When the Philadelphia Flyers hired Dave Hakstol as coach last summer, T.J. Oshie was surprised.
Not because he thought his college coach was unqualified but because Hakstol had spent 11 seasons committed to the University of North Dakota.
“I know how much he loves North Dakota, he loves the school and the team and his players and his coaches,” Oshie said. “But I thought he could’ve been in the NHL sooner, personally, just with his track record and how well he’s liked.”
Hakstol became the first NCAA coach hired by an NHL team since Herb Brooks of 1980 U.S. Olympic fame made the jump in 1987. Bob Johnson went from Wisconsin to the Calgary Flames in 1982, but in the decades since, NHL teams haven’t given it the old college try with coaches.
Hakstol’s success in guiding the Flyers to the playoffs in his first season should help ensure it’s not another 20-plus years until a college coach gets a head NHL job. With more teams searching for the next fresh face instead of settling for the same recycled names, the college ranks provide another source of talent.
“People are starting to look elsewhere and give some guys some opportunities,” said Washington Capitals defenceman Taylor Chorney, who played for Hakstol at North Dakota. “For a GM, it’s maybe a little bit more of a risk, but at the same time I think that there’s maybe some reward with it.”
When other general managers were chasing Mike Babcock and Todd McLellan during a golden off-season of coaching free agents, Philadelphia’s Ron Hextall assumed a major risk in hiring Hakstol.
The reward was a surprising return to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Flyers forward Chris VandeVelde, a North Dakota alum, said Hakstol has made the transition look easy. It helps that Hakstol recruited and coached stars like Oshie, Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks and Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild and made seven trips to the Frozen Four.
Consistency is the constant.
“He balances it very well,” VandeVelde said. “There’s egos with everyone. He’s taken control of the team and everyone’s bought in, whether that’s North Dakota or now here.”
Going from fixed rosters of college kids to a fluid group of multimillionaire professionals is just the beginning of the necessary adjustments. Washington defenceman Nate Schmidt, who played at the University of Minnesota, considers the transition for coaches more difficult than players because the game on the ice doesn’t change as much as the off-ice dynamics.
Hakstol said he hasn’t been caught off-guard by the egos or the schedule but knows he’s not in Grand Forks anymore.
“To be able to turn the page quickly and refocus and most likely play a game the next day or within a couple of days (and) the amount and the methods of preparing with limited practice time — those are some of the differences,” Hakstol said.
The contrast from college hockey to the NHL is starker than the one from juniors or the minors. But that hasn’t stopped the speculation that Providence College’s Nate Leaman or the University of Denver’s Jim Montgomery could be NHL coaching candidates in the near future, if they so desire.
Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who came out of the Canadian college system, expects Hakstol to be a trend-setter.
“There’s always guys that break ground that way,” Trotz said. “You always look for good hockey minds. It doesn’t matter where they come from, be it the college ranks or Europe or whatever. I just think if you have a good hockey mind, people will notice it.”
Noticing is just a small part. The college-to-pro path isn’t common and it’s not easy to tear college coaches
loyal to their programs away for the bright lights of the NHL.
“A lot of college coaches really love being in the college culture, and a lot of those guys have been college guys without that aspiration,” Schmidt said. “That’s where they want to be. But you see it with (Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill) in Detroit and Hak (in Philadelphia), more and more guys are starting to break through and making that impact on the pro game.”