On Oct. 8, the night of Dave Hakstol's first regular-season game as the Flyers' head coach, Nate Ewell and two other men settled at a second-floor corner table at Rivalries Sports Pub and Grill in Portland, Maine, and commandeered a television.

Portland is Boston Bruins country, and since there are exactly 32 TVs at Rivalries, it's safe to assume 31 of them were tuned to the Bruins' game against the Winnipeg Jets. But Ewell, who is the deputy executive director of the nonprofit organization College Hockey Inc., and his companions - a video coordinator for the University of North Dakota men's hockey team and a reporter who covered UND - wanted to watch the Flyers play the Tampa Bay Lightning instead. North Dakota, where Hakstol had coached for 11 years before Flyers general manager Ron Hextall hired him in May, was playing in a four-team tournament at the University of Maine over the subsequent two nights. And as the three men at the table watched the Flyers lose, 3-2, in overtime, Ewell said, they held in their minds two conflicting thoughts.

"It was pretty surreal," Ewell said. "A couple of times we shook our heads and said how it was weird that Hak was on TV and not with UND. We thought ND hockey, we thought Dave Hakstol. But I've had conversations with college hockey people and would ask them, 'Who could coach in the NHL?' 'Well, Dave Hakstol could coach in the NHL.' "

As of the Flyers' 5-1 victory Thursday night over the Buffalo Sabres, Hakstol's NHL head coaching career had comprised 53 games. No, he hasn't definitively answered the question of whether he could indeed be a great coach in the league, but he also hasn't done anything to suggest that, with more time and experience and a better collection of talent, he can't be such a coach. The Flyers have been the team that they were expected to be. They struggle to score goals, must play with maximum effort and total cohesion to win on most nights, and are likely to miss the playoffs. And for Hakstol, 47, nothing about the experience of coaching them has been surprising, either.

"No, absolutely not, no," he said. "If you ask me about adjustments, absolutely. I'm a rookie coach in this league, so every day is a little bit new. In terms of surprises, no."

If Hakstol's transition to the Flyers hasn't been as rocky as one might have anticipated - he was, after all, the first coach to make the jump from the NCAA to the NHL since the Calgary Flames hired Wisconsin's Bob Johnson in 1982 - the nature of North Dakota's program and the manner in which he ran it might explain why. Hakstol was accustomed to coaching high-end players there. Thirteen former UND players play in the NHL, including Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and Flyers forward Chris VandeVelde, and Hakstol patterned his team's routines and standards after those of a professional franchise.

"When we come in on a Monday morning," said Brad Berry, who succeeded Hakstol as UND's head coach, "we have the whole week planned out to where we want to get to on the weekend: having a structure in place as far as what it takes to win games, from the practices to the off-ice workouts to the training meals to the pre-scouts. Everything that the NHL does, we do here."

The Fighting Hawks' home rink, Ralph Engelstad Arena, seats 11,500 people and features both an eight-screen Daktronics video scoreboard that weighs 30,000 pounds and a fascia ring - a 900-foot-long, three-foot-high television screen that loops around the rink along the arena's suite level. And the relative isolation of Grand Forks, N.D., where the university is located, creates an atmosphere within the arena that approximates that of an NHL game.

"The only word to describe it is crazy," Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. "It's packed. They're right on top of you - the band, the student section, the fans. It's the biggest show in town. On a cold winter's night, there's not a lot to do, and they pack it in there."

Despite Hakstol's achievements at North Dakota - the team advanced to seven Frozen Fours over his 11 seasons - and his familiarity with the culture of the NHL, skepticism still greeted him in the Flyers' locker room after his hiring, according to Claude Giroux, the team's captain. "Obviously it's normal to kind of think like that," Giroux said. "But just a couple of days in, the way he talks, the way he motivates guys, I see what Hextall saw in him."

Giroux wasn't the only Flyers player to point to Hakstol's communication skills as one of his strengths, though it's difficult, through Haskol's postgame remarks and daily interactions with the media, to get a sense of why he might be so effective. He is at his most expressive not when he is speaking but when he delivers what Ewell called "the glare," an eye-narrowing, face-freezing look that Hakstol might unleash at a player who had made an inexcusable mistake, a linesman who had missed an off-side call, or a reporter who had asked what Hakstol considered a dubious question.

"I've been at some postgame press conferences where I've seen it," Ewell said. "You'd get that sort of 'Oh, boy, what's going to happen here' feeling. But I think he has a way of diffusing it, too, where he speaks and then it's: 'OK, it's not as bad as it seems.' "

Still, in those moments Hakstol often keeps his answers terse and trite, as if his goal were to be as insightful and interesting as a piece of No. 4 sandpaper. That approach is deliberate, North Dakota associate head coach Dane Jackson said, a shield that Hakstol uses to protect his players, to help him build and maintain their trust.

The most conspicuous example of this strategy came in June, when Hakstol flew to the Czech Republic for a brief one-on-one meeting with forward Jake Voracek, who led the Flyers in scoring last season and, within weeks of Hakstol's visit, signed an eight-year, $66 million contract extension.

"Dave takes a lot of time to try to get to know his guys," Jackson said. "He's not going to be buddies with them. That's not really his way. But he is going to spend time with guys, maybe grabbing a guy for a coffee to say, 'Here's what I'm trying to do with the organization. I want you to be a part of it.' Then guys say, 'Hey, maybe I'm not best buddies with this guy, but I know this guy has my best interests at heart. He wants to make this organization as good as it can be.' "

The full measure of Hakstol's ability to accomplish that goal can't be taken for a while yet. Hextall has promised to be patient and deliberate in his plan to make the Flyers an elite team again - a radical break from the franchise's traditions - and unless Hakstol soon proves himself overmatched or incompetent, he presumably will have time to evolve as the roster does, to answer the question that people throughout college hockey had been asking, that Nate Ewell and his friends contemplated over beers and buffalo wings last fall.

Who could coach in the NHL? Dave Hakstol has a long way to go to craft his complete response.

msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski