WARBURG, Alberta - For young people in this pinpoint on the vast Canadian prairie, the landscape has always revealed their futures.
They can work, as locals have since homesteading times, the grain and cattle farms that reach forever across an impossibly flat terrain. Or, if times are good and fuel prices high, they might land jobs in oil, a fickle industry whose presence is marked by the ubiquitous drilling pumps that, like packs of feeding birds, peck constantly at the rich Alberta soil.
But from his family's farm, five miles outside of town, Dave Hakstol saw something else, something more. On days when the boy rode his bike to Warburg's lone school, he would pass the community's most imposing structure, the hockey arena. And he knew his future would be different.
"Dave always wanted hockey," said his older brother, Brian, who operates what's now Pioneer Ridge Farm, grown to 10,000 acres. "He was driven, very independent. He didn't follow. He led."
Leadership is mentioned often when Hakstol's bucolic boyhood is the topic. No matter the age, no matter the game, whether he wore a captain's "C" or not, he took charge.
"He worked hard at hockey and had a huge heart," said close friend Travis Szepesi. "But mostly Dave was a leader. He had that leadership thing."
When Flyers training camp opened Friday, Hakstol, their rookie coach, took control of a franchise that for 40 years has roamed the NHL wilderness in search of another Stanley Cup. How well this newcomer does - he's just the third coach to go from the NCAA to his first NHL job - might be shaped by how he grew up in this community of 750 an hour southwest of Edmonton.
According to those who knew him, the Flyers will encounter a driven coach with a singular focus, a warrior's heart, and the kind of work ethic that could only develop on an isolated farm.
Hakstol, 47, learned hard work from his late father; patience from his schoolteacher mother; and competitiveness from friends who included the untamed Ruff brothers, one of whom, Lindy, coached 17 NHL seasons.
He learned about cattle from the 4-H Club, about spirituality at now-shuttered St. Charles Catholic Church, about cars from a red-and-white '67 Camaro, and about the wider world from Warburg School's teachers.
But Hakstol, who at 17 departed for junior hockey, focused most intently on Canada's sport, the primary diversion in the nation's remote small towns.
"In Warburg," according to a town history, "[hockey] was an escape from the arduous task of eking out a living on a wilderness homestead."
From age 8 through 11th grade, when he left for the Camrose Kodiaks, Hakstol played organized hockey at Warburg Arena, 121 games one season. He went to summer hockey camps. He played on the backyard rink his father built, on frozen ponds and creeks, on grass fields and illuminated town streets in summer, and even in the Ruffs' basement, where the floor and walls were painted to resemble an arena rink.
"You played hockey," said Szepesi, now an oil worker in Vernon, Alberta. "That's what you did when you grew up in Warburg."
It explains why this minuscule community has produced two NHL head coaches; an NHL player (Ruff); and several outstanding minor-leaguers, including WHA star Gary Bredin and Ruff's younger brother, Marty, the St. Louis Blues' first-round pick in 1981.
"All from this little town," Szepesi said. "I'm so proud of them all."
But in Warburg, which has one gas station, one grocery, one hardware store, and no traffic lights, they're prouder that residents don't brag about it.
"Generally, we're not attention-seeking," said Warburg School librarian Janet Sarvas. "We have two coaches in the NHL, a statistical improbability, and we don't have a billboard or even a slogan that draws attention to it. That's a good indicator. We're proud of their achievements, but we simply watch and applaud with a quiet pride, knowing that somewhere along their path we helped in some way."
Born in 1968, the new Flyers coach is one of three children - two boys and a girl - of Ed and Theresa Hakstol. Their farming father, the son of Hungarian immigrants, also worked occasionally in the oil fields. He died of cancer at 66 in 2005.
Theresa taught elementary grades at Warburg School and substituted there until her recent retirement. A piano player and vocalist, she's still in demand at funerals and weddings as well as at graduations, where she typically performs "We've Only Just Begun."
"Farm life here is hard," said brother Brian, 51. "My parents worked at it night and day, and that's how Dave grew up."
Today, grain and thousands of cattle are raised on the farm. Though it was much smaller when Hakstol was a boy - with only 500 or 600 head of cattle - there also were no employees to help with chores.
"I was a town boy, and we used to go out and help with the work," Szepesi recalled. "There was a lot to be done, I remember that."
