Ron Hextall knows there’s risk in hiring Dave Hakstol as the Flyers’ head coach.
“I understand all the ramifications,” the general manager said Monday at the Wells Fargo Center. “But I was never a guy when I played to make the careful move or the careful play. Do what you think is right, do what you think is best and go with it. I had zero trepidations of hiring Dave.”
Hextall named Hakstol the 19th head coach in franchise history understanding the 46-year-old has to prove himself at the NHL level, having had no experience in the league. But after interviewing Hakstol for four days, Hextall zeroed in on his guy and identified Hakstol as the man he wants behind the bench for this season and the years after.
Still, hiring a college coach doesn’t happen often in the NHL. Herb Brooks, “Badger” Bob Johnson and Ned Harkness come to mind. The risk is there, but as Hextall pointed out, Hakstol isn’t coming from a low-level program.
“The one thing you can’t forget is that Dave’s coached a lot of really good hockey players,” Hextall said. “He knows Jonathan Toews and Travis Zajac. He’s dealt with — again, obviously a different stage of their life but they were at the time stars since they were 12 years old.”
Hakstol coached the University of North Dakota to the NCAA Tournament in each of the 11 years he was the man in charge, and to the Frozen Four seven times, including this season. As an assistant coach on Dean Blais’ staff, Hakstol made the tournament in three of the four years.
For Hakstol, the decision to make the jump from UND to the Flyers was a tedious process. He reportedly turned down the Flyers twice before accepting the position. He wanted to win a national championship, and he acknowledged it was tough leaving North Dakota without winning one, but it wasn’t the main focus of making the decision.
“I’ll honestly say that is a regret that I wasn’t able to be a part of one of the banners hanging in Ralph Engelstad Arena,” he said, “but ultimately, I look back on the tremendous experiences that I had there. I feel the success we were able to have is something we all take a lot of pride in.”
So what does Hakstol bring to the Flyers that Craig Berube — or any other candidate — couldn’t? Hextall wouldn’t discuss it, saying it wasn’t fair to do so. And being fair was an attribute that Hextall took into account before deciding to pull the trigger on Hakstol.
Hakstol has an intense persona to him and has a reputation of holding players accountable. He wants to play a fast game, which is another reason Hextall hired him because that’s where the game is. But, most importantly, Hextall says, Hakstol is fair with his decisions.
“He’s very demanding, he’s very commanding,” he said. “He gets the most out of his players. He doesn’t accept mediocrity. He doesn’t expect an off night. The thing is he’s fair. He’s not unfair.
“You look at the history of pro sports, there are coaches who are really hard and maybe a little unfair and a little too hard on teens, and I think Dave has the ability to demand the best out of his players but also be fair.”
Hextall talked about Hakstol’s strengths — accountability, detail, playing the game the right way, doing what’s expected. He brought up part of the process he used to hire a head coach, and when evaluating Hakstol, the coach met each criteria except for one.
“Other than the (NHL) experience factor, you got all of your boxes (checked),” Hextall said. “If there’s one to me that you can leave off, that’s the one because that can come.”
The decision to hire Hakstol came late last week, and it’s multi-year deal. From the start, Hextall had Hakstol on his radar, and even though his son, Brett Hextall, played for Hakstol at UND, that didn’t factor into the decision. The coach has intrigued Hextall for a couple of years.
“I always felt he was going to be a National Hockey League coach,” he said. “We looked everywhere. My job is to look everywhere and find every coach that deserves to be on and then start paring your list.”
Hakstol said he hasn’t talked with any of the Flyers’ players yet. That’ll come in the next couple of weeks and over the summer. But when Hakstol finally meets his players, it won’t take long for him to make an impact.
“He’s going to be two feet in and he’s going to be demanding from Day 1,” Hextall said. “Players are going to be feeling him out and trust me, from Day 1, they’re going to know who’s in charge.”
*Story originally published on NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com on May 18, 2015.
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