Michael Russo's Sunday Insider: With no hard feelings

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 27, 2011 - 1:16 AM

Ken Hitchcock hoped to be the Wild coach, but he understands why it hired Mike Yeo and thinks it was the right move.

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Ken Hitchcock, behind the bench when he was with Dallas.

Photo: Lm Otero, Associated Press

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St. Louis Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong called at 3 p.m. on Nov. 6.

Ken Hitchcock was on the highway by 6:30 p.m.

The 59-year-old veteran coach, who took over the Blues that day, would have jumped as quickly in June if Wild GM Chuck Fletcher had called.

Fletcher instead went with now-38-year-old Mike Yeo. When Hitchcock missed on his chance to be the Wild coach, he wondered if his coaching career had officially ended.

"You know the way it works: Your time comes and goes," said Hitchcock, who got his first NHL gig in 1996 with the Dallas Stars and has won 540 regular-season games, 66 playoff games and a Stanley Cup since.

"You're not going to live in this malaise the rest of your life. I wasn't going to live my life waiting for the damn phone to ring."

Hitchcock felt he had a legit shot at the Wild job ... if Fletcher went outside the organization.

"I understand going local because that was me. I mean, Mike Yeo was me," Hitchcock said.

In 1996, Stars GM Bob Gainey could have gone 10 different directions to replace himself as coach. He went with Hitchcock, who spent 2 1/2 years with Kalamazoo.

Two years ago, Fletcher could have hired experienced Dave Tippett or Peter Laviolette. He went with Todd Richards.

This time, Fletcher chose Yeo, who had coached Houston for one year after being an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins for five, over more experienced Hitchcock and Craig MacTavish.

"I understood and respected that because in fairness, that was Ken Hitchcock in 1996," Hitchcock said.

Two months into Yeo's tenure, it looks like Fletcher has hit a home run.

Now, you can say it's early, and it is. But two months into Richards' tenure, many felt he was in over his head. Maybe it's unfair, but his blank face on the bench during games at least gave the impression he was overmatched and not in control. With Yeo, there's zero doubt who's running the bench, and his in-game adjustments have been stellar.

After games, Yeo can convey exactly what went right or wrong and can dissect plays, goals or breakdowns. He can explain it for the layman to understand or for the hockey expert to absorb ("the F3" should have been here, not here).

Richards had to "look at the tape."

Yeo's practices are up-tempo and difficult. He and his staff have the ability to take problems in games and create drills to address them. And when he needs to lighten the mood, Yeo gets the players howling.

Yeo just seems to have an incredible sense of the pulse of this team. In L.A. earlier this month after a blowout loss, Yeo said he was "embarrassed," how we'll really get to find out now how much leadership and character the Wild had, how "winners respond to adversity."

Yeo said: "I'm glad we play in less than 24 hours. Can't wait to see how we respond."

Before that subsequent game against Anaheim, Yeo said, "Maybe two weeks from now, we'll look at this and say, 'Thank goodness we got our butts whipped in L.A. and got reminded what we have to do night in and night out to be a successful hockey team.'"

If the Wild laid an egg, Yeo said a dozen things that could have been regurgitated to make the Wild look bad. But he had such confidence that the Wild would respond. By the end of the first period, the Wild led 3-0 and has been on a roll since.

Yeo's communication skills are impressive. His players adore him and play hard for him.

Simply, he's pushing all the right buttons. Wild players have bought in so visibly that even Hitchcock -- the man Yeo beat out for the job -- sees it and praises it.

"They've bought in to Mike Yeo's program," Hitchcock said.

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