They may seem like the odd couple, but for the next year, 42-year-old Mike Yeo will be mentored by 64-year-old Ken Hitchcock as the St. Louis Blues’ “Coach in Waiting.”
Yeo, fired in February by the Wild after more than 4½ seasons, signed a four-year deal with the Blues on Monday. In Year 1, Yeo will be associate coach with the commitment of taking over for Hitchcock as head coach in 2017-18.
“It’s two guys working together for the now and two guys working together for the future,” Hitchcock said during a phone interview Monday. “The now for me is continuing to stay at or near the front of the Central Division, which is very challenging, and the future is leaving the franchise in great shape.
“And I think we’ve hit a home run.”
Yeo was 173-132-44 with the Wild and guided the franchise to three consecutive postseasons, including the conference semifinals twice. One of Minnesota’s first-round wins was against Hitchcock’s Blues.
“I’ve got a good amount of experience behind me. I had a decent run in Minnesota,” Yeo said during a news conference. “But I’m not looking to be a decent coach. I’m looking to be a great coach.”
Yeo believes Hitchcock, whose 757 career victories are 26 from passing Al Arbour for the third most in NHL history, can help him become that.
“He’s one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game in my eyes,” Yeo said.
The first year will be a perfect chance for Yeo to learn the organization and his personnel inside out.
“This allows him a year to invest in relationships that are going to be long-term … and not have this overriding responsibility to have to win every hockey game,” Hitchcock said.
The Wild was one of the most structured teams under Yeo’s tutelage, but the Wild also suffered perennial midseason slides under him. Hitchcock hopes he can help teach Yeo how to navigate through tense situations.
The situation reminds Hitchcock of early in his career when he went to Dallas and got to work with Bob Gainey.
“I think I can really help Mike manage the land mines, manage the hurricanes and tornadoes that come about your team,” Hitchcock said. “Sometimes there’s conflict, and I can help Mike manage through that stuff.”
Longtime Wild assistant coach Rick Wilson, who worked alongside Hitchcock when Dallas won a Stanley Cup in 1999, also signed a one-year deal. Yeo and Wilson replace Brad Shaw and Kirk Muller.
“Selfishly, we had a bunch of assistant coaches that challenged the head coach on a daily basis and challenged me hard,” Hitchcock said. “And it made me better and I didn’t want that to change. I know I get it with Wilz because he’s like a glove to me. He’s afraid of saying nothing to me. He doesn’t care what I think.
“But I needed other coaches to be able to do that and after sitting down with Mike, I felt very confident that Mike’s going to challenge me on a daily basis and it’s going to make me better and I really respect that.”
Hitchcock added that what he loves about Yeo is the fact, “Mike’s been an assistant coach, he’s been a head coach at the AHL level, he’s been a head coach at the NHL level. He’s only 42, but he’s paid his dues. …
“Mike’s a really young guy who wants to have long fruitful career as an NHL coach. I think this is a win-win for both of us.”