After 21 years behind a bench, Jim Hiller gets his big chance with the Kings. What is his path to success?
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Jim Hiller heartily embraced the unmistakable link between his playing career and his newfound NHL head coaching career.
On Oct. 6, 1992, the 23-year-old Hiller made his debut with the Los Angeles Kings, three years after being a 10th-round draft pick out of Northern Michigan, where he was a star right wing for three seasons and a part of the school’s only NCAA men’s hockey title in his sophomore year.
On Saturday, Hiller, now 54, will coach the Kings for the first time, against the Edmonton Oilers. The dream of running his own NHL bench soon will be realized, at least with an interim tag. And he couldn’t help but note the symmetry.
“I don’t know how many people have done that, but it’s pretty special to me, I can promise you that,” Hiller said Thursday after running his first practice.
Hiller’s NHL playing career lasted only 63 games, but he parlayed that into a career as a respected coach. He has served as an assistant with four NHL teams — Detroit, Toronto, the Islanders and the Kings (since 2022) — across 10 seasons. Before that, he spent 12 years in Canadian junior hockey, including eight as a head coach in the Western Hockey League.
The native of Port Alberni, B.C., has paid some dues. But this opportunity comes at the expense of Todd McLellan, whom Kings general manager Rob Blake fired on Feb. 2. This is what can happen in the coaching business. Associations are made and bonds are created. And then a door opens for one just as it closes on the other. It is Hiller’s job now, at least for the rest of the season. A longtime dream is being achieved, if not fully celebrated.
“It wasn’t the moment that I expected, as far as emotionally,” he said of being promoted. “And, so, I got to work through that. Todd’s a friend of mine and he’s a heck of a coach. And I learned a lot from it. …
“Nobody would be doing jumping jacks if that happened to one of their friends. It was emotional. Todd treated my family extremely well. My boys, he was so warm and kind to them. Really enjoyed them.
“It wasn’t like you might expect. That’s all I’m going to say.”
The Kings hold a wild-card playoff spot with 34 games to go but hardly looked like a contending team during the 3-8-6 skid that got McLellan canned. If they don’t make the playoffs, it’s a certainty that more changes will be made — Blake possibly among them. Hiller won’t graduate from interim coach and his time as head coach will be short.
But there are those who are squarely in his corner, and believe he can succeed in this chance of a lifetime.
“You don’t know how many opportunities you’re going to get, or you don’t know how life is going to go, so you just have to take advantage of every opportunity you get,” said Andrew Brewer, who spent eight years on the staffs of Detroit, Toronto and Florida. “He’s going to do great. I’m excited to see him get the opportunity.”
In his first news conference, Hiller didn’t get much into line-combination changes or systems. Hiller focused on rebuilding confidence, on getting the Kings back to a place they were at mentally during the first third of the season, when they were among the NHL’s point-percentage leaders.
“We were a really good team,” he said. “I’ll say it like this: We are a really good team. We have struggled. We’re not going to hide from that. But I think it would be a mistake to overreact in some areas of the game when I don’t think that’s necessary.”
Through his career as an NHL assistant, Hiller established a reputation for having a sharp offensive mind. He often has worked with power plays, first under Mike Babcock in Detroit and Toronto before moving on to the New York Islanders, where he served under Barry Trotz. McLellan brought Hiller in last season and his impact was felt immediately as the Kings’ power play went from 27th in the league to fourth.
“I think he knows what works, what doesn’t work,” D.J. Smith said. “And I think he’s at the age and the point in his life where he knows what kind of teams need certain things. Obviously, he’s always been on the offensive side of things, but he knows that when you keep the puck out of your net, that’s the best chance to win.”
Hiller’s first act as head coach was to enlist Smith, who coached the Senators for four-plus seasons until his firing on Dec. 18, as an assistant. The two were on Babcock’s staff with the Maple Leafs, working closely for four years. They had adjacent desks within the Leafs coaches’ office. Good times were had, even when they didn’t taste playoff success. The two can lighten the mood around the Kings after a tumultuous few weeks.
