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Demanding Hitchcock Fired

Hockey: Coach led Stars to Stanley Cup championship but couldn't get along with players. General Manager Gainey becomes consultant.

January 26, 2002|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVING, Texas — Ken Hitchcock, whose sandpaper-like personality pushed the Dallas Stars to a Stanley Cup title, finally pushed himself out of a job. He was fired Friday and, at the same time, General Manager Bob Gainey announced he was reducing his role to consultant.

In one swoop the coach and the architect of the team that was a model for consistency were ousted. Assistant coach Rick Wilson was named interim coach and Doug Armstrong will take over as general manager.

The Stars won five consecutive division titles, appeared in two Stanley Cup finals and won the championship in 1998-99 under Hitchcock. But they have labored this season and are seventh in the Western Conference. They trail Pacific Division-leading San Jose by four points and are one point ahead of the charging Kings.

Hitchcock's relationship with his players, which has been strained during the good times, had deteriorated as things went bad on the ice.

"It isn't something that arrived in a flash," Gainey said. "It has been the ongoing sputtering and stalling of our team. Everybody connected to the group has some responsibility. Ken is paying a price today."

Gainey may be paying, as well. He had planned to step down and assume a consultant role after the season. The accelerated timetable may have had more to do with failed off-season moves, which were supposed to return the Stars to the top after they were swept in the second round of last season's playoffs.

Gainey went on a shopping spree last summer, spending $16 million on free agents. He allowed Brett Hull to leave as a free agent and signed Pierre Turgeon and Donald Audette to fill that offensive void.

Hull, who signed with Detroit, is having another solid season with 18 goals. Turgeon, who has struggled because of injuries, has seven goals and Audette had four in 20 games before being traded to Montreal.

"Ken and I have been attached and partners for quite a while," Gainey said. "I did feel it was my choice to bring him back and support him through some difficult times in the past year or 18 months. It should be my responsibility to address that situation myself."

The situation grew worse Thursday. After practice, Hitchcock had an intense conversation with center Mike Modano, who was tired of Hitchcock's philosophy of defense first, last and always.

"This was a bit of a surprise," said Modano, who tried to downplay Thursday's clash with Hitchcock. "We have to realize we have jobs to do. We weren't responding to anything as players."

But tension between players and Hitchcock had increased. He drove his players hard, with team captain Derian Hatcher often being the buffer, conveying complaints from player to coach.

"This will definitely shake things up," Hatcher said. "Do I think it was the right move? I don't know. I do feel bad for Hitch. ... He had the same message from Day 1. Maybe guys had heard it over and over again and it got to be a little too much."

Even Hatcher publicly complained about the team's performance after a 4-2 loss to Vancouver on Wednesday.

"What I said was the players had to start caring more," Hatcher said. "That's all. Nothing has changed. It is up to us as players to get this done."

Gainey joined the organization as coach in 1990, when the team was the Minnesota North Stars, and took the team to the 1991 Stanley Cup final. He took on the general manager duties in 1993. He oversaw the move to Texas and hired Hitchcock as coach with 43 games left in the 1995-96 season.

Hitchcock was 277-160-60-6 with the Stars and had a 47-33 record in the playoffs. His passion for defense helped make the Stars winners, but his personality didn't win over many players. Hull was signed as a free agent to bolster the offense in 1998-99 but feuded with Hitchcock at times during his three years in Dallas.

The Stars defeated the Buffalo Sabres in a six-game Stanley Cup final in 1999.

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