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Blackhawks interim coach Derek King helping his players be players again

The presence of King — a longtime NHL player himself — has allowed the struggling Blackhawks to loosen up.

Derek King coached his second game as Blackhawks interim coach on Tuesday.
Derek King coached his second game as Blackhawks interim coach on Tuesday.
Nam Y. Huh/AP

Only three days into his interim-coaching tenure, Derek King has demonstrated a rare and refreshing humility.

“I’m not going to sit here and lie and say I know all the answers,” King said Tuesday. “But I’m learning from [assistant coach Marc Crawford], and I’m going to learn from the players. And we’re just going to get better together.”

If King seems like just another one of the guys, it’s because — for a long time — he was.

His NHL playing career spanned 830 games over 14 seasons with four teams. It was highlighted by a successful run with the Islanders: He scored 40 goals in 1991-92, 38 in 1992-93 and 30 in 1993-94.

As late as 1998-99, King was a valuable veteran scorer on a Maple Leafs team that went to the Eastern Conference finals. Along the way, he learned from legendary coaches such as Al Arbour and Pat Quinn, whom he named as major influences on his career today.

“I drove these coaches nuts; now it’s time for guys to drive me nuts,” he joked.

His legacy as a player even impressed Patrick Kane.

“He had 612 points in 830 career games, so he obviously was an effective player,” Kane said. “When you see that and know that he played in the NHL for a long time, that respect comes right away.”

“[Kane] probably looked me up, saw my points total and just swiped right,” King said. “I [told him], ‘After 1,000 points, you lose count.’ When you have the least amount of points like I have, you remember every point.”

King’s message to the Blackhawks has been to simply act like players again.

“It’s [about] just being relaxed,” he said. “[It’s about] not stressing over mistakes or coming back to the bench feeling just burnt out because we’re hemmed in our end again or we’re down 3-0 or whatever the situation is.

“I told them, ‘Just take a deep breath and go out there and play hockey.’ They’ve been doing it their whole life. The game hasn’t changed. . . . The nets haven’t moved. Just go have fun.”

That spirit has resonated. The Hawks certainly needed the lift. The cumulative weight of the sexual-assault scandal, their awful record and ex-coach Jeremy Colliton’s frustrations had taken a toll. Already, the team’s mood seems happier.

“It all comes down to the mental side,” Connor Murphy said. “When things are going tough, you’re overthinking usually. And the first thing [King] told us is to ease off of our mind and don’t think so much. . . . Once you can work hard and be free, good things start to happen.”

If King also seems to coach with a minor-league style, that’s because — until this past weekend — that’s what he did.

As Rockford IceHogs coach, the best players he worked with daily were prospects such as Lukas Reichel and Alex Nylander. Winning was important but secondary to maturation and improvement. King would “yap at” his players after miscues but promptly send them back out to redeem themselves.

And after 12-plus seasons of AHL coaching, King felt content doing that forever.

“I should say, ‘Yeah, it’s been my dream since I was 5 [to be an NHL coach],’ ” King said. “But, no, it wasn’t. . . . If it came to me, I wasn’t going to say no. But I wasn’t going to go search for it.”

Interim general manager Kyle Davidson’s call Saturday, however, changed his plans.

And although King’s playing and minor-league coaching experiences do shape his approach, he’s fully capable of being an NHL coach — of handling the fun parts, which come naturally, and the hard parts.

“The biggest thing for me is accountability,” he said. “[If players] work hard, play the game right and don’t cheat it, we’ll be fine. If you don’t do that, then the accountability is going to kick in. You’re going to hear from me.”

King already adjusted the team’s practice tempo. Under Colliton, the Hawks typically stayed on the ice for an hour or more, but many drills involved only a handful of players while others waited their turns. King’s first practice Monday lasted only 30 minutes but kept everyone in constant motion.

King and Crawford changed the lines, as well. The team’s top offensive players have been concentrated in the top two lines — “That’s common sense,” King said — instead of spread out like under Colliton. King is particularly emphatic about Kane and Alex DeBrincat playing together.

After a “hectic” first few days in Chicago, King returned to Rockford on Monday night to decompress at a dinner with his family.

His 13-year-old twins showed him Instagram memes comparing him to “Ted Lasso” and Walter White in “Breaking Bad.” But King, as always, had no problem laughing it off.

“I’ve [heard the] ‘Breaking Bad’ thing before — I might have to try to grow my hair back to change that image,” he said, chuckling. “But the ‘Ted Lasso’ thing was pretty good.”