"Slap Shot" meets "A Season on the Brink" in this twisted tale of minor league hockey in the place with more pro teams than any place in North America: TEXAS!

CHL All-Star Banquet Story

by Jason Cohen

CORPUS CHRISTI --

Ken Hitchcock returned to his roots on Wednesday, serving as the featured speaker at the minor pro Central Hockey League's All-Star banquet.

"I've got lots of time on my hands," the recently fired Dallas Stars head coach said.

In truth, it was his friendship with CHL principals like Global Entertainment CEO Rick Kozuback, a peer when Hitchcock coached the Kamloops Blazers of the junior Western Hockey League, that brought him to Corpus Christi. Hitchcock has been available as an advisor to CHL officials and coaches the past few years, and this season the Fort Worth Brahmas are a Stars affiliate.

"I feel that the grass roots part of the game is here at the Central Hockey League level," Hitchcock said. "This is where it's fun, where you don't make a great living but you coach for the enjoyment, you coach for the challenge. You and your family have to make sacrifices every day. I went through those things 15 years ago, so I appreciate what you're going through. It's good to get back to the world that made me what I am."

In his speech, Hitchcock joked that some people were calling his dismissal and former Stars general manager Bob Gainey's reassignment "a murder-suicide," but then spoke seriously about the concerns he and Gainey share about the modern NHL.

"I'm not sure we like where the game is going at our level. We're old school guys. I coached in a rink that makes the rink here in Corpus Christi [Memorial Coliseum, which holds less than 4000 people and has a smaller-than-regulation ice surface) look like the American Airlines Center, and I loved it."

Hitchcock also said his time with the Stars' International League affiliate in Michigan may have been his favorite, because of the young players who couldn't take the game for granted. "It was the purest form of coaching. I had 20 hockey players who didn't want to be there, and we made a great team every year. At the NHL level I'm in the the coaching business and the sports business, but mostly I'm in the entertainment business."

Speaking directly to the CHL players, most of whom are two steps away from the National Hockey League and only occasionally prospects for the American Hockey League, Hitchcock said it was no accident scouts from Edmonton, Toronto, Columbus and several other NHL clubs were attending this year's game. "They're here because there's talent. The game has become global, but there aren't as many good players as there used to be. Finding diamonds in the rough is very important."

"It's pretty inspiring for a guy of that magnitude to come down," Brahmas defenseman Mike Tilson said. "As much as he says he's not busy, you know he is, so for him to come down here and put some smiles on people's faces, it just makes you feel good about playing the game, no matter what the level."

Finally, Hitchcock brought the house down with an ironic reflection on his current situation. "I've had a tough week and it's going to go get worse," he deadpanned. "Tomorrow I've got to go to Los Angeles and meet with [Wayne] Gretzky…. That's gonna be tough. I've got to go to Pebble Beach the next day for golf. I'll get through that. The 8th of February I'm in Salt Lake City for the Olympics… I come back, I've got a two week holiday. And then because my owner fired me, I get paid for the next three years."

"If you think I fell hard," he finished, "wait 'til you see me bounce back, because I'll bounce back even harder."


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