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Kings' and Blues' coaches have a lot in common

HOCKEY

Darryl Sutter and Ken Hitchcock took over early in the season and helped their teams reach the Western Conference semifinals.

April 25, 2012|By Lisa Dillman

Ken Hitchcock, a man born to coach, was on the phone the other day from St. Louis talking about those same qualities in a certain Canadian countryman.

That would be Kings Coach Darryl Sutter.

"We both went through a little bit of a downturn," said Hitchcock, the coach of the Blues. "I'm happy for him. I know what he's doing is what he wants to do. I know in his heart he's a coach and he loves coaching. I think he's at his happiest when he's barking and cajoling."

Hitchcock could have been easily talking about himself.

One of the more intriguing story lines in the Western Conference semifinal between the Kings and the Blues involves the coaches. They are responsible for two of the most successful midseason turnarounds in the NHL. Sutter replaced Terry Murray just before Christmas and went 25-12-11.

Not all coaching changes are created equal, but Hitchcock made his bosses in St. Louis look like visionaries with their quick move early this season.

They fired Davis Payne a mere 13 games into the season as he barely made it past Halloween, getting sacked Nov. 6. The Blues responded with 13 wins and two regulation losses in their first 19 games under Hitchcock.

They were in a position to win the Presidents' Trophy, given to the league's best team, as late as the final week of the season. Hitchcock's record with the Blues was 43-15-11.

Hitchcock's impact did not take Sutter, in particular, by surprise.

"Not really. It's a pretty good hockey club and he's a pretty strong leader," Sutter said. "Good veteran group and kids that probably just needed a clear focus and Hitch can establish that in a hurry.

"It's what good coaches do. Guys that coached a long time, that's what they do, right? They can adapt and they have a good pulse on the room and he does that."

Hitchcock or Sutter will be coaching a team playing in the final four of the NHL playoffs. Game 1 between the Kings and Blues is Saturday at St. Louis.

It is far cry from where the men were at this time last year. Sutter, though still under contract to the Calgary Flames, was out of hockey. He was on his ranch in Viking, Alberta, though his eyes were fixed on NHL games on TV every night, coaching games in his mind.

Hitchcock, who won the Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999, was in Slovakia, coaching Canada at the world championships. He was fired by Columbus after 58 games of the 2009-10 season. In between the Dallas stop and Columbus tenure, he coached for three full seasons in Philadelphia.

"I think he's a career coach and he'll tell you that," Sutter said. "That's what he is. That's what he's done his whole [life] and that's going back to Alberta minor hockey and all that …"

Hitchcock, 60, was born and raised in Sherwood Park and Sutter estimated that it was about 80 miles from Viking. The two have been coaching against each other in the NHL since Sutter was in San Jose and Hitchcock in Dallas. Well before that, Hitchcock first remembered watching Sutter play in Sutter's junior hockey days. Sutter is seven years younger.

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"I have a real respect for people whose personalities rub off on the players," Hitchcock said. "That's a unique connection that's hard to make. You see it in football. You see it sometimes in basketball.

"But in hockey it really shines through. Darryl's been able to make an impact with the players. This team that he's got plays the same way his team did in San Jose."

lisa.dillman@latimes.com

twitter.com/reallisa

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