The best way to prove your detractors wrong is by being right. Obvious? Simplistic? Cliché? Perhaps, but it’s true.
In two seasons as head coach of North Dakota, Dave Hakstol has quieted critics of his hiring and removed doubts about his ability to succeed Dean Blais, a coach who, over his 10 years at UND, won two national championships and five WCHA titles.
For the second consecutive year, Hakstol has the Fighting Sioux in the NCAA Frozen Four. And each year, he’s done it while facing challenges that have prompted questions about whether he was the right person for one of the most high-profile coaching jobs in college hockey.
In his first season, Hakstol’s challenge was to get veteran players to adapt to his style and buy into his system, a task made more difficult by an injury-riddled roster and further complicated by issues that included injuries and the loss of Brandon Bochenski to the pros. After the Sioux finished in fifth place in the WCHA and made their improbable run to the 2005 Frozen Four championship game, UND lost nine seniors to graduation.
On top of those key losses, junior defenseman and captain Matt Greene decided to turn pro, signing with the Edmonton Oilers. Another early defection was sophomore forward Brady Murray, the 2003-04 WCHA Rookie of the Year, who left the team to play in a Swiss professional league.
UND began this season with 13 freshmen on its roster. When the Sioux take to the ice against Boston College on Thursday at the Frozen Four in Milwaukee, they’ll be skating 10 freshmen, four of them in the defensive corps. Hakstol has guided one of the youngest teams in the nation through an up-and-down season that, thus far, has produced a WCHA Final Five tournament championship and an NCAA West Regional title.
Currently one of the hottest teams in the country, it was just two months ago that UND’s playoff hopes were rapidly fading after being swept at home by St. Cloud State. Following that series, the Sioux were 10-10 in league play and 7-8 at home. With a 17-12-1 record overall, they were on the bubble in the PairWise Rankings and, a week later, fell to sixth place in the league.
The doom and gloom among Sioux fans was palpable. Would UND fall out of contention for home ice in the WCHA playoffs? Could the team make the NCAA tournament hosted by UND at Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks? And even if both goals were achieved, would playing at home provide any real advantage?
As was the case during the previous year when UND was on the verge of being eliminated from postseason play, questions were raised about Hakstol’s coaching ability, as well as the players he recruited. The second-guessers were again out in force.
Blais once described Grand Forks as “a hockey guy’s town.” It’s not a city that attracts players because of the scenery, the climate or variety of entertainment. It’s a town in which the hockey season seemingly never ends because hockey-related events and talk are part of everyday life. If a young player’s focus is on getting bigger and better while playing at a high level of competition, UND — with a proven track record of sending players to the pros — is a very good place to be.
However, because of the team’s established reputation, the pressure to perform is intense and the expectations of Sioux fans, both inside and outside North Dakota, are always high. Like Blais, Hakstol accepts criticism from fans and the media stoically, understanding that dealing with a knowledgeable fan base often puts the head coach’s decisions under a microscope.
When Hakstol took over for Blais, it wasn’t as if he had no idea what was in store for him. The 37-year-old Warburg, Alb., native played at UND from 1989 to 1992 under coach Gino Gasparini. Despite winning three national championships, Gasparini lost the job in 1994 after three consecutive losing seasons. Hakstol returned to UND in 2000 as an assistant coach under Blais and was the associate head coach until 2004 when Blais resigned to become an assistant coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Still, there’s no question that anyone who coaches at UND these days has some inherent advantages. The biggest is the $100 million Ralph Engelstad Arena with its state-of-the-art, no-expense-spared training facilities and rinks (one NHL-sized and one Olympic-sized). The other is a 50-year tradition of Fighting Sioux hockey that’s produced seven national championships, 13 WCHA titles and 12 appearances in NCAA title games.
While that makes the a coach’s job of recruiting high-end talent a bit easier, bringing in blue-chip recruits and molding them into an effective team are two different things.
Similar to Blais, Hakstol wants “character guys” and proven winners on his team. This season in particular, Hakstol has shown that he not only brings in some of the most highly skilled recruits in the country, he knows how to turn them into a team.
Since taking the head coaching reins from Blais, Hakstol has been quick to deflect credit for the team’s success. In discussing the rapid development of UND’s young defensive corps, he gives credit to associate head coach Brad Berry. If someone mentions the effectiveness of the Sioux power play, he credits assistant coach Cary Eades for running the unit.
Above all, Hakstol never misses an opportunity to praise Sioux players and team leaders for their efforts on and off the ice. Although he’s had many opportunities throughout the past two seasons to criticize players for disappointing performances, he rarely does so publicly. In addition, he’s made it a point throughout this season to not use his team’s youth and inexperience as an excuse to lose, an approach that’s obviously paid off.
Hakstol is so adept at downplaying his own role in the team’s success that some of the shrewd moves he’s made fly under the radar. He brought in goalie Jordan Parise and consummate role player Mike Prpich. Largely unnoticed were the measures taken to replace Greene and Murray. Their spots on the Sioux roster were filled, respectively, by 6-7, 240-pound Joe Finley (No. 1 draft choice of the Washington Capitals) and T.J. Oshie (No. 1 draft choice of the St. Louis Blues).
In person, Hakstol is professional and his demeanor businesslike. Behind the Sioux bench, he rarely displays emotion. His calm, collected manner proved valuable at the 2005 WCHA Final Five during a game with Denver in which Sioux player Robbie Bina’s neck was broken on an illegal check from behind.
Greene and other Sioux players later admitted that their first impulse was to go after Geoff Paukovich, the Pioneer who hit Bina. But it was Hakstol who kept the team under control.
“When you see something like that happen, the only person on the bench who can say something is Coach Hakstol,” said James Massen, a senior that year. “He kept us from going out there and either packing it in or making it an ugly game. His maturity as a coach is why we have him back there and why we want him back there.”
Unlike Blais, who was a media quote machine, Hakstol chooses his words carefully and speaks in clipped, measured sentences. The “Did he really say that?” moments which characterized Blais’ tenure at UND are largely a thing of the past under Hakstol.
While he might come off as aloof to those who don’t know him well, there was no question that from the beginning, Hakstol was a players’ coach.
On the day that UND named him to succeed Blais, then-senior defenseman Andy Schneider made a prediction that’s since proven prophetic: “He’s going to get the best out of everybody. You want to succeed for him. That’s the way we all played for Coach Blais and that’s the way we’re going to play for Coach Hakstol.”
After two seasons filled with challenges, some of them foreseen and some unforeseen, Hakstol has proven himself a worthy successor to Blais.