The Philadelphia Flyers went far off the radar screen with the announcement of the hiring of longtime University of North Dakota (UND) head coach Dave Hakstol as the 19th head coach in franchise history. Hakstol, who reached the Frozen Four seven times in 11 years at UND, has been a very prominent name on the national collegiate hockey scene for many years.
Nevertheless, the 46-year-old Hakstol's name rarely came up in NHL head coaching rumors. Himself a former UND player who briefly played minor league hockey in the now-defunct International Hockey League as a hard-nosed defensive defenseman, the Alberta native has spent the last 15 years coaching in Grand Forks. He was an assistant for the first four years and then spent 11 years as the team's head coach.
"I thought about him long before this as a head coach in the National Hockey League," said Flyers general manager Ron Hextall at the introductory press conference. "I believe he was destined for it. He’s got a lot of pro qualities. He’s got a lot of experience as a head coach. So I started going through the process here, the guy that I needed to get to know the most was Dave. We met for parts of four days, we were on the phone a lot, and everything checked out the way that we hoped it would check out. I had a list of things that I wanted from a head coach, and went down the checklist in my mind and every box was checked except for the NHL experience."
It is an unusual but not unprecedented step for an NHL team to hire a collegiate coach who had no prior pro level experience in North America. The legendary Herb Brooks and "Badger" Bob Johnson along with Ned Harkness were the only past such hires in NHL history.
Said Hextall, "Quite frankly, for me, [NHL coaching experience] was one that was least important. No different than a rookie player. Does Dave have things to learn? Absolutely. He’ll be the first to admit. He’s got a lot of time here to kind of get to know the league, get to know our team, familiarize himself with the area, look into forming a staff…we’ve both got a lot of work to do, but he’s got a tireless work ethic and I think the biggest thing is his knowledge of the game is extremely high-level. So I feel very comfortable with where we’re at. I won’t say it was early in the process because like I said, I had to get to know him I guess intimately, and as we went through the process it just kept coming to me that this is our guy."
After Hextall fired Craig Berube as head coach on April 17, he was very tight-lipped about the search for the team's next head coach except to say that he did not feel Berube got enough out of his personnel. Subsequently, sources around the team said that there was a belief that Berube did not push his players hard enough, which played into the club's inconsistency and poor road record compared to a strong home record.
While at UND, Hakstol gained a reputation as a hard-nosed but fair-minded coach who placed a high degree of focus on structure, discipline and individual accountability for playing a two-way game.
Year in and year out, Hakstol's UND teams had an identity of being a strong puck possession team that played at a fast pace, forced turnovers and limited opposing scoring chances. The defenseman got involved in the play to support the forwards, and every forward expected to apply defensive back pressure. Players conformed to Hakstol's system or they did not play.
Now, the challenge will be translating collegiate success to the NHL.
"There’s going to be several adjustments along the way, but I think number one, I believe in what we do and I believe in the things that I do, and I’m not going to change that," said Hakstol.
"Do I need to alter the delivery of the message? Maybe a little bit. The fact that I do not have experience at this level – I’m not going to pretend that I do. But I do have an awful lot of confidence in terms of knowing the game well, knowing how to relate and communicate with players, and that’s one of the first things as I get started here – and probably one of the most important things as we move through the summer – is communicating with and getting to know a lot of our players. That’s going to start to build the foundation for the plan that we have moving forward."
Hakstol has pledged to bring a similar identity to the Flyers, although it can be more challenging to get buy-in from pro players — especially well-established veterans — than from collegiate or even minor league players. It is inevitable that some players will test out the new coach, especially because he never played in the NHL and never previously coached at the pro level.
"They're going to find out real fast who is boss," said Hextall.
At the collegiate level, Hakstol was known for his stoic intensity — especially,the piercing stare of his icy blue eyes — and high degree of self-confidence. Even at his introductory press conference in Philadelphia, Hakstol spoke confidently and made direct eye contact with each and every person who asked him a question.
There was already some familiarity between Hextall and Hakstol — get ready for a slew of jokes about the similarity of their surnames. Hakstol coached Lehigh Valley Phantoms forward Brett Hextall (Ron's son) at UND. He also coached current Flyers forward Chris VandeVelde (an impending unrestricted free agent who seems likely to re-sign with Philadelphia).
For the last four years, Flyers 2010 fifth-round pick Michael Parks (still unsigned as of this writing) played for Hakstol at UND. As a senior in 2014-15, Parks was part of a team that reached the Frozen Four before losing to Boston University in the semifinals.
The new coach and the general manager pledged to start immediately on the search for an assistant coaching staff, although there is no specific timetable for completing the process. Both Hextall and Hakstol said they would like to hire an assistant coach who has previous NHL coaching experience. While no candidates were named, veterans such as Terry Murray or Craig Ramsay would seem to fit the bill in that regard.
As of now, all Flyers assistant coaches who finished the 2014-15 season — forwards and penalty killing coach Ian Laperriere, defenseman coach Gord Murphy and power play coach Joe Mullen — are still on staff. It seems likely there will be at least one or two changes to that group, at Hakstol and Hextall's discretion. The team will also need to fill the vacant goaltending coach slot created by the departure of Jeff Reese in March.