Having grown up in the Philadelphia suburbs in the 1970’s, we were all hockey crazy. When I was 13 years old in the spring of 1974, the Flyers won their first of two consecutive Stanley Cup championships, and we were ALL hockey crazy. I’ve retained my love of hockey for my whole life, and when it was announced we were going to get our own NHL expansion team here in Columbus, I was absolutely thrilled. I share a set of season tickets with one of my former law partners, and I remain a loyal Flyers fan, too.
Our team is called the Blue Jackets, named to honor Ohio’s contributions to the Union victory in the Civil War. It’s a nice thing, but our team has more European players than anything else, and I doubt any of them have a clue what it means.
This past fall, the head coach was fired, a new coach was hired. His name is Ken Hitchcock, and he had just been fired by my beloved Flyers. I was aware that Hitchcock has a serious interest in the Civil War, so I sent copies of a couple of my books down to the team offices for him just to welcome him to town. Until today, though, I didn’t know just how deep his interest runs. The following article appeared in today’s issue of the Columbus Dispatch:
Civil War not ancient history to Hitchcock
Thursday, March 01, 2007
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Ken Hitchcock became a Blue Jacket in 1992, the year he visited Gettysburg for the first time. He took a tour and, when it was done, a few re-enactors emerged in period dress to stage a play of sorts. They used the tourists as troops in the scene. It was an epiphany.
Hitchcock, a hockey coach from Edmonton, Alberta, became fascinated with the American Civil War.
“I got all fired up thinking that this leadership and followship issue is really interesting,” Hitchcock said in a recent interview in his office in Nationwide Arena.
“Thereâ€™s a reason soldiers sewed their names in their coats before going into battle,” he said. “Itâ€™s because they knew they werenâ€™t going to survive. Why go into battle? I started to buy books and movies. Then, not long after I got into a regiment, I got into re-enactments all over the United States. I attended roundtable discussions. â€¦ I became curious about learning about the value of leadership and followship â€” with followship being as important as leadership.”
On Friday night, Hitchcock will lead the Blue Jackets against his former team, the Dallas Stars, in the American Airlines Center. It will be his 802 nd game behind an NHL bench. Heâ€™s 427-269-105 with one Stanley Cup championship, with the Stars in 1999, and six division titles. He trudges on.
Hitchcock is 19-20-5 since he was named Jackets coach Nov. 22. His brand of leadership can be unyielding. In the past month, he has suspended forward Nikolai Zherdev, made a healthy scratch of veteran defenseman Bryan Berard and relegated a $2.5 million winger, Anson Carter, to the fourth line. (Carter was subsequently traded to Carolina.) At the same time, younger players such as Zherdev, Dan Fritsche, Alexander Svitov and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen have taken their game to a higher level that couldnâ€™t have been imagined in September.
The Blue Jackets are a work in progress and so is their coach.
When the NHL locked out the 2004-05 season, Hitchcock made short commutes to Princeton, N.J., to do some voluntary work with the Princeton University hockey team. And he took that as an excuse to sit in on lectures presented by the eminent historian, Dr. James McPherson, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his work on the Civil War. One of McPhersonâ€™s books, Battle Cry of Freedom, is credited with the renaissance in interest about the conflict. Another of his prizewinning books is entitled: For Cause and Comrades. Why men fought in the Civil War.
Hitchcock also lunches, on odd occasions, with Jeff Shaara, a best-selling author of copiously researched historical novels. Shaara is best known for completing the Civil War trilogy that was started by his late father, Michael Shaara, whose masterpiece about Gettysburg, The Killer Angels, is a must read in the genre.
“Iâ€™ve had lunch a couple of times with the coach,” Jeff Shaara said in December. “Weâ€™re not close friends or anything because we donâ€™t know each other that well. But I can say I enjoy his company, his interests. What I do is explore characters. He asks me about Grant, Lee, Jackson and other commanders. It makes sense from a logical point of view. The business heâ€™s in, leadership is everything. You can talk all you want about strategy and tactics, but leadership is everything.”
One of Hitchcockâ€™s closer friends in the field is Patrick Falci, an actor, re-enactor and historian. Falci is known for his portrayal of legendary Confederate general A.P. Hill, who was Stonewall Jacksonâ€™s right-hand man.
“Is this professionally motivated? A little bit,” Hitchcock said. “I never thought about using it hockeywise until people started asking me about my interest. And it just started to grow. I went to Texas, where there are a couple of huge re-enactments. It drove it home: There are reasons people follow. There are reasons the soldiers followed Stonewall Jackson. For all of his idiosyncrasies and all of his mannerisms, there was a reason they followed him, and there was a reason they followed Grant.”
By quirk of timing, Hitchcock now finds himself working in the city where the Union blue jackets were manufactured, in the state that gave more soldiers to the Union cause than any other. Heâ€™s in proximity to the birthplaces of many of the greatest union officers, including Ulysses S. Grant (Point Pleasant), William Tecumseh Sherman (Lancaster), James A. Garfield (Mentor) and Rutherford B. Hayes (Delaware).
Every game in Nationwide Arena, just before the opening faceoff, a stylish video shows a Union officer sounding a charge, and soldiers following over a wall and across a snowy landscape. The blue-jacketed soldiers become Blue Jackets players in a flash of computerized graphics. Hitchcock, with his arms crossed and with that slightly angry look on his face, has been known to take a peek at the video.
Is it goofy to think that it was this preordained for him to be in this place, at this time?
“I donâ€™t know if itâ€™s preordained,” he said. “But when I was coming here to take the job I was starting to think how unique it is. The first logo I see is the one with the hat. Let me put it this way: When the team came into the league, and I was in Dallas, everyone was wondering what the heck a Blue Jacket was. But I understood it.”
I had no idea that Ken Hitchcock was a reenactor, and I had no idea that his interest runs as deep as it does. I think it’s wonderful that our team–lousy as it might be–has a coach who truly understands and appreciates the significance of the team’s name. And it allows for a convergence of two of the things I love the most–NHL hockey and the Civil War.Scridb filter