is, they send good coaches away too soon. Then those coaches win the Stanley Cup. Then we sit here wondering what the hell.
Which is only natural, when 16 of the last 38 Stanley Cups have been won by a coach the Blues once fired.
Way back when, three-time Cup finalist Scotty Bowman had a dispute with the Solomons, so he hit the road and immediately won the Stanley Cup in 1973 with Montreal. He'd reel off four more Cups by the end of the ‘70s. (I think he added more later with some teams I don't care about.) I guess Bowman was good after all.
His successor-in-training Al Arbour also ran afoul of ownership, so he left and grabbed four Cups of his own with the Islanders. Arbour even won an NHL-record 19 playoff series in a row. I guess Arbour could coach okay.
Red Berenson brought the Blues as close to the President's Trophy as they'd ever been - three points short in 1981, but Arbour's Islanders got in the way - yet the Blues fired Red before the end of the next season. Soon after, Ralston Purina abandoned the team, but Berenson spent the next three decades racking up conference and NCAA titles with Michigan. Seems Berenson knew a thing or two.
The next Blues coach to win a division title was Jacques Demers. In 1986 Harry Ornest wouldn't pay him though, so he jumped to Detroit, won two division titles with them, then a Stanley Cup with Montreal. Demers couldn't read, but apparently he could coach better than Ornest's wife could design a uniform.
Joel Quenneville did what nobody else could do by leading the Blues to that President's Trophy. He even made them playoff contenders. (Thanks, Roman Turek. First-round exit that year, third-round implosion the following year. I still have my unused 2001 Stanley Cup finals tickets, as well as the airplane tickets to California I didn't use when I actually thought you'd hold it together.)
Quenneville kept leading 90-point (pre-shootout) teams in a tough Western Conference, but in 2004 Larry Pleau panicked. The Blues struggled a bit and Pleau thought Coach Q had gone "stale" or something. As if all the magic dust had finally shaken loose of that Q-stache - never mind that Larry had given him Eric Weinrich and Brian Savage and Peter Sejna and Pascal Rheaume to work with. This guy became the winningest coach in Blues history while Pleau fed him your tired, your poor, your Blair Atcheynums, yet Pleau thought the coach was the problem.
You know what happened: Mike Kitchen took over and the Blues got smoked by San Jose in the first round anyway. Meanwhile, Q got some mileage out of some average Colorado teams and then - wait for it - won a Stanley Cup with some other team.
Anyway, in Hitchcock at long last the Blues have a really good coach again. Not an up-and-comer and not one whose time has passed. Nope, just a good, damn reliable coach who commands his players' respect.
The Blues have had a few of those. But they've always screwed it up. What the New York Islanders had with Al Arbour, which the Blues have had with no man, was patience. An ability to see the big picture. Arbour coached the most games with the same team in NHL history.
If you think fans said bad things about Quenneville at the end of his tenure, you have no idea what Islanders fans said about Arbour after he'd coached them from doormats to perennial 100-point teams without making it to the finals. But the Isles didn't listen to fan panic, they stuck with Arbour and in 1980, his seventh season, he finally won it all.
It would be mid-decade before he lost another playoff series.
I'll always wonder if it should've been in St. Louis. I'll wonder, if the Blues had never run off Bowman and Arbour, my dad would never have said, "This stupid team just breaks your heart. Go follow Al's Islanders." (I did both ... and both teams have broken my heart.)
You probably noticed that a lot of the Blues' coaching relationships ended poorly thanks to ownership drama. And the Blues don't exactly have an owner right now. That worries the hell out of me.
But one thing they do have is a lot of talent and a general manager who believes in his coach. Doug Armstrong goes way back with Hitchcock the way Islanders GM Bill Torrey went back with Arbour. Underachieving players won't screw that up.
If the new owners - they're out there, right? - let Armstrong and Hitch do their thing, we just might have something. We just might get what Arbour could never have here. This wound just might finally close.
Dominik Jansky is the founder of the excellent Islanders blog LighthouseHockey.com, a Blues fan and a goddamn nightmare to play against in rec league hockey. Go read his site; do not play against him in hockey.