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John Hynes: Student of the Game

by Julie Robenhymer / New Jersey Devils

When Ray Shero, general manager of the New Jersey Devils, hired someone without a single day of NHL coaching experience to not only be the head coach of the Devils but to become the youngest head coach in NHL history, more than a few people were left scratching their heads. But for anyone who knows John Hynes, it came as no surprise.

"Hockey was my first love, but it wasn't until I got to [Boston University] that I knew I either wanted to continue on as a player or become a coach and make a living in hockey," said Hynes, who won a national championship with the Terriers in 1995.

After a serious neck injury in the first game of his senior season ended his playing career, he quickly shifted gears and focused on learning what it took to be a successful coach and, fortunately for him, he had a great one in Jack Parker to learn from at BU.

"I couldn't believe how easily he transitioned from team member to semi-team coach," explained Parker, the legendary college coach with 40 seasons behind the Terriers' bench and 897 wins to his name. "Usually it's better if you come back two years later when you don't know all the guys on the team and weren't used to hanging out with them all the time, but he transitioned really well and I think that speaks to how well his teammates respected him and how seriously he took his new role.

"Everyone loved to be around him," Parker continued. "But beyond that, he was a great student of the game. He had to be because he wasn't overly gifted talent-wise. He was a very smart player, very cerebral and that held true for him when he became a coach too."

After graduating from BU, he stuck around Commonwealth Avenue as the graduate assistant coach for the Terriers and then earned the opportunity to fill the same roll at the US National Team Development Program in Michigan under Jeff Jackson, who won two national championships behind the bench at Lake Superior State before joining the fledgling NTDP and is now in his 11th season as head coach at Notre Dame.

Two years later, he became the assistant coach at UMass-Lowell under Tim Whitehead and was promptly invited back to Ann Arbor as an assistant coach of the USNTDP under Mike Eaves. The following year, Eaves became the head coach at the University of Wisconsin and asked Hynes to join him.

"[When I first met John], he was like a little pitbull," Said Eaves, now in his 14th season behind the Badgers' bench. "That's his nature. He likes to get after it and I'm sure that's the way he played too - just get in there and do the work and success will follow. It's what gives him energy and drives him and I'm sure over the course of time he's matured and mellowed out a little and is softer around the edges, but at the core, he just wants to get after it. Of course, I want a guy like that on my staff."

After just one season with the Badgers, USA called once again and asked him to come back to Michigan, but as a head coach this time.

"He was an attractive coach because it was obvious he was really good at what he was doing," Parker explained. "I heard it all the time from coaches in the BU realm - my assistants, guys coaching elsewhere - that's all they talked about - how great a coach he was, how dedicated he was, what a great job Hynes-y was doing. His reputation was such that it was easy to think of him when you were looking to fill a coaching job. Plus, he is such a great person that everyone was rooting for John."

In six years as a head coach with the NTDP, he helped USA win gold (2006), silver (2004) and bronze (2008) medals at the U-18 World Championship, a gold medal at the 2004 World Junior Championship as an assistant once again to Eaves and even earned the opportunity as head coach for Team USA at the World Junior Championship in 2008.

"He is really interested in hearing other peoples' opinions and tries to soak everything in before deciding on his own opinion," Parker explained. "He has worked with a lot of great coaches - well respected guys, whose opinions he valued - and he was always asking questions. Even after he was established, he didn't stop. He is always picking your brain. He has never thought he knew it all and was so good as a coach that he couldn't get any better. He realizes that even if he likes what he's doing that there's probably still a better way to do it and he better keep up with the times and not stop learning."

Hynes was also eager for new challenges and opportunities to grow.

"I didn't really create a road map in terms of my career, but I had a strong desire to be a college coach and was on the path towards achieving that," Hynes said. "But, over time, the challenge of pro hockey was something I became more and more interested in."

In 2009, Hynes earned his first opportunity in the professional ranks when he was named assistant coach of the Wilkes-Barre Penguins, Pittsburgh's AHL affiliate, even though it meant a serious pay cut from what he was making with USA Hockey and was only a one year deal.

"It didn't make sense to me, so I asked him, 'Why do you want to do this?'" said Shero, who was Pittsburgh's general manager at the time. "And he said it was the challenge and the potential to get into the National Hockey League. He's done everything for all the right reasons. When he got promoted to the head coach in Wilkes-Barre, everyone who was involved with that team - Jason Botterill, Tom Fitzgerald, Billy Guerin - they all kept telling me what a great coach he was and we've had some pretty good coaches come through Wilkes-Barre so that's saying something. Even last year, when I wasn't working, I knew that if I ever had the opportunity as general manager again, depending on the team and their coaching needs, I knew that John Hynes had to be on the list.

"Once I was hired here and started going through the interview process with him, it wasn't a slam dunk to hire him because I had never interviewed him as a head coach or for an NHL job before," Shero continued. "But he was just so prepared. You could tell he had a real command of what he wanted to do here, how he wanted to play and how he was going to communicate it.

"For me a coach has to be able to do three things - teach, inspire and discipline," Shero said. "He has all three of those and, in addition, his communication skills are very, very good. It's one thing to be able to say what we're going to do, but the really good coaches are able to communicate why and John does that in a very clear way and explains how we're going to find success individually and as a team."

For Hynes, communication is key, but so is everything else.

"My approach to coaching is holistic in the sense that everything matters. Our team atmosphere matters. Our relationships with the players matter. Our team culture matters. It's not just the X's and O's. It's their physical fitness too. All those things matter," Hynes said. "As a coach, if you're just one dimensional, you may not have the opportunity to either develop your players or get the most out of your team. So, for me it's just understanding that being a very good team and a very good hockey player is all encompassing and as a coach I have to pay attention to all of that."

It's this attention to detail and level of commitment that set him apart from the rest of the candidates considered as head coach of the New Jersey Devils.

"When I was interviewing him for this position, I never, ever thought about him in the sense that I'll hire this other guy and maybe I can get John to be the assistant," explained Shero. "I never thought that with him. He was either going to be the head coach here or nothing because that's how highly I think of him and his ability to be a great head coach in this league. He had worked for the opportunity and worked for this chance and everyone - former players, other coaches and management - had nothing but great things to say about him.

"Of course there was risk in hiring an inexperienced NHL coach," Shero continued. "But there's a risk attached to any decision - with New Jersey hiring me, or a trade or a signing. That's what the game is all about - taking risks - but he is more than prepared for this opportunity in the National Hockey League and he's exceeded my expectations so far and I'm excited to see where he takes this team."

So while Hynes' hiring this summer might have caught the fans by surprise, those in hockey's inner circle saw this coming for years.

"His success in the NHL surprises me only because I thought he would stay in college hockey," said Parker. "But as far as the success he's found in coaching…no, I'm not surprised at all. He's a real good coach and everyone who knows him, everyone who has worked with him and everyone who has played for him knows it."

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A New Jersey native, who grew up loving hockey, Julie Robenhymer covers the NHL, NCAA and various international tournaments. Follow her on Twitter at @JulieRobenhymer.

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