Hakstol Keeps North Dakota Going
by Virg Foss/Staff Writer
GRAND FORKS, N.D. What churns inside that calm, stoic exterior we see of Dave Hakstol behind the bench of North Dakota?
What roils under the impeccable dress of Hakstol, who looks like he just stepped away from a cover shoot for GQ Magazine?
What we do know is that he's a man who has taken his first two teams as head coach at UND to the NCAA tournament, matching what Gino Gasparini did in his first two years as a Sioux head coach and bettering the progress of his predecessor, Dean Blais.
From a reporter who covered Blais' teams at UND and one who has known Hakstol since his playing days in a Sioux uniform, in a nutshell this is the difference I see:
Blais always speaks what he thinks, and Hakstol thinks before he speaks. Hakstol chooses his words carefully, like he's in danger of being gonged off a game show should he utter an incorrect phrase.
It's a subtle difference in linguistics, but it's the bottom line in the most obvious differences between the two.
"He (Hakstol) doesn't usually lose his emotion too much on the bench," said UND junior forward Chris Porter, who has played under both men. "He saves that for the lockerroom. He fires the team up real well. You know you've done something wrong when he gives you that look. At the same time, he's there to praise you."
It's become clear that Hakstol, like Blais, is a tremendous coach. With associate head coach Brad Berry and chief assistant Cary Eades, Hakstol has assembled a staff that takes a back seat to no one.
Most people knew Blais better than they know Hakstol because in some ways, Blais was more of a public figure than Hakstol chooses to be.
But the one who knew Hakstol best — Blais — is the one who gave a ringing endorsement for Hakstol as his replacement. While there were doubters in the community over the selection, once again Blais proved right.
When pressed for the differences between the two, Hakstol said, "First of all, I don't think i can be mentioned in the same breath as him," Hakstol said. "We both coach with our own personalities. I know this. When it comes to coaching, instinctively Dean had the best feel for the game of anyone I've ever been around, in games and in practice."
But we have not learned as much about what makes Hakstol tick simply because he doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeve, as Blais could do.
"There are times when I show my emotions, and there are times when I'm probably showing 180 degrees different than what I'm feeling," Hakstol said.
The differences between the two don't make one right and one wrong. What Hakstol did in taking the Sioux to the NCAA championship game last year and bringing a team with 13 freshmen back to the NCAAs again this year ranks with the remarkable accomplishments of the Sioux under Blais.
Hakstol says hockey is an emotional game. "But at least for me, it's important to keep emotions in check and keep my perspective on what is going on during a game and at any particular time during the season," Hakstol said.
Blais and Hakstol probably have more in common than what's on the surface for us to see.
"They're similar in that they demand a lot from you and they're very fair," Porter said. "They obviously have a tremendous passion for winning and that's what they expect. You know that coming in (to the program)."
Porter sees subtle differences. "Coach Hak, he loves to praise you, but he'll let you know when you've done something wrong," Porter said. "Guys feel very confident under him. He demands a lot out of you, but in return, he's always there to pat you on the back. Since we have a young team, that's real helpful for them."
Porter said it was an easy transition for him from Blais to Hakstol. "Coach Hak was under Dean when he was here, and we run the same system as when coach Blais was here. Everything just fell into place."
To his credit, Hakstol has never tried to be a Dean Blais clone. "I can't," he said. "What I will always do is try to do things the right way and the way I feel is right. If it doesn't work, at least at the end of the day I can live with that. We don't do what people want us to do or think we should do. We do it the way we think it should be done. Hopefully, it works out."
It has, wonderfully well.
For the second straight year, Hakstol, Berry and Eades orchestrated the transition of a team struggling for an identity at mid-season to one that defined itself as the season wound down, peaking at the right time.
Hakstol said he never felt he had to live up to the endorsement of Blais and the job that came with it.
"That's not what I'm trying to work towards," Hakstol said. "Dean's endorsement meant a lot to me personally, but what I'm trying to work for is the hockey program here. We don't talk in a hollow manner about it. The history and tradition of this program is the most important thing, and the people who have built it."
In Hakstol, then, we've seen him as a coach who puts the building blocks in place as the season winds itself from October to April. "We've got an awful lot of live up to," Hakstol said. "That's what we work for every day."
In the harsh light of reality, coaches are judged on the surface by their won-lost records. "There are a lot of factors that go into the word 'success,' " Hakstol said. "The most glaring is success on the ice, and winning. That's what we're here to do. But we have to do that the right way."
Hakstol said that as a coaching staff, they believe that the development of the player and of the person are key components of that. "Winning is the ultimate end goal, and there's a right way to get there," Hakstol said. "I believe it's through hard work and trying to do things honestly."
You can judge the progress the Sioux made by this simple fact — on the first weekend of November, they were swept at home and outmatched by Wisconsin. Nearly five months later, the Sioux beat the Badgers last weekend in St. Paul on their way to capturing the Broadmoor Trophy as WCHA Final Five playoff champs.
"We're proud of winning the Broadmoor Trophy, I don't make any bones about that," Hakstol said. "As a young team, you have to learn to win. That's why I felt last Saturday was really important for us. But that's not the ultimate goal, with this team, or with this program."
And that's why Hakstol is carrying on the mission established by the two men he played for or coached under — Gasparini and Blais — with that same steely determination.
This article originally appeared in the Grand Forks Herald.