It’s rare to see professional sports executives show as much emotion as St. Louis Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong did Wednesday.
Armstrong paused several times, seemingly near tears, while beginning his news conference to discuss the firing of coach Ken Hitchcock and the hiring of Mike Yeo as new head coach.
“It’s really hard, Ken’s probably my best friend,” Armstrong said of Hitchcock, whom he worked with when both were with the Dallas Stars previously before reuniting again with the Blues. “He’s not here anymore, but there’s one former guy in that room that I think is going to the Hall of Fame — and that’s Ken Hitchcock.
“Maybe some other guys will get there; they’ve got a long way to go to reach the standard he’s set.”
Following are Armstrong’s responses to a variety of questions he fielded Wednesday during the news conference. Questions are edited for clarity:
Q: You mentioned earlier (today) about the Blues not losing with pride (this season). What did you mean?
A: “It’s all encompassing. It starts with the manager — me as the manager — and filters down. We’ve let our group become independent contractors. One of the things I’ve learned about being around St. Louis is the Cardinals, they don’t have independent contractors and when they do, they get rid of them. We have a situation now where I trust these guys and believe in them, but I have a sense of independent contractors.
“When you see independent contracting going on out on the ice, whether you’re a fan or not, it’s easy to see. What we have to do is we have to become a team again. We have to take pride in doing things for each other, for the betterment of the team.”
Q: Did the decision last summer to announce it would Hitchcock’s final season and bringing Mike Yeo in as a coach-in-waiting lead to some of the Blues’ inconsistencies?
A: “I guess you are what you are, so probably it has some merit to it. I believed in Ken. I believed when I talked to Ken last summer what his vision was, what he wanted to do this year, what he wanted to do with the team; I believe in Mike, obviously. Was it ideal? When I called Mike and I brought him in, this isn’t how I thought it was going to end up.
“I thought we were going to have a good season; I thought Mike was going to have the ability to learn from a Hall of Fame coach. I thought we were going to be a team that was competitive, that was going to fight, that was going to take pride in moving forward. Whatever mess is here, it’s on me.”
Q: Do you feel this is a playoff team?
A: “We’re in a spot that I haven’t been in a number of years here, that we haven’t been in. We’re fighting for a playoff spot. I don’t want to sabotage the season, but ultimately the players are going to let us know over the next month where we’re sitting, and we’ll act accordingly, but there’s a belief, a faith in the group, and I want to see them reach their maximum potential.
“Honestly, I don’t even know if we’re in the playoffs today; I didn’t look at the standings. We’re fumbling around in that uncomfortable spot. This franchise should make the playoffs; the fans deserve us to make the playoffs — and not only make the playoffs, have success. That’s the job starting tomorrow.”
Q: Earlier you mentioned the team was playing like “independent contractors.” What did that mean?
A: “The independent contracting part of it has to go away. There has to be a sacrifice for the team, and one of the things I think was Ken’s greatest strength was his loyalty to the players. (Ken) might have been a hard coach, he might have been demanding, he might have been all those things, but that’s what made him a great coach.
“From my experience working with Ken, the players realize what a great coach he was unfortunately after the fact, not as you’re going through it. It’s a re-birth for Mike today. It’s a hard day for me, but it’s a great day for Mike.”
Q: How did Ken Hitchcock take the news he was being replaced?
A: That’s why he’s a great coach; he was defiant to the end. I thought about that, and that’s what I love about the guy — he’s a hell of a coach. There was no ‘Kumbaya’ last night; he was angry and he should have been angry. He’s upset about where we’re at as a franchise, (and) the decision that I made. If he wasn’t (upset) I would have been more shocked than probably I was.
“At the end of the day it wasn’t a two-way conversation at that point. I told him I thought he did a hell of a job here. When he got here, to where the franchise is now, it’s light years ahead. He’s leaving this group in a way better spot than he found it.”
Q: How do you see things moving forward?
A: “Our ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup; that’s why we’re here. That’s why I work, that’s why everyone in that room should work is to win the Cup. It’s not about money; it’s not about other things. If you’re not in it to win the Cup ... that was Ken’s goal, but when I look back he had a hell of a run here. Whether our record is first, second or third in his tenure here in the league, at worst he’s in the top 10 percent over the last five or six years.
“I feel bad for the fan bases that we didn’t win a Cup with Ken; I’m excited about winning a Cup with Mike. That’s my goal is to win a Cup with Mike.”