HAZELWOOD, MO. - Blues players woke up Wednesday morning thinking it was going to be another day of preparation for the next game during a thick, heated Stanley Cup Playoff run that had the Blues barely hanging onto the second wildcard spot into the Western Conference.
But news circulated quickly that coach Ken Hitchcock had been fired and replaced by associate coach and coach-in-waiting Mike Yeo, and the news took time to process.
The Blues, who host the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scottrade Center on Thursday (8 p.m.; FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM), will play the final 32 games knowing a jolt has been thrust upon the organization and one that cost them one of the all-time great coaches in NHL history.
"I had no idea honestly," Blues goalie Jake Allen said. "I got up this morning, I got a message and I got the news. It never even crossed my mind. That's why it's turned into more of a shock, especially with only (32) games left.
"It's a big change, but it's a wake-up call for us all. If we don't take this in a positive way, then it's not right."
Hitchcock was 248-123-41 in six seasons with St. Louis. He was 20-27 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Blues finished first or second in the Central Division in each of Hitchcock's five full seasons, but they lost 5-3 to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday and are fourth in the division with 53 points (24-21-5).
After coaching the Blues to the Western Conference Final last season, he signed a one-year contract on May 31, 2016, and announced the 2016-17 season would be his last. Yeo was hired as associate coach June 13, 2016, and was scheduled to take over as coach next season.
Hitchcock, 64, is 781-473-111 with 88 ties in 20 seasons with the Dallas Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Blues. He's fourth all-time in the NHL in coaching victories, behind Scotty Bowman (1,244), Joel Quenneville (831) and Al Arbour (782). His 1,453 games coached are fifth.
He won the Stanley Cup as coach of the Stars in 1999 and made the Cup Final in 2000, losing to the New Jersey Devils in six games. His teams made the playoffs 13 times in 14 full seasons.
"It's s decision that [Blues general manager Doug Armstrong] had to make. It's hard," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "You never want to see that happen to anyone, but it seems like we need to shake things up a bit. We're obviously all very confident in coach Yeo and what he's shown us so far this year. It's going to be a bit of a fresh start for us moving forward, but as players, we have to look at ourselves as players, too. This isn't just a coaching problem. This is something that we have to fix in the locker room. We're all in this together, so today was a fresh start. Now we have to move forward and get ready to handle this last half of the season."
The obvious question players faced Wednesday and will face moving forward for the foreseeable future is in regards to the coach-in-waiting scenario Armstrong put in place.
With Hitchcock announcing that the 2016-17 would be perhaps his final one as coach in the NHL, and certainly with the Blues, and with Yeo signing a four-year contract last summer with the first season being an associate coach, it's easy to understand if there were mixed messages.
"There was no conflict of anything," Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. "Mike has been nothing but professional. He's been here helping [Hitchcock] the best he can. He's been here treating his role like an assistant coach, not like a head coach. He's said that from Day 1 and he's stuck to that. I'm going to keep saying that whoever thinks that there was a conflict of interest, there wasn't, because I was actually extremely impressed with the way Mike handled the situation. Obviously a unique one, but he was dealing with it in a solid way. None of us ever thought of it any differently."
Some players had a different view.
"I don't think we came into this year expecting this to happen," Shattenkirk said. "I know it was a bit of a funky situation with how ... it's something you don't really see around the League when a coach is in his last year like you said and you have your future head coach there. It's something that was a tough situation. I think people always looked at that and looked as a solution because coach Yeo is here, and if he wasn't here, I don't know what we would be talking about the whole year. We'd be talking about if [Armstrong] is going to go out and find someone or if it's something we solve internally. I think [Armstrong] went out and got coach Yeo because he viewed him as a valuable asset. Not just now, but for the next few years to come. I think that's why he went out and got him. The intention wasn't to have him replace [Hitchcock] this year, but obviously this is the situation we're in."
Along with Hitchcock, goalie coach Jim Corsi was fired, and the Blues will implement assistant general manager Martin Brodeur and goalie developmental coach Ty Conklin in Corsi's role the remainder of the season.
"It's really infortunate," Allen said of Corsi. "It's been a tough feeling in here all day, and I know for [Carter Hutton], Jimmy's such a great guy as you guys know. So happy and positive. He's just a great person. It's really tough for us to take today. I'm sure it is for him as well. I haven't gotten to speak with him yet. Tough loss for us.
"Marty watches my games now. It's not like I'm a foreign object to him. He knows what I can do and how I can do it. I think he's going to be there to help me out, especially with him just recently playing and knowing the game and been around the game for so long. He knows what's up and he's going to be a good addition for us."
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