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There is a University to Today's Game

October 9, 2018, 9:11 AM ET [2 Comments]
Jay Greenberg
Blogger •NHL Hall of Fame writer • RSSArchiveCONTACT
You can’t be afraid of the players. Ken Hitchcock, fatso ex-bike shop salesman and peddler of winning principles to the pros, has said that and, with 823 NHL wins and a Stanley Cup to his credit, he is living vindication of his obsessions. A coach has to confront and confront his charges before confronting them again.

So as Dave Hakstol ventured away from his University of North Dakota kingdom four years ago for a league that discards good coaches without conscience, he did not go to Philadelphia intimidated by the millionaires as much as be curious about how he would have to change to deal with them.

“I thought that was going to be part of the adjustment, maybe the greatest part of it,” said the Flyer coach. ‘But honestly, it really wasn’t.

“The biggest difference I’ve found is trying to understand and be aware on a daily basis the different pressures on these guys as pros; what they go though on a daily basis, and being able to communicate with them.

“It’s not dealing with big egos. I haven’t found that at all. Players want help to do their jobs well. They want detailed information on how to do that.”

Presumably Professor David Quinn, recently of Boston University, and Professor Jim Montgomery, late of Denver University, will do . . .well, they will do whatever the talent and experience of the Rangers and Stars–and the patience of their bosses– inevitably allow them to do. This always has been the case, whether the coach comes from Moose Jaw, the University of Minnesota, or the Moon.

Whether Hakstol’s three-season survival–with two playoff spots and no series wins for a re-building team with flaws–emboldened Dallas GM Jim Nill and New York boss Jeff Gorton to go a little further out the limb onto leafy campuses for their hires we don’t know. (Uh, there are some tree at BU, are there not?) As Hakstol says, good coaches come from every level and only await the marriage of their interest and opportunity to move up.

In 2018, NHL teams want teachers. Long, long gone, back to pre-Scotty Bowman days, are locker rooms filled with grizzled pros who believe the coach who never played in the NHL cannot possibly show them anything.

The first college coach hired by an NHL team, Ned Harkness from Cornell in 1970, hit the highway after just 38 games–later to be brought back as GM–because his way was the only way, but that only really set the cause back by a little more than a decade. When Badger Bob Johnson won a Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh after getting to a final in Calgary, any stigma from the Red Wing experiment gone bad was erased.

The bottom line on Herb Brooks’ NHL experience–219-222-66 and never advancement past the second round–is hugely misleading. The Rangers of the early eighties thrived on his circling, puck-possession system that had produced the Lake Placid miracle and three national championships at the University of Minnesota. Brooks’ team ran into an Islander dynasty in divisional playoffs three times in three Aprils

So it was strange that it took 33 years after Johnson’ hiring by the Flames in 1982 for the Flyers to take a chance on Hakstol. And you still wonder if they would have, had he not caught Ron Hextall’s close attention in coaching the GM’s son at North Dakota. But Hakstol did not bring with him to the NHL the flag of the NCAA to re-plant.

“This wasn’t about me trying to blaze a trail,” said the coach. “This was about an opportunity that was right for me and my family. The fact that there hadn’t been one for nearly 30 years; to me that’s more coincidental than anything.”

Indeed, you can’t blame it all on NHL myopia. The legendary Jack Parker was offered an AHL bench by the Flyers in the late seventies, and then the NHL head job by the Bruins in 1993, but never wanted to leave Boston University.

There have been other flirtations, some we know about, some we don’t. But the vast majority of them were for assistant jobs that could eventually lead to a head job. Quinn already had done an NHL assistantship with the Avalanche when he was offered the Ranger job by an American born-and-educated GM, Jeff Gorton. Montgomery played parts of six seasons in the NHL before winning the NCAA title at Denver.

Twenty-two percent of NHL players played college hockey. The worlds have long ceased to be foreign to each other. So have the mentalities of the players, regardless of level of play. Just like NHL coaches, college ones are not the martinets they once were.

Of course, on every level motivational buttons still are being pushed, not always kindly. The job is not performed only at grease boards. But the NHL game has become so detail-oriented that “work harder!” only means that the coach had better work harder at his approach.

When the Flyers complained in 2002 that they weren’t getting anything more than banalities from old school Bill Barber and the team flopped miserably in the first round, causing his firing, the players were cast in the public eye as despicable mutineers from a Philadelphia hero. But under Hitchcock those same guys proved themselves entirely teachable with a run to Game Seven of the semifinals two years later.

Thirty-one NHL coaches could have said what Hakstol did a few paragraphs back about players first and foremost wanting information from their coaches. And the NHL teams basically now play the puck possession game that the colleges did 40 years ago, going back to the days of, rest their sainted souls, Herbie and Badger.

“I was in college hockey for 20 years, but during that time watched two or three NHL games a night and I don’t know there was that much of a difference in the games we and the pros played,” said Hakstol. “There are differences between the styles of teams, no question but in my time I don’t think there ever was that barrier.

“I think that coaching in general has changed more than the game. When I played, almost 30 years ago, coaches on the college level were a little bit different, but now they are different at every level.”

Meaning, more patient and detail oriented

Hakstol has heard from Quinn and Montgomery and presumably told them what they already suspected: NHL players want to be taught, but the schedule doesn’t always allow enough time to do it.

Asked about his biggest adjustment, Hakstol said: “The sheer volume of games and the intensity of an NHL season.

“In college hockey. if you have a tough weekend or a tough game, you have two or three days of practice to right the ship and readjust. Here, if you are in a busy stretch, you might have just one 10-minute video session and a short meeting. Or, one thirty-minute practice.”

Otherwise, he recommends the NHL highly. Of course, he still has the same job that enticed him to leave Grand Forks, not that Flyerland is unabashedly supportive. In Philly, if you are not demonstrative, act out with referees, have taken a deep Cup run, or bench Andrew MacDonald, you’re not really much of a coach, but the Flyers’ two playoff spots under Hakstol were accomplished after bad starts. Those wouldn’t have happened had Joe College lost either of those teams.

The James van Riemsdyk signing reinforces the message that Hextall, his cap figure now under control, his defense loaded with recently-drafted talent, delivered on breakup day in April: “It’s time.” So the stakes for Hakstol get higher while, on the fourth year of a five-year deal, judgment day grows closer.

You don’t have to go to college–or teach hockey at a college–to know that. But regardless of what happens from here for Hakstol, the torch he refuses to carry nevertheless has been passed. At least the movement he says he never felt a part of didn’t die because of his failure; Quinn and Montgomery as evidence.
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