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Ken Hitchcock's return tougher than it looks

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Ever wonder whether an unemployed coach gets rusty sitting in his living room waiting for the phone to ring with another job offer?

Ever wonder about the nerves when a coach returns to the bench after a long layoff?

You might imagine Ken Hitchcock would not suffer from nerves or rust given the torrid pace the St. Louis Blues have set with the veteran coach behind the bench.

Following their 2-1 victory over the reeling Washington Capitals on Tuesday, the Blues are a stellar 8-1-2 since Hitchcock took over for Davis Payne and within a point of the top spot in the Western Conference.

But Hitchcock insists he found himself struggling to keep up with the pace of the game when he returned earlier this month after sitting out since being dispatched by the Columbus Blue Jackets 58 games into the 2009-10 season.

"I think you think you know because you've watched a lot of games,” Hitchcock told a small group of reporters this week. "You think you know it from the 30th row, which is where your television is at. You think you have a handle on it, and then you get behind the bench and you remember things.

"I remember bragging, not bragging but being factual, that the game has always been in slow motion for me standing on the bench. I learned from Scotty [Bowman] and from other coaches the technique of removing yourself from the emotion of the game, but that is easier said than done when you haven't been around it for a little while.

"Those first three games felt quick. One of the reasons it did is -- I've never had a card like I carry a card now because I'm just getting used to the players. I'm standing there not knowing who is going on power plays and penalties, what side for the faceoffs -- all the intricacies that you go through."

Hitchcock, who won a Stanley Cup in Dallas, coached Canada's entry in the world championships this past spring, but that team had multiple practice sessions and exhibition games for Hitchcock to get in sync with his team. Not with the Blues.

"Here, it was like, 'Get behind the bench and get coaching,'" he said. "I think it is hard. I think it is a lot harder than I said it was and I thought it was.

"The thing that surprised me was we took two penalties and I didn't even afford myself enough time to put my head up to see who was in the box. I knew somebody in our sweater was over there, but I didn't know the number. That's when I came home and said, 'Man, I've got to get going here.' I can visualize rotations, I would visualize numbers and this line, and I spend at least 30 minutes just visualizing how I want to match lines and how I want to get the right people at the right time."

It has been a rough week for coaches.

Hitchcock spoiled Dale Hunter's debut in Washington after Bruce Boudreau was dismissed by the Capitals. At the same time, Kirk Muller was getting tagged with a loss in Carolina in his first game behind the Canes' bench after Paul Maurice went over the side thanks to a miserable start in Raleigh.

Randy Carlyle's Anaheim Ducks are in free fall, and the Colorado Avalanche are struggling, meaning Joe Sacco's name has surfaced as a coach on the hot seat.

Hitchcock of course has been on the other side of the fence and has received those calls telling him that his services were no longer required.

"Not having a head-coaching job isn't what bothers head coaches," Hitchcock said. "What bothers head coaches or what troubles us is not being able to be part of the team."

It's not the ego of being the head guy, he insisted.

"That's not what fuels most guys, but being part of a team," the coach said. "When you've coached a long time, the feeling you get when you're part of a team is really important. It is a great feeling to have. Whether you are scouting or working in personnel or you're working with younger players, but when you're part of a team, you feel good about yourself.

"When you're on the outside and you're not part of anything, for a head coach, it is a terrible feeling. It is why ex-head coaches become mentor coaches or advisers or things like that because they still want to be connected to a team. I think that's what breaks my heart the most for these guys. I hope somebody realizes how important being part of a team is for these guys, and finds a way after the dust settles to get them back up and running and into rinks or have a job and a place to go to because, in most cases, we're sitting at home and watching games, and we basically drive our family nuts. It is a hollow feeling."