The word accountability seems simple enough to define.
If you are in charge and things start to go south, you will be called upon for an explanation. If that explanation isn’t good enough, accountability may demand that you pay with your job.
In a sports franchise, it’s often difficult to ascertain precisely where blame lies.
Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson said there were plenty of responsible parties for the regression this season’s team has shown from its playoff form a year ago.
“We’re all responsible for the performance of this team this season,” Howson said during Wednesday’s press conference announcing coach Ken Hitchcock’s firing. “Management, players and coaches.”
Howson’s seemed to lay blame equally across all facets of the organization. And yet the only person left holding the pink slip at the end of the day was Hitchcock.
Much was made of Hitchcock’s tendency to overload his younger players with information and punish them for their mistakes. Sports vernacular refers to such players as “kids,” so it’s understandable that the general public forgets that they are grown men, usually millionaires, and thus responsible for their own actions.
If they quit on Hitchcock, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that they did, where was the leadership in the dressing room? Where was team captain Rick Nash, or assistant captains Mike Commodore or Antoine Vermette to give a spark to the “kids?”
Aren’t they the ones out on the ice turning over the pucks in their own zone and then laying down in times of adversity?
Some may gloss over such a move as fatalism. The history of professional sports is replete with hair-trigger coaching changes.
Hitchcock is now the 23rd coach to be fired since June 2008. That’s a turnover margin of 76 percent in a span of a little more than two years. No other sector of society could possibly survive that kind of business model, but in the world of pro sports it’s almost considered a given.
Coaching changes such as this offend my sense of rationality. The coach brought in as a stop-gap replacement never has the same-caliber skill set as the one he is being asked to replace. In fact, the best example of the last time a coach was replaced mid-season with someone with a star-caliber track record was when Hitchcock took over for Gerard Gallant in the 2006 season.
Hitchcock’s resume contains an overall record of 534-350-88, six divisional titles and one Stanley Cup Championship. Those credentials, even if he never coaches another game in the NHL, should be good enough to land him in the Hall of Fame.
The man replacing him on an interim basis, Claude Noel, is assuming his first role as head coach in the NHL at the age of 54. He was a long-time head coach in the American Hockey League before taking an assistant’s position with Columbus in 2007.
How can this be deemed progress by any level of measurement?
Howson also harped that management was desperate to see Hitchcock succeed and gave him a very long leash. The problem with that rationale is that all the heavy lifting was already over.
The Jackets had already been through the gauntlet of an unbalanced early-season schedule and were coming up on an extended home stand against some of the weaker NHL teams leading into the Olympic break. This would have afforded Columbus with some home-cooking in Nationwide Arena as well as some time for key players to recover from injuries.
Now that the Jackets have won their first two games sans Hitchcock, as teams with newly fired coaches are wont to do on a short-term basis, it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The vultures who have been calling for this move for some time now will sit back smugly and say, “I told you so.”
In a season in which the playoffs have already faded like an ephemeral dream, what harm could have come from allowing Hitchcock to finish out the season and then make a measured evaluation of the entire campaign?
The man who cleaned up the mess left to him by Doug MacLean’s regime and led the team to its first playoff appearance deserved better.
Howson’s words sounded like he thought so too, although his actions spoke vehemently otherwise.
“He is an excellent coach,” Howson said. “He came to an organization in disarray and he’s leaving it in much better shape. He brought structure, credibility and legitimacy. He played a huge role in getting us to our playoff berth last season, and for that we are grateful.”
Now don’t let the door hit you on the way out.