At some point after the dismissal of Craig Berube, a head coach he inherited, Philadelphia Flyers GM Ron Hextall took a list of replacement candidates to owner Ed Snider.
There were big names, familiar names. And there was also Dave Hakstol, who had never coached in the NHL nor played in the NHL, having spent the last 11 seasons as head coach of the University of North Dakota Fighting, er, Dakotans, or whatever.
Hextall knew him a bit, as Hakstol coached his son Brett at North Dakota for three seasons from 2008-2011. He had kept Hakstol in mind in the years since then, believing he was “destined” to coach in the NHL one day. So when he fired Berube, he revisited Hakstol as a candidate.
(Hockey Dads: Next time you’re impressed with yourself for getting your kid an extra shift or two by slipping the coach a six pack of beer, let it be know that this Hockey Dad just hired his kid’s coach for the Flyers job. The bar has been raised…)
“Every box was checked except for NHL experience,” said Hextall, “and to me that was the least important.”
Least important to him, maybe. There was Hextall, speaking with an 82-year-old Ed Snider, a man who has signed off on a litany of “win now” moves in the last several years that haven’t produced a Stanley Cup, and he’s telling his man that he’d like to hand the reins of the Flyers over to an NHL novice and just the fourth guy to ever make the jump from the NCAA to the NHL.
And Ed Snider yet gave Hextall his blessing to hire this rookie if he felt the fit was right.
“No one could have been more thorough in their investigation of Dave,” said Snider on Monday, after the Flyers hired Hakstol. “He’s a solid guy and we’re lucky to have him.”
This may have come as a surprise, given the impatience the Flyers have shown in previous seasons; as well as a surprise given that the only tangential tie to the Flyers organization that Hakstol has is that his name sounds like a mispronunciation of “Hextall.”
But then you haven’t been listening to Snider, who despite being as an age of impatience was willing to go with Hextall’s long-range thinking.
“Hexy wants to win a Stanley Cup, and I want to win a Stanley Cup. Maybe we’ve been impatient, to make the deal at the deadline or make the deal during the season to strengthen us to make the playoffs, but not strengthen us enough to win the Cup,” said Snider in January. “So his plan is a long-range plan. Build up the farm system. Have a lot of kids come in. Draft well. Don’t give up assets ... and I like the plan.”
Hiring Hakstol is embracing the long run. There will be a learning curve from the NCAA. There will be twice as many games in a season. There will be millionaires with job security rather than students on scholarship. He'll make mistakes.
But Hakstol’s advantage is that he’s not a first mate being asked to pilot a ship – he’s the captain. North Dakota made the NCAA Tournament in every one of Hakstol’s 11 seasons and reached the Frozen Four seven times in that span. He maintained a championship-level program.
“If you had said to me you can bring in an NHL assistant coach or you can bring in a guy who was a head coach in college for 11 years, I’d take the head coach every time,” said Hextall.
Hakstol has run one of the most high-profile college hockey programs in the country. His teams played a “pro style” on the ice, and he demanded that style behind the scenes too. He’s a no-nonsense guy, and a straight shooter to a fault.
“Expectations are quite simple of myself and my staff: Accountability, to one another and to our organization,” said Hakstol.
He’s also a hell of a coach, as most of the hockey community endorses his abilities on Monday. For the Flyers, he’s a solid choice for where they are: Good communicator, good systems and a dedication to trying to squeeze as much offense out of his blue line as possible, which is great news for a team that saw a frustrating lack of offense from its blue line outside of Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto last season. But it’s even better news for a team that has some blue-chip prospects on the back end coming through.
“He pushes players. He gets the most out of his players,” said Hextall.
So for all the chatter about Mike Babcock and the Flyers, and all the other veteran coaching connections that were made with Philly, Hakstol was Hextall’s guy. Brad Schlossman reported that Hakstol turned down the Flyers twice but Hextall was tenacious.
“This was a gut decision and I feel extremely confident in it,” said the general manager.
“I wasn’t going to pick the coach that was going to be the popular choice. I was going to pick the coach that was the right choice.”
Ed Snider believes Ron Hextall has the right plan, and Ron Hextall believes that Dave Hakstol is the right coach for that plan.
After 40 years without a Cup, one could expect tetchiness, but the Philadelphia Flyers are exhibiting an impressive amount of patience and innovation with this hire.
But as Craig Berube found out, that patience is only as good as your results on the ice.