Hiller said of Smith: “He could be a stand-up comedian, but he’s one of the sharpest hockey guys that I’ve worked with.”
“One thing with Jimmy, he likes to have a good laugh,” Smith told The Athletic before joining the Kings. “And I don’t know what it’s like in L.A., but not every room is jovial. I think a guy like Jimmy is going to bring a little bit of that humility to the room, and that can be something that gets them over the top.”
While praising McLellan for the success of his time with the club, Kings center Phillip Danault likened the firing to where “sometimes you get a storm and it’s just to clear the path.” Danault echoed others in lauding Hiller for his communication skills and said “You work hard but you want to have fun. Got to mix in a little bit of both. I think Jimmy is going to be good for that.”
That is what Brewer saw in Toronto when working with Hiller.
“He’s a relationship-building guy,” Brewer said. “I think he had fantastic relationships with all the players that he’s coached through the years, whether it’s Auston Matthews or Pavel Datsyuk or (Henrik) Zetterberg. He’s coached some real Hall of Fame (level), top, top NHL players. He’s always been able to build a relationship and find a way to work together. So, I think he’s going to do a great job.”
The Kings take an analytical approach to hockey that coexists with the human and emotional sides. That is right up Hiller’s alley. When coaching the WHL’s Tri-City Americans, he co-founded TruPerformance — a video-tracking company that offered detailed breakdowns of a player’s game — with former Northern Michigan teammate Brad Werenka, a defenseman who played for four NHL clubs. “He was very much into the analytics at a time when it was just beginning,” Tri-City general manager Bob Tory told The Athletic in 2017. “He did a lot of work and research on that.”
“He has always been someone that wants all the information,” said Brewer, who has been a video coach in the NHL and with Team Canada. “He’s definitely been a big analytics guy. He really understands it. That’s where his university background comes into play a little bit, too. He’s got a great understanding of data. …
“He’s extremely intelligent. He uses data and likes analytics. Like to figure out how to do it but also has the playing background. Not just standing in front of the team and throwing out numbers.”
It is one thing to talk to players individually about their games and serve as the conduit to the head coach. Pour over video. Hear them out. It is another thing to lead a team. To meet regularly with club executives. Handle the daily requirements with the media. Make the right personnel and tactical decisions that will result in a favorable result at the end of the night.
Smith knows about moving from the side chair to the big one. He’s a big believer in Hiller being able to handle that while staying true to himself.
“Well, I think the biggest thing is the players always need to understand it’s all about winning,” Smith said. “You know what? There’s hard decisions to be made. Head coaches have got to make hard decisions. I think the easiest way is to just be yourself. Do it in your way. Not in a way you’ve seen from someone else. It doesn’t mean yelling and screaming. It can be any which way. The way Jimmy wants to do it is how he has to do it. It can’t be scripted. It has to be genuine.
“For me, it’s always worked when you’re genuine. And when the player knows you care and it’s coming from a place of honesty, I think the players are willing to accept that. I think the players want to win just as much and sometimes a different voice (makes a difference). In the coaching world – obviously in this situation, sometimes change helps a certain player. And hopefully for Jimmy, that’s the case.”
The key thing Brewer emphasized about Hiller’s situation is that the Kings aren’t rebuilding and aren’t in too deep of a hole to make the playoffs. He recalled how he worked in Florida when Andrew Brunette took over when Joel Quenneville was fired seven games into the 2021-22 season. The Panthers, who were undefeated at the time, went on to win the Presidents’ Trophy.
“They’ve had this down spurt for the last few weeks,” Brewer said of the Kings. “However, at the end of the day, there’s still a good team with a good opportunity. A real chance to win a Stanley Cup this year.”
And that’s where Hiller has an opportunity to make good on this golden chance of his coaching life. He is determined to bring back the swagger that saw the Kings jump out to a 16-4-3 start before they slowly, and then dramatically, veered off the winning track.
“The team needs to get its swagger back,” Smith said. “And I believe Jimmy can do that.”
(Photo of Jim Hiller: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)