ST. LOUIS — Ken Hitchcock can still remember the first time he got a glimpse of Craig Berube. It was the summer of 1984.
Berube arrived in Kamloops, British Columbia, for a camp before the start of the Western Hockey League season — Hitchcock’s first year as a big-time junior coach.
Berube, then 18, had just wrapped up a 104-penalty-minute campaign with the New Westminster Bruins of the same league.
Some 30 years gone, the sight still haunts Hitchcock.
“He got off this bus from Williams Lake with the toughest group of guys I’ve ever seen,” Hitchcock said. “It had every tough guy in the West [Canada], they all seemed to be coming to my camp. It was a yellow school bus. I swear to God, he was driving the damn thing.”
Hitchcock’s Blazers team, which went on to win four consecutive division titles to launch his NHL career, traded for Berube the next season.
Berube accumulated a whopping 509 penalty minutes in 206 career junior games.
It is perhaps because of that image — the bloodied knuckles, the on-ice terror, that menacing look walking off the school bus that day — that many scoffed at the notion of Berube becoming a successful NHL head coach when he was promoted by Paul Holmgren on Oct. 7.
Now, 72 games later with a 39-24-9 record that has transformed the Flyers into one of the most dangerous teams on the eve of the Stanley Cup playoffs, no one is laughing.
And Hitchcock is not the least bit surprised. You see, Kamloops was not the last time Hitchcock — now leading the best-in-West Blues — would cross paths with Berube.
Six years after their first encounter, Hitchcock served as an assistant coach with the Flyers under Paul Holmgren in 1990-91, the same year Berube began to make his mark in the NHL. He played 74 games that season, adding 17 points and 293 penalty minutes.
It was their next connection — more than a decade later, in 2004, when Berube hung up his skates — that Hitchcock finally began to peer inside the brain of a man that once pulverized opponents. Behind the lumps, Hitchcock knew there was something inside the head of a guy who played 1,054 NHL games, a feat only 288 of more than 5,000 NHL players have accomplished.
Berube, then 39, was the assistant coach for the Phantoms during the year-long NHL lockout, when Hitchcock, the Flyers’ coach, had plenty of time on his hands.
“Their office was down the hall, so he would come down with Kjell Samuelsson or John Stevens,” Hitchcock said. “I spent hours or weeks or summers with those guys poring over information. I told [Bob Clarke] and ‘Homer’ after that year I thought ‘Chief’ was going to be a good coach because he was a guy that asks common sense questions.
“He didn’t have pie-in-the-sky ideas. It was meat-and-potatoes, the same way he played.”
Now, a decade later at the NHL level, Berube and Hitchcock have similar philosophies. They stem from chats in the summer, which extended between the two long after Hitch was fired by the Flyers in 2007.
Hitchcock has earned 656 wins, seventh all-time on the NHL coaching register, by way of a defense-first approach. For Berube, it has been that way from Day 1 on Oct. 8, when he blew the first whistle in practice to completely change the Flyers’ focus to the defensive zone. The success, the flow, the competitiveness has all stemmed from there.
The Flyers’ rapid improvement is all the more impressive since Berube doesn’t have anywhere near the horses on defense Hitchcock has at his disposal in St. Louis.
“I think he’s a guy that’s worked awful hard at his craft,” Hitchcock said. “He’s a student of the game. He’s gone to the symposiums. He’s done the clinics. He’s spent the summers watching what makes teams successful and he asks the right questions.
“He’s full [marks] for what’s going on there because he’s a huge believer in structure and discipline necessary to be a good team.”
The Flyers are 35-17-8 since Berube’s system really took hold in November. He would be a top Jack Adams Award candidate as coach of the year, which Hitchcock captured in 2012, if not for two other ridiculous about-faces in Colorado (Patrick Roy) and Tampa Bay (Jon Cooper) this year.
Like Roy and Cooper, Berube’s confidence behind the bench has brought a breath of fresh air to fragile franchises desperately in need of a return to Stanley Cup glory. Interestingly, Hitchcock believes Berube has done it in a “long-term” way, by forcing players to earn encouragement rather than simply patting them on the back.
That is the Hitchcock way.
“The thing that’s made him a great coach is his decisions are void of emotions,” Hitchcock said. “He doesn’t get wrapped up into the emotion of dealing with a player — it’s matter of fact. Where he supplies the edge to the players is he’s a no nonsense guy. He’s not afraid to go and demand more from people and he’s not worried what the player thinks about him.”
Hitchcock, who got his start with that school bus in ’84 after working at a sporting goods store and has his name on the Stanley Cup by study and diligence, can appreciate the comeuppance of a coach with an unconventional pedigree.
“I’ve known him for a long time. He’s a very loyal guy to me,” Hitchcock said with a smile. “We still talk once in a while. But he gets no help now. He’s on his own.“
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