PITTSBURGH — In a moment that was supposed to be about him, Ken Hitchcock turned the spotlight on an old friend.
The Blues coach, named the 2011-12 coach of the year at last week's NHL awards show in Las Vegas, knew Wayne Fleming would be watching on television back home in Calgary as he accepted the Jack Adams Award.
What better time to send a shout-out to the Lightning assistant, who is in the 14th month of a battle with brain cancer.
"I wouldn't be here without my friends," Hitchcock said while holding his trophy. "I'm dedicating this to Wayne Fleming, who's coaching the battle of his life right now. This is for you, Flemmer."
"Anybody who's grown up in western Canada, he's meant the world to us as a mentor, as a coach," Hitchcock said two days later at the draft at the Consol Energy Center. "When you see a guy like that who is struggling and you know how much coaching means to him and how we're intertwined, I just felt it was appropriate to say something."
Information about Fleming's condition has been sketchy. It is believed he mostly is confined to a bed or wheelchair, though he apparently is accepting visitors. His family is around him, and he turns 62 on July 6.
"He continues to battle," said Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, who hired Fleming in July 2010. "He's having a hard time, but he's fighting really hard."
"He's not doing great," said Tampa Bay assistant Dan Lacroix, who is in close touch with Fleming and his wife, Carolyn. "So it's been really tough."
That is why moments such as the one provided by Hitchcock are so important.
"I did talk to Carolyn, and she thought that was such a nice gesture," Lacroix said. "They feel that the hockey community has been behind him big time."
No one more than Hitchcock, who said he has known Fleming for 28 years.
They were assistant coaches together with the Flyers from 2002-06, for Canada at the 2006 Turin Olympics and for Canada's gold medal runs at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and 2004 World Cup.
"He just understands team," Hitchcock said. "Everything for him is you serve the team. And he has so much respect for the crest on the jersey, he doesn't allow anybody on the staff to get in the way of the team. After you spend time working with him, you really learn to appreciate that."
And how he treats people, Hitchcock said: "He has tremendous social skills as far as interacting with everyone from the Zamboni driver to the president of the hockey club. It's a great quality."
It was natural, then, for Hitchcock to send best wishes to his old friend from one of hockey's biggest stages.
"It's a tough go for him right now," Hitchcock said. "I knew he was watching, and I just felt like I owed it to him."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]