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Hitchcock Trying to Rekindle Star Power

November 20, 2001|Lonnie White

Sometimes, a coach has to stand his ground and stick with what he knows best, no matter how much his players complain.

That's what is happening with one NHL team trying to turn things around after a poor start. Instead of compromising to please his players, and despite a rash of injuries, the hard-nosed coach has decided to get even tougher, questioning his players' heart and abilities.

Andy Murray and the Kings? No, it's Ken Hitchcock and the Dallas Stars.

"It's tough to kind of warn [new players] and tell them what to expect because they really don't see that or understand it until they get here and are a part of what we have here," all-star center Mike Modano said about playing for Hitchcock.

"So it's tough. I mean, you can groom them all you want but until they experience it and live through it, they are not going to have any understanding of it."

In his six seasons coaching the Stars, Hitchcock has been successful, despite occasional gripes from players about his coaching style. Remember, Hitchcock did coach Brett Hull and won a Stanley Cup with him.

But after the Stars got off to a 5-6-3-3 start and hit the road for a key three-game trip with leading centers Modano and Pierre Turgeon out of the lineup because of injuries, people wondered if Hitchcock's tough-love approach had finally become a tired act.

Hitchcock, of course, didn't believe that. For support, all he had to do was think about his franchise-best 261 victories and his five consecutive division titles. That made it a lot easier for him to demand more from his players.

"We've done some decent things offensively all year but the biggest problem has been defensively," Hitchcock said. "We've had trouble, giving up unnecessary chances.... We don't want to keep wasting great individual offensive performances.... We have to get better in that area if we are going to become an elite team again."

Hitchcock's message must have been heard because the Stars are playing disciplined hockey again."We may have realized that, 'Hey, it's time to play,"' defenseman Derian Hatcher said. "We've played well in spurts, but how many leads have we blown?"

Keys in the Stars' turnaround have been veteran center Joe Nieuwendyk, who had three goals and an assist during the West Coast trip, and Modano, who had two goals in a victory over the Kings after missing two games because of back and rib problems.

With Turgeon, sidelined since Oct. 29 because of an ankle injury, expected back soon, Hitchcock is hoping that the Stars can start stringing victories again.

"The feeling is always a relief when we win," he said. "It's not joy. Once we put some wins together, it may begin to change. But now, we're expecting something strange and bizarre to happen.... These are the baby steps we have to take."

Contraction Is Subtraction

Major league baseball apparently believes the elimination of two teams will help the game's financial situation, but the NHL has no such thoughts, according to Commissioner Gary Bettman.

"[Contraction] is not on our radar screen," Bettman said last week. "I believe that, long-term, all 30 of our teams can be successful, competitive and thrive. I have confidence, long-term, in all 30 of our teams. I believe that there are cycles for all teams, I believe there are peaks and valleys, but all 30 of our teams are in markets that we believe can support them.

"It's not anything that we're considering. It's not anything we've given any thought to. It's not something that we have any interest in doing, and I'm not prepared to engage in any speculation. It's not something that I would be inclined to support or focus on, because I believe that, long-term, all 30 of our teams are in good places, and can be supported, and can be successful. It's not something that we've given any attention to [at governors' meetings]."

Still, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig may have a good argument when he says that sometimes a league can expand too much.

Like baseball, the NHL might have added too many teams in the 1990s. The quality of the game would definitely improve if hockey cut or combined a couple of franchises. Right now, it's clear that smaller market teams can't compete year after year in the NHL and contraction could possibly help a league that appears headed for major labor problems.

Since the NHL does not have NFL-style revenue sharing, there's been talk that the league is headed for a work stoppage once the collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2003-04 season..

"The owners in the big markets care about the smaller-market teams only if [the small-market teams] can help them.... They don't want to share," said agent Pat Brisson, who became vice president and co-managing director of the IMG hockey division last month.

"Most of the owners in the big markets are not willing to give a share to the smaller-market teams. They don't want to give up what they have already gained by making the decision to have a team in the big market."

And Now, Ranger Eric

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