The final three weeks of his tenure as Flyers head coach didn't produce many smiles for Dave Hakstol.
How could he smile? They were uneasy times as he fought for his post behind the bench. His job status turned dauntingly precarious when former general manager Ron Hextall was fired in late November of 2018. At that point, Hakstol was in close to a no-win spot. His future in Philadelphia became a can kicked down the road.
But his own road brought him back to the ice and bowels of the Wells Fargo Center on Monday. Hakstol was able to smile many times in reflection, happy to return to where his NHL head coaching career all started. He's onto a new endeavor as the first-ever head coach of the expansion Seattle Kraken.
A tireless worker and close-to-the-vest competitor, Hakstol was gracious Monday before turning to business.
"Always nice to come back," he said prior to squaring off with the Flyers. "I have a lot of great memories, a lot of good friends."
Fresh out of the college ranks from North Dakota, Hakstol was hired by the Flyers in May 2015. He coached the club for parts of four seasons and went 134-101-42 with a pair of first-round playoff exits. Hakstol was fired midseason in December 2018. The 53-year-old has coached the third-most games in franchise history (277), behind only Fred Shero (554) and Mike Keenan (320).
On Monday, before and after his club's morning skate, Hakstol caught up with some of his former players.
"Brief conversations on game day but nice to shake a hand and say hello," he said. "I don't think either ways there was probably a whole lot of luck wished, to be expected. But yeah I was able to see a couple of guys earlier this morning."
Hakstol also enjoyed seeing Wells Fargo Center employees.
"There's so many good people," Hakstol said. "One of the first guys I tracked down this morning coming into the building was Joe [Zito] at the end of the hallway here. He took unbelievable care of us, from myself to my family to our staff. It's really good to see people in and around the rink at ice level."
Hakstol spent the previous two seasons as an assistant coach with the Maple Leafs.
"Just being able to go through the different experiences that come with being in the league is extremely valuable," he said. "It probably solidifies some core beliefs, maybe pushes and grows and develops some other core beliefs. Simply the experience of it and the purpose that that brings is important."
With experience has come new ways of handling the player-coach aspect of his job.
"I believe that would have happened no matter what," Hakstol said. "Over time, you grow, you evolve, you push to be better strategically. Communications-wise, it's such a huge piece of our game and of our business now. Everybody has a different way of going about that, but certainly I think I've grown in that area over time, as I hope I will continue to do, day in and day out, year in and year out."
Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault has experienced what Hakstol went through Monday night: returning to the place that hired and fired you. Hakstol had been back to the Wells Fargo Center with the Leafs, but Monday marked his first occasion as a head coach. The Flyers are Vigneault's fourth NHL stop. He has coached the Canadiens, Canucks and Rangers. He didn't downplay the emotions that come with facing an ex-team for the first time.
"Anybody that tells you it’s not special, they’re full of it," Vigneault said. "After the first time, it just becomes another game. Points are hard to get, you focus on that, you focus on getting your team ready and that’s what I’ve done."
Vigneault knows Hakstol from their time together with Team Canada at the 2019 IIHF World Championship. Vigneault was head coach and Hakstol an assistant. It was right after Vigneault was hired by the Flyers in April 2019 as essentially Hakstol's replacement.
"I like Dave, I coached with Dave at the world championships, he's a good coach," Vigneault said Sunday after practice. "He's going to have his team ready."
The respect is mutual.
"He loves a good martini, I know that," Hakstol joked. "No, you know what, everybody has their own way. He's extremely well prepared, he's very set in his core beliefs and he communicates that really well. For me, those things stand out."
Hakstol then smiled, shook hands with media members and went on his way. He was back to business at the Wells Fargo Center.
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