As the Philadelphia Flyers start their 2015 training camp on Friday morning, nearly four months of speculation will come to an end.
Ever since Dave Hakstol was hired in May, nearly everyone connected to the team in any way –from the fans to the players – has been looking forward to the on-ice start of his tenure as the head coach of the Flyers.
After a summer of transition, the day will be the official start of Hakstol’s next journey. He was comfortably entrenched as the head coach of the University of North Dakota, having played in Grand Forks before returning as an assistant and eventually becoming the head coach 11 years ago. But when Flyers general manager Ron Hextall came calling, Hakstol decided to come East with his family, and although hockey is hockey, it’ll be a different start for him for the first time in a while.
Will he be excited, nervous, anxious?
“Probably a little bit of everything if I’m being completely honest,” Hakstol said. “I’m excited to get going I think that all the players, the staff, everyone has done a lot of work over the summer to prepare for this time. Obviously this is my first opportunity to get out there and be involved with the group, so yeah, I’m excited to get going and I’m looking forward to it.”
The players are excited as well. It’s no secret that the Flyers have gotten off to a slow start in each of the past two seasons, and both Hextall and Hakstol are determined to avoid that this year. But they may not need to do much more than they’ve already done, as Hakstol’s presence seems to already have the players a little more amped to get back to work.
“It sort of brings a different life and energy in the guys,” said defenseman Luke Schenn. “Not that training camp doesn't usually, but this year it’s just a little bit added on because you’re about to play for a new boss and new teammates. It’s exciting. I think everyone is looking forward to get things underway. It’s been too long of a summer. Obviously when you train and skate all summer, this is kind of what you're getting ready for. It’s going to be nice to get the first few days of practice going and also into preseason.”
Hakstol plans on starting things from the ground up, even though the Flyers have a total of three exhibition games starting in three days. It’ll likely be more just basic hockey in those first three games than it would be a display of Hakstol’s systems, another thing that those around the team are eagerly awaiting.
“First thing is put the work in, that’s where it all starts,” he said. “Forget about systems for a second, the game is a game of passion, it’s a game of read and react, and it’s a game of pace. Those will be baseline things that we’re trying to accomplish along with our execution in the first three days. If you add to that some systems work and getting the foundation and the baseline in place that’s probably going to fill the first three days and again there’s enough time there to accomplish those things and I don’t want to try and do too much too soon. I want to do things one step at a time.”
One player will have a better feel for Hakstol’s camp than any other. Chris VandeVelde played for Hakstol for four years at North Dakota, and may have been the most excited Flyer when the coaching announcement came out in May.
“I would say all four years there he really pushed me and taught me to play with confidence, [he] told me I was a good player and it eventually paid off,” VandeVelde said earlier this summer. “He taught me how to play the right way and I think his coaching style was perfect for me. It’s kind of like the NHL coaching style so it was a perfect fit. Like I said, if I didn’t go to UND or have him as a coach I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”
Past VandeVelde’s testimony and conversations Hakstol has had with some of the players, their ideas of their new coach come mostly from what’s been out there about his history – that he’s intense, that he has a “famous stare,” but mostly that he’s a coach that players want to play for.
“I think it’s going to be exciting,” said R.J. Umberger, who himself came out of the NCAA hockey world at Ohio State. “I think it’s going to be a very competitive group. I think it’s going to be a very structured team under him. I think it’s something our team can benefit from a lot, and hopefully take us to the next step.”
Said center Brayden Schenn: “I haven’t heard a whole lot other than he's going around talking to guys and things like that. Just from talking to the rookies [this week], they said it’s a fast pace, a lot of battling and a lot of competing. That’s what you want in camp, to get ready you ready for pre-season games.”
What probably says more than anything is that when the Flyers hired Hakstol instead of any of the number of big coaching names that were available at the time, there was very little second-guessing – in fact, those in the hockey world almost universally praised the hiring. VandeVelde thinks everyone will soon see why.
“He can relate with the players and I think the fans can look forward to having a winning hockey team,” said VandeVelde. “He’ll push the group in the right direction and I think there’s exciting things to come for the Flyers, that’s for sure.”