When the fledgling hockey team in Seattle settled on “Kraken” as its name in July 2020, I wasn’t a big fan. Frankly, I thought it was hokey. But I praised team officials for having the courage of their convictions and not taking the safe route. When you’re building an organization from scratch, a little audacity is a good thing. Fearlessness is a virtue.
On Thursday the Kraken showed those qualities again when it unveiled its first coach, Dave Hakstol. The safe route would have been to select one of the big names that had been bandied about for months, the likes of Rod Brind’Amour, Gerard Gallant, Bruce Boudreau, John Tortorella, Joel Quenneville, Travis Green or Mike Babcock.
Instead, the Kraken went for a guy with low profile but high potential. Seattle might not win the news conference quite as decisively — though Hakstol was just fine in that realm. But as general manager Ron Francis said afterward, “My job is not to get the biggest name. My job is to get the guy I think is the best opportunity for our organization to be successful.”
And the more Francis dug into Hakstol, the more it became clear to him that he had found that guy in a 52-year-old native of Warburg, Alberta. Hakstol’s own playing career as a defenseman never took him out of the minor leagues, but as a coach he rose through the junior ranks, made his name in college as the head of the hugely successful North Dakota program, and then cut his teeth in the NHL, first as the coach of the Philadelphia Flyers for three-plus seasons, then as an assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs the past two years.
“I’ve been in the game a long time,” Francis said. “You go through the process, and you get a gut feeling that’s the direction you need to go in, and Dave was that guy.”
Many people will be skeptical because Hakstol’s tenure in Philadelphia didn’t end well. He was fired in December 2018 with the Flyers buried in last place in the 16-team Eastern Conference. Chuck Fletcher, the general manager, said at the time, “To my eyes, there was a disconnect to what he was preaching and how the players were playing.”
Hakstol had a 134-101-42 record with the Flyers and a .560 winning percentage. His teams made the playoffs twice and were eliminated in the first round both times.
That didn’t deter Francis, for whom the task of naming the coach has been a huge focus since he was hired in July 2019. As Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke said Thursday, “Ron’s been thinking of this every day for the last two years of his life. Every single day this has been on his mind. He’s a guy to measure twice and cut once. For him it wasn’t the path of least resistance. Because there were other names, and obviously a lot of interest in this job.”
Francis adhered to the theory that coaches tend to be better the second time around, having absorbed many hard lessons. He believes Hakstol has such a vast hockey acumen that he will be greatly improved by virtue of the experience not just in Philadelphia, but Toronto. Hakstol admitted that making the jump from college to the NHL was a big adjustment that one couldn’t fully prepare for without actually living it.
“There’s a different rhythm to the National Hockey League,” Hakstol said. “On almost every realm, from the 82-game schedule to the pace of the daily business, to on ice and the pace of the game. So the experience was very valuable. There are a lot of things that I solidified and were really cemented in terms of my philosophies.”
Francis had his analytics team delve deeply into Hakstol’s Philadelphia tenure, which had some extenuating circumstances. For one thing, Hakstol walked into the middle of a youth movement, which was going to ensure struggles. For another, the GM who hired him, Ron Hextall, and his assistant GM, Chris Pryor, as well as assistant coach Gord Murphy, were all fired in the weeks preceding Hakstol’s dismissal. It was only a matter of time before the new GM installed his own people.
Francis’ report from the Kraken’s analytics team concluded that Hakstol did a better job in Philadelphia than what might have appeared on the surface, Leiweke said.
“It was really quite compelling,” Leiweke said. “They didn’t want to use the word ‘rebuild,’ but there was a lot of transition going on. And he kept them going somehow.”
What really may have clinched Francis’ choice of Hakstol occurred when both found themselves in Europe with Hockey Canada in 2019. They spent four weeks together in Austria and Slovakia during the World Championships.
One day Hakstol volunteered for a scouting excursion to Brno in the Czech Republic that Francis was taking as well. It was during that trip a relationship was forged.
“We went up in the car together, had lunch together, scouted the game, talked on the way back,” Francis said. “You spend time with a guy, you start to get to know him.”
Francis likes to start work early, and during the month at the championships, every time he’d go to the Hockey Canada coaches room in the wee hours of the morning, Hakstol invariably would already be there, the first coach to show up.
“I came to respect how hard he works and his work ethic on things,” Francis said. “As you talk to him about the game, you start to understand his hockey acumen. You get to know him as a person — his wife was there, his son was there, and you get to understand them as a family.
“All those things left a good impression in my mind that he was not only a good coach but a good person. That played into it as we moved forward in this realm of making the decision.”
It will be a long time before we can discern the wisdom of that choice. Building a team from scratch is a delicate and anxious endeavor, with the potential for numerous pitfalls but also a chance to create something truly marvelous.
Francis, a Hall of Famer who has succeeded at every level of the NHL, saw something special in Hakstol. It will be great fun to see how it plays out, and if it reveals itself.
By the way, “Kraken” is starting to grow on me.