The Philadelphia Flyers shocked the hockey community May 18 when they named their new head coach.
The Flyers didn’t look for someone with NHL experience, or someone who had been coaching in the minor leagues or Canadian junior hockey. Instead, they chose someone from NCAA hockey, North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol.
How stunning was the hire? It was just the fourth time, and the first in 28 years, that an NCAA hockey head coach went directly to the NHL and became a head coach. No stops in the minors, and no trips to being an assistant coach.
RPI head coach Seth Appert and his counterpart at Union, Rick Bennett also believe that Hakstol’s hiring could open the door for other NCAA coaches to take on NHL head coaching positions.
The growth of college hockey players in the NHL may also be changing the philosophy of general managers. Ten years ago, the percentage of NCAA players in the NHL was 20 percent, according to College Hockey Inc. This year, it’s just over 30 percent.
“For a long time, the NHL has been run by players that came through the Canadian junior system,” Appert said. “For a long time, there were very few talented [NCAA] players playing [in the NHL]. . . . As the game is changing, and the organizations are being run more business-like and being run more by college-oriented-type people, I think there will be more potential opportunities for coaches that came through the college route.”
“I’m sure that has a major component to it, the fact that there are more and more college players making the NHL,” Bennett said. “Maybe it’s an eye-opener for the general managers, maybe for the owners that are hands-on.”
The results of the previous three coaches who went directly from the NCAA to the NHL is mixed.
Former RPI and Union head coach Ned Harkness went from Cornell to the Detroit Red Wings in 1970. He won two NCAA titles with the Big Red, including the 1969-70 team that went 29-0. But Harkness couldn’t duplicate that success with the Red Wings, going 12-22-4 before being promoted to general manager and Doug Barkley taking over behind the bench.
Herb Brooks took over the Minnesota North Stars for the 1987-88 season, one year after coaching St. Cloud State. Brooks went 19-48-13 with the North Stars.
Brooks also coached the New York Rangers from 1981-85, but didn’t go directly there from his previous NCAA head coaching job at the University of Minnesota. In between, Brooks coached the 1980 Miracle on Ice squad to the Winter Olympics gold medal and then spent the 1980-81 season coaching in Switzerland.
Bob Johnson was the most successful coach to make the transition. After winning three NCAA titles with Wisconsin, Johnson left in 1982 to coach the Calgary Flames. He was 193-155-52 in five seasons and guided the Flames to the 1986 Stanley Cup finals, where they lost to the Montreal Canadiens. Johnson later coached the 1990-91 Pittsburgh Penguins and won the Cup there before passing away from brain cancer Nov. 26, 1991.
There are some former college coaches and players who could be candidates for NHL head coaching positions. The biggest name is former Western Michigan State head coach Jeff Blashill. He left Western Michigan after the 2010-11 season to become an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings. A year later, Blashill became coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate. The Griffins won the Calder Cup in 2013, and are in the Western Conference final this season. Blashill is considered the leading candidate to replace Mike Babcock in Detroit.
“It just takes a certain team to think outside the box,” Bennett said. “That’s exactly what you’re getting. Now, how much are they thinking outside box? I think it’s more them looking at what a Jeff Blashill is doing in the American Hockey League. You’re seeing that, instead of going back with the same guys. This is a different route.”
Appert believes everyone should be rooting for Hakstol to succeed in Philadelphia.
“If he has success, it’s going to open doors for others if they want to pursue that avenue,” Appert said.