Derek King’s patience, honesty and humor helped Blackhawks endure tough season

Derek King has been given an almost impossible job this season.

Inherit a 1-9-2 Blackhawks team without a general manager, weeks away from the housekeeping that resulted from one of the NHL’s biggest scandals in decades. Win over frustrated veterans, boost morale and right the ship despite being an interim coach with no job security beyond this season. Navigate an in-season rebuild and the trades of starting goalie and second top scorer. Keep the team fighting until the last day of a totally lost season.

Considering the circumstances, King did an admirable job – arguably as good a job as anyone could have done.

”My beard is grayer, [but] I learned the league,’ King told the Sun-Times recently. “I’m comfortable with it. . . all day-to-day operations: media relations, management relations, player relations. I just got better, whether it was with the drills or changing the line and managing everything.

”I grew and got better, and I still have to get better. As a coach, if you think you’ve got it figured out, then you’re in trouble. I did not understand. I will never understand it. But as long as I keep improving every year. . . ”

King, 55, handled it all with an unfettered reality rarely seen in the NHL. His complete lack of ego, down-to-earth personality, earnest sense of humor, patience in the face of failure, and quiet optimism about every day are rare traits for a hockey coach. His combination of the five made him something of a unicorn in these circles.

”His [about] making sure I communicate it to everyone,” he said. ”My door is always open. I try to make sure everyone knows where he is. I’m honest with them; I don’t coat anything. I don’t say what they want to hear, I say what they should hear. It’s like that. I prepared it for them, and it seems to work.”

King’s approach to work – giving him the image of a regular guy suddenly in charge of the Hawks – worked better in the first two months. He lifted the mood, loosened clenched fists and tight shoulders and reminded the players that it was “OK to make mistakes”. The Hawks’ 10-6-0 record in its first 16 games was pretty remarkable.

But by mid-December, as with every new coach, the honeymoon phase dissipated.

”Everything is fine; everyone talks [positively] about the team and the changes,” King said. “Then all of a sudden, you go into one of those losing streaks, and everything changes. You become fragile again. But it was the same [message]: ‘Do not get mad. Don’t let that come back to this locker room. And, for the most part, we did a good job.”

After Monday’s 5-2 loss to the Flames, the Hawks are 14-25-9 since Dec. 16. A lack of talent, particularly in the bottom half of the roster, is arguably the biggest factor. This team wouldn’t be near .500 even if Barry Trotz coached them.

Still, some of King’s weaknesses were exposed during those months. He’s not a brilliant tactician, nor would he pretend to be. His freedom to change the Hawks’ systems was also limited by his acting tag. He doesn’t like the Hawks’ 1-2-2 neutral zone trap formation that former coach Jeremy Colliton installed, for example, but he has refrained from altering it.

King is also inexperienced with line clashes and using certain players in certain situations, as he has always rotated everyone equally in the American Hockey League. He describes situations where, for example, he “maybe shouldn’t have brought this guy out for that faceoff” as his greatest learning moments.

But his willingness to trust his players, even those who have yet to fully earn that trust, could be the perfect approach for a rebuilding team that will have no choice but to trust players who are not. experienced in the years to come.

“You put these guys in situations where you want them to succeed, and hopefully they can do that job,” King said. “Sometimes they fail, and that’s when I start to think the easiest solution would be to kick veterans out all the time. But I like to give these young guys a chance to have that opportunity.

Indeed, King corresponds perfectly to the label known as ”players’ coach”.

“I don’t like to see it as a ‘everyone works for me’ kind of thing,” he said. ”Obviously, I have to make the final decisions. . . but I get a lot of information from our coaching staff, so I like to hear what the players have to say. These are the guys who fight on the ice; It is not me. So it’s nice to have feedback from them.”

King’s future remains uncertain. The odds look about 50-50 on whether he will return to the NHL or return to the AHL at Rockford when September rolls around.

General manager Kyle Davidson has always maintained that the search for a permanent coach won’t begin until after the season, but that time is fast approaching. Many candidates will be interviewed and considered, and the Hawks might be reluctant to promote another interim guy.

Even if he doesn’t get the permanent job, however, the positive things King has done in a brutal situation this season deserve praise.