Dave Hakstol knows nothing succeeds like success
Former UND hockey coach turns NHL team around in second season
Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series on former University of North Dakota hockey coach Dave Hakstol and his success as a coach in the National Hockey League. Next week, Hakstol does a Q&A with UND Today.
Four times during in his hockey coaching career, Dave Hakstol found himself in the position of being a new head coach faced with the challenge of getting a team to buy into his system.
“Buy-in is belief, and In order to build belief, you have to find some success,” said the former UND hockey player (1989-1992) and head coach (2004-2015).
In just his second year as head coach of the National Hockey League’s newest team, the Seattle Kraken, Hakstol has given the team’s players and fans a taste of that success and a reason to believe there’s more to come.
“We were sporadic with our play early on,” Hakstol said of the Kraken’s initial start to the 2022-2023 season. “Once we dug in and found some success, that’s when belief started to happen, and that’s when the power of a competitive-type team really came to light.”
Rebounding from Seattle’s disappointing inaugural season in 2021-2022, Hakstol not only helped guide the Kraken into the Stanley Cup playoffs, but the team also made NHL history by defeating the Colorado Avalanche – the league’s defending champions – in the first round of the playoffs.
Against all odds
“Probably 99 out of 100 pundits predicted the outcome,” Hakstol reflected. “We went into the series without any pressure – just a clear mind and a lot of opportunity in front of us.
“That’s a pretty good spot to be in because we knew we were a lot better team than people gave us credit for,” he continued. “We knew we didn’t have any big stars. We knew we had some shortcomings, but we knew what our strengths were. We felt like we matched up well going into that series.”
Seattle next faced the Dallas Stars in a best-of-seven series. The Kraken stayed with Stars until the seventh game, losing 2-1 in Dallas. But the Kraken’s unexpected success and their strong showing against some of the NHL’s best teams ignited the spirit of Seattle hockey fans and made headlines in the sports world.
As a result of the Kraken’s achievement during the regular season, Hakstol was one of three finalists for the NHL’s Jack Adams Award, the league’s coach of the year honor, along with Boston Bruins coach Jim Montgomery – the former coach of the Denver University Pioneers—and Lindy Ruff, coach of the New Jersey Devils. Montgomery won the award after the Bruins posted the best-ever regular NHL season.
“Montgomery had a historic year, a phenomenal record throughout the year,” Hakstol related. “I had fun with that, and the fact Lindy Ruff was one of the three finalists. He’s a guy that I would consider a close friend and mentor from the town of Warburg (Alberta), where we both grew up.”
From player to coach
After five years playing in the International Hockey League, Hakstol’s first head coaching job was with the Sioux City (Iowa) Musketeers of the US Hockey League. In the middle of the 1996-1997 season, he took over a team that won just eight of its 53 games. In his second season, the Musketeers were 35-18-0. The team had winning records and made the playoffs for three consecutive seasons under Hakstol.
In 2000, Hakstol returned to UND as an assistant under head coach Dean Blais and was later promoted to associate head coach. He was named the University’s head coach in 2004 when Blais left to take a coaching position with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets.
For Hakstol and the team, the 2004-2005 season was fraught with injuries and on- and off-ice issues – including the death of his father. The new head coach also had to contend with getting the team to adapt to his new system after a decade under Blais
“Through all the ups and downs – and there were some downs – I can tell you I remember early one Sunday morning, sitting in the basement of the Ralph after getting beat 6-0 the night before by Minnesota, trying to figure out what our next direction would be at practice on Monday,” Hakstol recalled.
“But you know what? We always stuck together. Our group always worked, showed up and competed.”
Despite its troubles, UND’s hockey team rallied at the end of the season to make the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s (WCHA) Final Five Tournament at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
Coaching through calamity
And suddenly, it seemed everything that had happened during the season went from bad to worse. During a game against Denver, UND sophomore defenseman Robbie Bina was checked from behind, went headfirst into the boards and suffered a broken neck. (Bina had surgery, sat out the next season and later returned to the UND lineup.) Denver went on to win the game 2-1 in overtime.
In a March 2005 US College Hockey Online article, James Massen, then a senior forward on UND’s team, described how the new head coach handled the situation.
“When you see something like that happen, the only person on the bench who can say something is Coach Hakstol,” he said. “He kept us from going out there and either packing it in or making it an ugly game.”
The next day, UND defeated Minnesota 4-2 and cemented its spot in the NCAA playoffs. Massen told USCHO that Hakstol deserved credit for the team’s late-season success.
“His maturity as a coach is why we have him back there and why we want him back there,” he explained. “He made us play through that game (with Denver) and come back for the Minnesota game and play just as hard.”
The NCAA placed UND in the East Regional in what was referred to as the “bracket of death,” sending the team to Worcester, Mass., to play Boston University and Boston College – essentially in their backyard. UND knocked off BU 4-0 and then thumped BC 6-3 to earn a trip to the NCAA Frozen Four. UND won its rematch with Minnesota 4-2, but then lost the national championship game to Denver 4-1.
“We played extremely well, but so did Denver’s goalie, Peter Mannino,” Hakstol noted. “Our team got on a hell of a run and was the best team in the country for about six weeks.”
A pattern of success at UND
That first season at UND was the beginning of a pattern with Hakstol-coached teams: a sometimes-slow start leading to a strong season finish and a run to the NCAA playoffs. During his 11 years as UND’s head coach, Hakstol compiled a .653 win percentage. His teams won three conference championships, four conference tournament championships, made the NCAA playoffs 11 times and played in the NCAA Frozen Four seven times.
Despite the winning seasons, sending numerous players into the ranks of the NHL and consistently guiding highly ranked teams into the playoffs, Hakstol expressed regret that the ultimate goal of a national championship eluded UND during his tenure. But he said the experience helped him grow as a coach.
“There are three of the national tournament games where we felt like our preparation and our play was excellent, but we lost a single game,” he said. “That’s the brutality of single elimination. That’s the nature of the beast, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a disappointment that we didn’t hang at least one national championship banner while I was at UND.”
Hakstol left the University in 2015 to become the first college coach in more than 40 years to take a head coaching job in the NHL and remains one of the few who’ve made the transition. He spent three full seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers, making the Stanley Cup playoffs twice. A slow start to his fourth season with Philadelphia resulted in his firing. He then took an assistant coaching position with the Toronto Maple Leafs for two seasons.
Clicking with the Kraken
On June 24, 2021, eyebrows were raised when the Seattle Kraken organization named Hakstol its first head coach for the NHL’s newest expansion team. In just two seasons, he’s demonstrated he has what it takes to lead a team of elite professional athletes to successfully compete at the highest level. Shortly after last season’s conclusion, the Kraken extended Hakstol’s contract through the 2025-2026 season.
Hakstol said he’s frequently asked about the difference between coaching at the college and professional levels. While college is more about player development, he explained that dealing with players as individuals is a critical aspect of coaching at any level.
“That’s an area you can’t spend enough time on,” he noted. “It’s really difficult to coach players if you don’t pay attention and know what’s happening in their personal lives. That’s really where your focus has to be.
“If you want somebody to trust you, you have to do a little bit better than just having systems and Xs and Os for them,” he added. “Players want help to be at their very best, and they know when you’re ready and prepared to help them do that.”
It’s been part of the formula for success since the beginning of Hakstol’s hockey coaching career.