FRISCO, Texas — The first time Ken Hitchcock became the Dallas Stars coach more than two decades ago, his role and the setting were much different in a southern market that was still pretty fresh to hockey and the NHL.
"It was half coaching and half community involvement, trying to build the brand," said Hitchcock, who got his first NHL head coaching job in January 1996 when the Stars were in only their third season in Big D. "It was a really exciting, different observation for all of us. ... At least once or twice a week, we were meeting with groups to just explain what hockey was about."
Hitchcock found himself talking to people who really had no idea what was happening on the ice or why there were fights. He even had to answer at least one media question about why goalies had bigger pads than other players.
But fans in North Texas certainly understand and embrace champions. The NFL's Dallas Cowboys were already five-time Super Bowl champions before the Stars reached the NHL's pinnacle in winning the Stanley Cup in 1999 and then making it back to the finals the next year.
The Stars are now in their 25th year in North Texas, and this is Hitchcock's first season back behind their bench.
After missing the playoffs seven of the last nine years, Dallas is 31-19-4 with 66 points this season. The Stars are 7-2-1 their last 10 games and in solid position in the playoff chase with 28 games left in the regular season.
"The game's changed so much, that it's hard to say Dallas is the reason we can win again with him, or what it may be," said five-time All-Star
Hitchcock was still the coach of the Blues two years ago when they knocked Dallas out of the second round of the playoffs.
After being fired by the Stars 50 games into the 2001-02 season, Hitchcock also coached in Philadelphia and Columbus. Anaheim's Randy Carlyle and Montreal's Claude Julien are also current NHL head coaches back in their original jobs, though both had shorter gaps before returning to their teams last season.
Anaheim was still the Mighty Ducks when Carlyle first arrived for the 2005-06 season, and won the Stanley Cup a year later. He was fired early in the 2011-12 season, then was a midseason replacement in Toronto, where he stayed 2 1/2 more seasons after that. The Ducks made it to the Western Conference final in his return last year.
Julien was first in Montreal from 2002-06, then spent a season with the New Jersey Devils. He won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and made another final appearance two years later during his 10 seasons with the Boston Bruins.
When Hitchcock was first with the Stars, their practice facility was in the middle of the Valley Ranch
The hockey operations are now based in the still-growing suburb of Frisco, about a half-hour drive north of the downtown Dallas arena where they play games. And the Cowboys are again a nearby
Hitchcock remembers when players, coaches and other team personnel all lived within a "very small 10-minute circle of each other" not far from the old
"Now we're all spread out, and it feels like we're like the city, the city's spread out. Frisco used to be a Mexican restaurant, and now it's a city of I don't know, it feels like a million people here," Hitchcock said. "It felt like we lived in this little town, and then we happened to go downtown to play hockey. ... Socially, I haven't run into a hockey player since the day I got (back) here."
GAME OF THE WEEK
St. Louis Blues at Winnipeg Jets, Friday night. The Jets took over the Central Division lead with 73 points after a win over Arizona on Tuesday night, their sixth win in eight games. The Blues rebounded from a three-game slide in mid-January with six wins in nine games going into a home game Thursday night against Colorado. When the division foes played on back-to-back days in mid-December, the Blues and Jets each claimed a shutout win at home.
LEADERS (through Tuesday's games)
Goals: Alexander Ovechkin (Washington), 32; Assists: Jakub Voracek (Philadelphia), 52; Points: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 66; Wins: Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay), 31; Goals-against average: Carter Hutton (St. Louis), 1.74; Hutton, .943.
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Stephen Hawkins, The Associated Press