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Blackhawks prospects recall 'Stare' of Flyers coach

by Brian Hedger

CHICAGO -- Dave Hakstol has no NHL experience on his resume, but the new Philadelphia Flyers coach does have something his former players at the University of North Dakota think will help him transition from college hockey.

Aside from a 289-141-43 record in 11 seasons at UND, Hakstol has a penetrating stare that allows him to get his message across without speaking a single word. It's known as "The Stare" at North Dakota, and every player tried his best to avoid it.

"He's a pretty intimidating guy," said Nick Mattson, who played four seasons for Hakstol at North Dakota and is now participating in Chicago Blackhawks development camp. "He's got this deadly [look]. He stares you right in the eye, and it's hard to say 'no' to him. You can tell he's just a straight shooter and a real honest, open guy."

Mattson, a defenseman the Blackhawks selected in the sixth round (No. 180) at the 2010 NHL Draft, isn't the only player in Chicago's development camp who played for Hakstol. Forward prospects Luke Johnson and Nick Schmaltz also played for him at UND. Each said he enjoyed his time with Hakstol, even if meant getting that dreaded stare from time to time.

"He doesn't really smile very often, so if you're getting the stare, you know you did something wrong," said Schmaltz, who was selected by the Blackhawks with the 20th pick of the 2014 draft and then played for Hakstol as a freshman last season. "He can get intense, but at the same time he's a laid-back, great guy. He's very honest. He's my type of coach and he's great to play for."

Schmaltz, who had five goals and 21 assists in 38 games for North Dakota, said the transition to a season that's twice as long might be the biggest issue for Hakstol in the NHL. Otherwise, he's confident his former coach will be the next UND hockey alumnus to have success in the League.

Mattson and Johnson feel the same about Hakstol.

"We definitely believe in him and think that he's going to do a great job," Mattson said. "Players respect him so much. And he holds everyone accountable; it doesn't matter if you're the best player or the worst player. You're not going to get away with anything that's going to hurt the team or the culture of the team. That may sound cliche, but there's a reason why he had so much success at North Dakota every year, regardless of the players. He was able to instill his attitude in every team, and that's why he was so consistent."

Critics of the hire will point to the difference in personality and status between college players and professionals as a tall hurdle, but Hakstol's demeanor might help him bridge the gap. He's no-nonsense and all about the business of winning, which the Flyers would like to do more often after failing to qualify for the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"Obviously, moving from college to the NHL, you're working with kids and then you're at the pro level, but I think he'll gain respect from all the guys right away," said Johnson, who the Blackhawks selected in the fifth round (No. 143) in the 2013 draft. "He's a pretty intense guy and a pretty serious guy. He's very motivating too. My two years playing at North Dakota, I loved playing for him. Everyone loved playing for him. We just respect him so much and guys want to play for him."

Recruits wanted to play for the storied North Dakota program that Hakstol further bolstered.

Ralph Engelstad Arena is festooned with tributes to UND alumni playing in the NHL, including Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, Minnesota Wild captain Zach Parise, Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie and Los Angeles Kings defenseman Matt Greene.

Hakstol, whose own photo will soon join those of his former players in the arena, played a big role in their development.

"When you walk around the rink, it's just everywhere," Mattson said. "Every guy who's played in the NHL is all over the walls, and they always bring that up and tell stories about how hard those guys worked. It's all part of the culture. You want to be the next guy to play in the NHL."

Or the first guy to coach there.

Before Hakstol, no one had been hired from college to the NHL as head coach since Bob Johnson went from the University of Wisconsin to the Calgary Flames in 1982. Calgary made the playoffs in all five seasons under Johnson, who guided the 1990-91 Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship.

So, the bar is set high, but at least three of Hakstol's former players believe he can attain similar results. Aside from a driven nature, Hakstol is flexible in his coaching philosophies. He proved at North Dakota he is willing to adapt his systems.

"He's kind of evolved with the game," Mattson said. "When I first got there, [defensemen] would stay back and play defense first. Over the course of my career, it kind of evolved to where defensemen had to get active. I think the last two seasons we've had the highest-scoring defensive corps in the nation, and he really encourages that. He's always yelling at us to jump up in the play and be active, so I think he's going to bring that to the NHL."

That, and The Stare.

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