- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2016

Dave Hakstol was enjoying a fairly comfortable life as the coach at North Dakota, where he had guided his team to the Frozen Four six times in 11 seasons, when he was surprisingly wooed to take over as the coach of the Philadelphia Flyers in May.

It seemed to be a peculiar choice for the Flyers, who had fired Craig Berube a month earlier and became the first team since 1987 to hire a coach directly from the NCAA. Almost a year later, it has resulted in the Flyers‘ return to the playoffs after missing out last season, with Hakstol guiding his team against the Washington Capitals in a first-round series that begins on Thursday.

“I think he’s adjusted very well, obviously,” said Flyers center Chris VandeVelde, who coincidentally played under Hakstol at North Dakota from 2006 through 2010. “Pro hockey, there’s a little bit more ego and certain guys that want their ice time, but he’s balanced that very well with us. He really made the transition look very easy. He’s in complete control of the team, obviously, and everyone’s bought in and that’s why we’re where we are.”

Ron Hextall, the Flyers general manager, was familiar with Hakstol’s methods because his son Brett played for Hakstol at North Dakota from 2008 through 2011. Yet, upon Hakstol’s hiring, Hextall said that connection wasn’t significant; rather, the Flyers were enamored with Hakstol’s high success at the college level, even though North Dakota never won a national championship during his tenure.

Hakstol’s playoff debut will come opposite a pair of his former players. Right wing T.J. Oshie and defenseman Taylor Chorney each played at North Dakota for three seasons, and Chorney said that when Hakstol was hired, he immediately liked the Flyers‘ decision.

“For a GM, you can kind of see how coaches just get recycled through and recycled and I think, maybe, if you’re looking for a change, it’s not a bad idea to look elsewhere,” Chorney said. “There’s got to be good hockey coaches all over, and I think maybe it’s a little bit more of a risk, but it seems to be one that has paid off for them.”

The Flyers went 21-18-8 through the all-star break, then charged to the playoffs by going 20-9-6 after it. That included a stretch from late February through early April when they won 13 of 18 games, including one over the Capitals on March 30.

For Hakstol, part of that adjustment was the result of a natural acclimation process. No longer trying to shape the lives of college students, he also encountered a schedule that included twice as many games and significantly less practice time.

“Certainly, the ability, for me, to move from one day to the next, whether you are coming off a successful win or a tough loss, [has been part of the transition],” Hakstol said. “To be able to turn the page quickly and refocus and most likely play a game the next day or within a couple of days, that’s one difference. The amount and the methods of preparing with limited practice time.

“Those are some of the differences, but dealing with the players has been tremendous. Our staff that I have to work with and the veteran presence that they have has made my transition much easier.”

VandeVelde said Hakstol’s coaching style hasn’t been particularly different, which is something Chorney has noticed manifest itself in games. Hakstol’s players continue to play a hard, physical, spirited style.

“It’s a little bit different, but at the same time, it’s hockey,” Hakstol said. “I think just the way that Hak is, you like playing for a guy like that. He demands a lot out of you, but at the same time, he treats you with a lot of respect, and he’s fun to play for.”

Hakstol played at North Dakota, which won its first NCAA title since 2000 last week, and then embarked upon a minor-league career, never cracking the NHL ranks.

In a season full of firsts, for himself and for the Flyers, Thursday’s playoff opener will be another one. He told his players that morning that the Flyers‘ tradition was part of what lured him to the job, and now it’s his goal to add another layer to it.

“I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t excited about the opportunity,” Hakstol said. “But, that being said, I’m pretty relaxed going into Game 1 here and just focused on the things that I can do and that we have to do as a team and, again, carry that into the game tonight.”

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