Cattle had to be nurtured, hay baled, equipment maintained, fields seeded and harvested. There were always crises - an ailing animal; an insect infestation; or, this being Canada, unexpected snowfall.
"That's life on a family farm," Brian said. "That's why there are fewer and fewer."
Hakstol is featured on the Wall of Fame at Warburg School, where at the entrance students still remove and store their farm-muddied boots and sneakers and change into "inside shoes."
His Class of '86 - though he was gone before graduation - had just 23 students.
He ran cross-county and track there; curled; played volleyball; and, thanks to his mother's influence, took accordion lessons.
"He was not a natural student, but he worked very hard and finished near the top," said George Krieger, who taught science and math. "He was very determined, quieter than a lot of them, certainly quieter than the Ruff boys. They were kind of, well, rough. David was not like that. He was always quiet, never very outgoing."
Hockey changed that. Joining an organized league at 8, the game soon dominated the life of a boy friends called "Hacker."
Each summer, Ed Hakstol rewarded his children's hard work by allowing them one week when they could choose their activity. His younger son always picked hockey camp.
"He was pretty good right off the bat. Very coachable," said Loren Krukowski, his Warburg Mighty Mites coach. "He played defense, was a good playmaker, and skated well. He had a good wrist shot he could fire from the blue line into the top corner for me."
Krukowski, according to Szepesi, was a taskmaster. His teams practiced at least once a week. The season they played 121 games, Hakstol's Mighty Mites visited every small town from here to Calahoo, 50 miles distant.
"We were playing every weekend someplace," Krukowski said. "We started in the first week of October and went through March. Sometimes we'd play in two tournaments a weekend. Back then we had three teams at that age. Now there's just one. A lot of kids are dropping out of hockey, eh. It's the cost and the travel."
The Edmonton Oilers didn't enter the NHL until 1979. By then, 11-year-old Hakstol was, like his older brother, a Montreal Canadiens fan. The boys often climbed onto their house's roof to adjust the antenna before Saturday's 5 p.m. broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada.
"Dad liked Toronto," Brian said. "But Montreal was winning all those Stanley Cups then, so as kids we were drawn to them. Being a defenseman, Dave liked Larry Robinson."
When hockey and chores left free time, Hakstol and friends often played baseball. There was a movie theater and a Boston Pizza parlor in nearby Leduc. Boys from Leduc, Thorsby, and Breton went to Warburg since it had a hockey arena.
Built in 1972, the Warburg Arena sits off a dirt road, just past the town hall and the Warburg Seed-Cleaning Co-op.
Hakstol also played on the backyard rink his father built. An adjacent creek sometimes sufficed, and there was a large pond just 300 yards from the Ruffs' house.
"We'd clean off that pond and play until dark," Szepesi said. "In the summers, we'd play grass hockey, sometimes even road hockey under the streetlights in town. On weekends, we'd play till 1 or 2 in the morning."
The well-named Ruffs were regulars. ("They didn't take mercy on nobody," Szepesi said.) The youngest was Brent. Though two years Hakstol's junior, the two were teammates on several Warburg teams.
In 1986, Hakstol was with the junior Red Deer Rustlers when he got word that Brent Ruff and three others on the Swift Current Broncos had been killed in a bus crash.
"That tragedy affected everyone around here," Kreider said.
Whatever the game, Hakstol was the leader.
"He had a silent confidence," Szepesi said. "You could tell he was strong-willed and had heart. That heart's what got him where he is now. It's huge."
The boys' non-hockey interests eventually turned toward girls; cars; and a local social tradition, bush parties.
"Back then the oil companies would vent their gas into these flare pits," Szepesi said. "Fires burned there. It's cold in Canada, and we'd go out there and stand around the fire, drink a few beers, hang with the girls."
Like a lot of farm boys, Hakstol was a natural motor-head. He started with dirt bikes, but when he was old enough he bought a '67 Camaro that he worked on so diligently and prized so highly, his brother said, "he hardly ever took it on the road." Later, he got a more practical Chevy pickup.
Eventually, the wider hockey world beckoned, and, on a road that nearly three decades later led him to Philadelphia, he drove away from Warburg.
"I'm not saying this because he's a local boy," Kreiger said, "but Philadelphia is going to love Dave Hakstol."