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Lockout over, short camp and schedule will challenge NHL coaches

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock says he'll have to keep things simple and tweak some routines. (David E. Klutho/SI)

Ken Hitchcock

By Stu Hackel

UPDATE (Sat 10:22 PM):Chris Johnson of Canadian Presstweets the Memorandum of Understanding has been signed which official ends the lockout. The league issued a press release shortly afterward. Schedules are set to be released immediately (the full NHL schedule is here) and teams can begin conducting transactions two hours after the signing, probably around midnight Eastern Time. Training camps will open Sunday. The NHL is, after 119 days back in business. Eric Duhatschek of The Globe and Mail tweeted, "Originally, NHL scheduled to play 82 games in 183 days, or 1 game every 2.23 days. Now, 48 games in 98 days, or 1 game every 2.04 days."

The NHLPA ratified the new CBA Saturday and, pending the completion of the Memorandum of Understanding between the owners and the players on the new CBA, the NHL's 30 clubs will open training camp on Sunday. Six days later, we start the abridged 48-game season, what most are calling a sprint to the postseason -- quite a change from the way the regular season is viewed in a normal year: as a marathon.

UPDATE(Sat. 5:40 PM): The NHLPA has announced its members voted to ratify the CBA, but said that the agreement cannot become official until the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is finalized. Jesse Spector of The Sporting News tweeted that 667 players voted to accept and 12 voted "No." There were reportedly  84 abstentions.  More on the delay in the previous update.

UPDATE (Sat. 4 PM): Somewhat unexpectedly -- or perhaps not, considering the erratic nature of this entire process -- the announcement of the PA's ratification of the CBA has been delayed. This is because the Memorandum of Understanding between the league and players is still being drafted by the lawyers for both sides. The MOU summarizes the agreement reached in the negotiations and functions as the legal document of owner-player relations until the complete CBA is drafted, which is a much longer process. The NHLPA tweeted on Saturday morning, "Per agreement with the NHL, we will announce results of player vote later today. Discussions to finalize the MOU continue this morning." Sports law analyst Eric Macramalla, whose thoughts explaining various legal moves during the negotiations, tweeted about the MOU earlier Saturday afternoon, "Drafting NHL Memorandum is massive legal undertaking; complicated issues, Canada/US laws - takes time; will be done today; NHL sked follows." Teams and the league have refrained from releasing their schedules until the MOU is done and the NHLPA announces the results of its ratification vote, which concluded Saturday mooring. It is widely expected that the players approved the deal and training camps will open on Sunday. Teams also cannot make any roster moves, including contract signings and trades, until the MOU is completed and, while players have resumed skating at team facilities, coaches cannot join them as long as the lockout has not been officially concluded.

Because hockey players and coaches thrive best in familiar situations, the unusual nature of this season will require major adjustments in the way they prepare for and approach the opening puck drop. The shortened season will be thrilling, but nerve-wracking for everyone, with little time for experimentation or room for error.

"This is like playoff hockey," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told TSN (video) a few hours after the league and players reached their tentative agreement on Jan. 6. "This is 48 playoff games just to get into the playoffs and, man, that’s going to be a lot of detail that has to get put in place right away."

Scrubbing off the rust from the layoff will be just one challenge faced -- not only by players who did not play in Europe or minor pro, but by coaches as well. While they all had completed their preparations over the summer, the extended layoff has dulled their coaching instincts. Hitchcock found that out when he volunteered to run practices for high school, college and junior teams in the St. Louis area and discovered that even his voice wasn't in shape.

"I think that’s the scariest thing for coaches, are we going to be up to speed?" he wondered. "Because I’ll bet you every one of us other than Adam Oates (the Washington coach who worked with the Capitals AHL team in Hershey), none of us have been behind a bench for a long time now and getting up to speed is going to be a big challenge."

TSN's James Duthie asked, "Isn’t it like riding a bike? As soon as you get back there, you’re fine?"

“I thought it was," replied the reigning Jack Adams Trophy-winner as NHL Coach of the Year, "and then the first game I coached here (in St. Louis last season when he joined the Blues after not working behind a bench since he was fired by the Blue Jackets), I lost one forward." Center Scott Nichol was injured in the first period. "I was down to 11 forwards and I was screwed up the whole game. So I’m not sure,” he laughed.

“I think the running of practices, the focus of actually putting in an eight- or 10-hour day is going to be a challenge for all of us."

Among current head coaches, only the Kings' Darryl Sutter ran an NHL bench after the 1994-95 lockout, with Chicago. "We're all going to come up with ideas but you really don't have time to work on a lot of things," he told Helene Elliott of The Los Angeles Times. "We're lucky we have our team returning, other than banged-up guys. Camp can be mostly about reinforcement instead of about something new. To me it's not really training camp. It's more trying to get five good practices in."

Hitchcock was still coaching Kalamazoo of the IHL during the lockout shortened 1995 season, so without any first-hand experience, he sought the advice of some NBA coaches who went through a hurriedly prepared lockout shortened season of their own last year. He told Duthie that the San Antonio Spurs' coaches said he'd have to adjust some of his calculations. “Don’t expect the chemistry you had to come back and be the same," he says they advised. "Guys will be in different mental places than they were before.

