Dave Hakstol’s boat, an XT23 MasterCraft, was parked at a dock and bobbing in the water of Pelican Lake in Otter Tail County, Minn. He was gassing it up, siphoning fuel from a red tub through a clear snaking tube. This was a warm, beautiful afternoon in July 2018. Hakstol was the Flyers’ head coach back then, three years removed from an accomplished coaching career at the University of North Dakota, three months removed from a bitter first-round playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, five months away from being fired. I asked him if he had ever failed at anything in his life.
“You probably draw a long list of things. Find me somebody who tells you they haven’t failed at something, and you’re probably showing me a liar. It’s one way that you get better. All depends on how you handle it. If you evaluate it, deal with it, learn from it, a lot of good can come out of it. If you have a sense of denial or are not a very good self-evaluator, you can be in trouble. A fact and reality of life, isn’t it?”
» READ MORE: Dave Hakstol, unmasked
Context and mistakes
Dave Hakstol is, as of last Thursday, the first head coach in the history of the Seattle Kraken, the expansion franchise that will enter the NHL next season. At the risk of standing up a scarecrow in the middle of a cornfield and turning a flamethrower to it, hockey fans around here greeted the news that the Kraken had hired Hakstol in much the same way that they greeted the news in 2015 that the Flyers had hired him. This guy? Seriously? What a joke.
There are two lenses through which one can view Hakstol’s second chance as an NHL head coach. The first is the Flyers-centric lens: What Seattle’s willingness to hire Hakstol says and what his performance there will say about the Flyers and their decade of mediocrity.
This is, truth be told, the less-interesting lens. Even while they were rebuilding — though they were loath to use the word rebuilding — the Flyers made the playoffs in two of Hakstol’s three full seasons as their coach. If you want to believe that Hakstol was incompetent here, there probably isn’t much that can be done or said to persuade you otherwise. But you probably ought to be prepared to explain why his track record here was comparable to, and in some instances better than, Peter Laviolette’s, Craig Berube’s, and Alain Vigneault’s. By now, the evidence is pretty conclusive that, when it comes to the reasons that the Flyers have been in NHL purgatory for so long, the identity of their head coach doesn’t rank high on the list.
“A lot of people think he’s a glum, emotionless guy,” Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere — whom Hakstol, in his most controversial move here, benched in 2016 — once said. “But behind closed doors, there’s a lot more to it. I respect him in that he doesn’t care what people think — the fan base, whoever’s been on him. He doesn’t care. He only cares about what the guys in this room think, and that’s really what matters to me, and I respect him for that.”
Of course Hakstol had his flaws and made his share of mistakes here. Of course he did. He was aware at all times, perhaps too aware, that the tactics he employed at North Dakota might be inappropriate at hockey’s highest level and that, because he hadn’t coached in the NHL before, he would have to prove himself to his players. He was coaching professionals now, so he would treat them like professionals, assuming they were completely self-motivated. But that approach led him, at times, to be too deferential to them, when those particular players on those particular teams probably required a stronger hand.
“In my experience, one of the most important things as a coach in the NHL is your ability to communicate and build a relationship with each guy,” he said back in 2018. “That’s something that’s really hard to do, and for me, that’s something I feel like I can do a much better job in. …
“You make some horrible mistakes, but they are what they are. You own them. But I think there’s only one way to really figure out pro hockey was different from college hockey. I’m learning from mistakes and from things that work.”
The good and the trouble
How much has he learned? That will be the fascinating thing to monitor during his stint in Seattle. The history of sports — and of Philadelphia sports — is loaded with coaches who at first appeared out of their depth only to improve over time or in their second or third go-rounds, because either their circumstances had changed or they themselves had. Gabe Kapler. Terry Francona. Joe Torre. Andy Reid. Pete Carroll. Mike Shanahan. Peter DeBoer. Berube.
One never knows the full context or explanation for why a coach fares as he or she does, why he or she makes a particular decision, and what that result or decision says about him or her. In 1995, for instance, his team trailing the San Diego Chargers by 21 points, the Cleveland Browns’ head coach called a timeout with one second left to have his kicker, Matt Stover, attempt a 40-yard field goal. It seemed a ridiculous thing to do, but Bill Belichick wanted to reward Stover, who was having a terrific season.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Wow, Coach, wow. Thank you. That says a lot,’ ” Stover told author Ian O’Connor for the book Belichick: The Making of the Greatest Football Coach of All Time. “That means he had my back.”
The 1995 Browns finished 5-11, their fourth losing season in Belichick’s five years there. He was fired in February 1996. The gesture wasn’t nearly enough to save his job, but it also turned out to be an indication of the coach he already was and would yet become. Would he be considered a failure in Cleveland? Probably. Did he evaluate it, learn from it, deal with it? Hell, yes.
Dave Hakstol has the same opportunity now. We’ll see how much good he got out of his time with the Flyers, and how much trouble he can avoid now.