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Friday, January 25
Updated: January 29, 12:52 AM ET
Assistant Wilson named interim head coach

Associated Press

IRVING, Texas -- Ken Hitchcock's message just wasn't getting through anymore.

The Dallas Stars fired Hitchcock on Friday, less than three years after leading the team to its only Stanley Cup championship with his demanding style centered on defense.

Fri, January 25
The Dallas Stars are in the playoff hunt, but they haven't been playing as well as people expected them to. They spent a ton of money last summer and tried to change their team. They brought in Donald Audette, Valeri Kamensky and Jyrki Lumme -- but all those guys are gone. Pierre Turgeon is the only guy still in town, but he's not playing very well.

It's not that the Stars were struggling mightily -- they are in the playoffs right now, coaches usually don't get fired under those circumstances. The Stars' front office probably just felt like they needed to shake things up to wake up the team, and the quickest way to do that is to get rid of the coach -- you can't get rid of 20 players. The coach always pays the price, which may not be fair, but that's the way it goes in coaching.

There are only so many ways for a coach to say the same thing year after year. Hitchcock has had a lot of the same players for quite a few years now, and maybe management felt like the players were starting to tune him out.

Bob Gainey stepping down now is just the kind of classy move Gainey would make. He's always handled things properly, and this case is no different. His stepping down provides the smoothest transition possible for the Stars, and it goes to show he has the best interest of the team at heart.

Whomever the new head coach is has to be a guy that can handle strong personalities. They have a lot of older players with big egos and big pocketbooks. The new coach will be tested by those guys. He'll have to pass the test, or he could go the way of Hitchcock.

"There comes a period in time, quite frankly, when sometimes the same message, the way you want the team to play, the way you want the players to act, the way you want them come together, doesn't hit home," Hitchcock said.

The 50-year-old Hitchcock led the Stars to two Stanley Cup finals appearances -- winning the title in 1999 and going back the next year -- and five straight division titles. He was 277-160-60-6 since taking over with 43 games left in the 1995-96 season. His postseason record is 47-33.

Rick Wilson, in his 10th season as a Stars assistant, was made interim coach for the rest of the season.

"It isn't something that arrived in a flash," general manager Bob Gainey said. "It's been the ongoing sputtering and stalling of our team. We're not only judging wins and losses, but in the ability for the team to function with common purpose and consistency."

Gainey -- the only other person to coach the Stars since their move to Dallas for the 1993-94 season -- also decided to move into a consultant's role now rather than at the end of the season as planned. Assistant GM Doug Armstrong, who was being groomed for the job, took over immediately.

The Stars entered Friday's game against Anaheim with a 23-17-6-4 record and just four points behind San Jose in the Pacific Division.

"I think it will definitely shake the team up," Stars captain Derian Hatcher said. "He's used the same tactics since the Stanley Cup. Nothing's changed. It's been the same and maybe people did stop listening."

Mike Modano agreed.

"We weren't responding to anything as players," he said.

While Hitchcock is gone, Modano and his teammates know there won't be an immediate change in the style of play. Defense and checking will remain a key under Wilson.

"Granted there might be some give-and-take on some players in some areas of the game and on the ice," Modano said. "But overall, we have to realize we're a defensive team that can score and that's how we've got to play. Nothing is really written off right now."

After the consecutive Stanley Cup appearances, Dallas was swept out of the playoffs last season in the second round. The Stars have struggled for consistency following the release of Brett Hull and several offseason moves by Gainey that never clicked.

Left wing Benoit Hogue, one of the several offseason acquisitions, was granted his request for a trade two weeks ago. After being dealt to Boston, he expressed frustration with Hitchcock.

"He's not a bad guy," Hogue said at the time. "It's just the way he handled players, and the way he treats them is totally unfair. A lot of guys on this team feel like they're not part of it."

Goalie Ed Belfour, a postseason stalwart for the Stars, had publicly expressed his displeasure with the "head games" he claimed Hitchcock played with him by using backup goalie Marty Turco more often.

Hitchcock had talked to several players after Thursday's practice about their frustrations. The most visible was a 30-minute on-ice conversation with Modano.

Still, the move Friday caught both Hitchcock and Modano by surprise.

"I'm out of the way," Hitchcock said. "Rick is a different personality. It might be the same system, it might be the same way of playing, but the messenger has changed. The key thing is this team has the opportunity to come together."

Hitchcock said he wants to coach in the NHL again, but looks forward to stepping back a bit and preparing for his role as an assistant coach for Team Canada in next month's Olympics.

Wilson said he plans no drastic changes right away.

"We'll tweak as we go. We'll change as we see the need and the opportunity," Wilson said. "Why this thing got off track I'm not sure, but we're going to move forward."

Armstrong said he wouldn't make any major personnel moves, and would evaluate Wilson's performance at the end of the season.

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