"The second thing that came up is quality over quantity. You’ve got to get quality from everybody and if you had a guy who was playing 20 minutes and he hasn’t played a hockey game yet, don’t expect he’s going to give you 20 minutes, because he can’t keep up. When we start up here, there’s going to be some guys who have played in either Russia or Europe who have played 40 games and they’re going to have a big advantage, game conditioning-wise, over a guy who’s played zero. You’ve got to get quality over quantity and accept that, for the first month, whether it's a David Backes or whatever. If he was a  20-minute player and he can give you 15 good ones, you've got to get 15 good ones out of him."

Hitchcock also said the NBA coaches told him that players may have to relearn eating and sleeping habits that come with playing a professional season and games at night. He's planning to hold some of the Blues' practices in the evening to replicate game-night preparations.

After the short training camp, the games will begin and what can we expect from that? (Allan Muir: Sloppy, explosive season on the way.) My recollections of the shortened season in '95 are that the hockey wasn't great. It was ragged, sloppy and unpredictable. Hitchcock, who has studied video of that year, described the games as "excitingly bizarre."

Hockey Night in Canada's Kelly Hrudey played for the Kings that year. He recalls it as "the best hockey I've ever been a part of." Hrudey told Erik Duhatschek of The Globe and Mail last week, “Training camp was only three or four days long and I remember vividly being really scared during the first practice because as a goalie, I felt way behind everybody else, and knowing there wasn’t much time to get ready. We tied the first game 3-3 with the Toronto Maple Leafs in L.A. and I let in one, maybe two, ordinary goals. I think it was the next day that (Coach) Barry Melrose came and talked to me about it. He said, ‘Unfortunately, in a 48-game schedule, with only intraconference games, we really can’t afford that.’

“It was amazing to feel that sort of pressure that quickly in a season. Every game was just so important.”

It didn't always seem overly thrilling in the East. It was the outset of the Dead-Puck Era, with the Devils ushering in the successful use of the neutral zone trap, which other teams copied (and scoring fell by a half goal per game that season). Jacques Lemaire's squad had used it effectively the season before, barely missing the Stanley Cup Final when they lost a Game 7 to the Rangers in the second overtime period. They Devils would sweep the Red Wings for the Cup in '95, an unexpected result since Detroit had been the league's best team over the 48-game schedule, going 33-11-4.

Speaking last summer with Scotty Bowman, who coached the Wings, he reminded me that his team got off to a quick start, with four wins in its first five games, all played at home. "You need a good start" because of the short schedule, he said, and obviously the schedule's quirks can play a role in that.  By comparison, the defending champion Rangers raised the Cup banner and lost at home on opening night, 2-1, to the Sabres, a game I attended. Dominik Hasek was spectacular and, as then-Rangers coach Colin Campbell told Duhatschek. "We were behind the eight-ball right away. It was hard to catch up that year.”

Bowman added that Detroit was fortunate to not have any serious injuries that year. "How many of our guys played at least 40 games?" he asked me as I paged through The Guide & Record Book. Darren McCarty appeared in only 31 ("I think he had a hernia," Bowman said) and Mark Howe 18 ("He had a bad back.'), but almost all of them were healthy, I told him. It was another important element to their season.

"Everybody's talking about the importance of a good start, but the one thing that I take out of the 48-game schedule that year was how you needed lots of players," said Sutter. "I bet if you look back at Chicago that year we probably used 16 or 17 forwards." Helene Elliott checked: "The Blackhawks used 21 forwards that season, along with nine defensemen and three goaltenders," she wrote. They finished 24-19-5, third in the division, and lost in the conference championship round to the Wings in five games.

Obviously, conditioning will be hugely important, as will coaches doing all they can to keep players fresh, but that's only one element of this sprint. NBC and SI's Pierre McGuire worked in the Senators' front office that season and actually prepared a study on what it would take to be competitive in the shortened schedule. He divulged his findings last Monday to Mitch Melnick over Montreal's TSN Radio 690.

"What you need," McGuire said, "is 1) really good goaltending; 2) a four-line attack; 3) Make sure you understand work-to-rest ratio as a coach and you don't break the guys down. That's important for maintaining the team's collective health and avoiding injury;. 4) you can't have a prolonged losing streak of five games or more or you're in trouble. Remember you're playing conference games and division games exclusively so they're all four-point games; 5) you have to have a creative coach.

"If you have those five things, you have a real good chance to be competitive."

McGuire recalls the hockey that season "was not really great hockey" but "It was intense. And it was very fast."

There will be some things about this season that won't be like the lockout-shortened '95 season. "Here's where I think this lockout and the 48-game sprint and the last lockout and the 48-game sprint are going to be different," he said. "People were not as angry the last time. People were really angry after 2004-05. People are super-angry now.

"If you live in a city where the team goes on a prolonged losing streak and it looks after the first 15 or 17 games like they're not going to make the playoffs, those teams are Tostitos for this year and it's going to be nasty. It's not going to be fun to play for those teams, and it's not going to be fun to manage those teams and it's not going to be fun to coach those teams, because you've got no way to get back in the race.

"You watch the first 10-12 games and you're going to know pretty quickly who is going to make the playoffs, who is going to be fighting for the last playoff spots and who's going to be out."

It all begins Sunday when the locks officially come off and the doors open for the NHL's players.

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