#firehak? Making A Case For Dave Hakstol

I know it seems absurd to write an article defending a head coach who has his team in the NCAA Frozen Four for the sixth time in his ten seasons behind the bench. But, believe it or not, there are some who think that if this year’s version of the UND men’s hockey team doesn’t bring home the ultimate prize, that North Dakota should begin to look at other options moving forward.

First of all, the facts: Dave Hakstol is signed through the 2017-18 season. He received a six-year extension in April 2012, and he’s not going anywhere, not even if Minnesota throttles North Dakota next Thursday in Philadelphia.

But there’s another fact: expectations are (unrealistically) high in Grand Forks and among the University of North Dakota faithful. UND claims seven national titles, tied for second (with Denver) behind only the University of Michigan. Those in the know realize that the Wolverines collected six of those banners by the year 1956, when the college hockey landscape was vastly different.

The Fighting Sioux won five titles in a twenty year span (1980, 1982, 1987, 1997, 2000), an unprecedented level of success. But that was also a different time. In 1980, only five teams made the NCAA tournament (yes, five). In 1982 and 1987, eight teams were invited, with the quarterfinal games played as “two game total goals” series. In 1997 and 2000, the field had been expanded to 12 teams, with the top four teams earning a bye (and UND had a first-round bye in each of those seasons).

By the time Dave Hakstol began his head coaching career behind the North Dakota bench, the NCAA field had been expanded yet again to include 16 teams. In other words, every team needed to win four games in a single-elimination tournament to win a national championship. And there are 59 Division I men’s hockey teams across the country competing for those 16 NCAA bids.

In my opinion, making it to the NCAA Frozen Four is the equivalent of making it to the title game twenty years ago or winning a national championship thirty years ago. And Dave Hakstol has brought his team to the Frozen Four six times in his ten seasons behind the bench, tied with Jerry York (Boston College) for the most in the country during that span. Don Lucia (Minnesota) has taken the Gophers to the Frozen Four three times in ten years (and five total in his 15 seasons), and no other coach or school has more than two.

I said in this discussion thread that there are other accomplishments that can help to measure success, and fans have various opinions about which are the most important. But here’s the track record, keeping in mind that Hakstol is currently in his tenth head coaching campaign:

2 MacNaughton Cups (WCHA regular season championships)
10 consecutive seasons with 20 or more victories (an average record of 26-13-4)
10 consecutive seasons with a 1st round playoff series at home
10 consecutive appearances in the WCHA Final Five/NCHC Frozen Faceoff
4 Broadmoor Trophies (WCHA post-season championships)
10 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances
8 appearances in the NCAA Regional Final
6 appearances in the NCAA Frozen Four

We’re using the last decade as the measuring stick because that’s how long Hakstol has been coaching. But it’s also an important barometer of recent success, since public perception of top teams changes so often. In other words, Minnesota’s last titles were in 2002 and 2003, and Denver’s last two were in 2004 and 2005. Those are about to drop off of the table, and Denver hasn’t made a Frozen Four since then. Minnesota, on the other hand, advanced to the Frozen Four in 2005 (knocked off by North Dakota in the semifinals) and 2012 (defeated North Dakota in the regional final) before this season.

Aside from Boston College, North Dakota, and Minnesota, no other school has earned more than two Frozen Four bids in the past decade, and Dave Hakstol has done it six times.

Yes, I understand that Jerry York (Boston College) has also brought his team to six Frozen Fours in that time span, and has won three titles in the past decade (2008, 2010, 2012), but no one is saying that Dave Hakstol is a better coach than Jerry York (at least, they won’t until he wins a national title or two). But does that make him second-best in the country? Third?

Any time someone brings up the idea of “firing Hak”, my question is “and who’s your replacement?” In other words, it had better be good, because Hakstol has been excellent.

And to that point of “firing Hak”, there is a thread on our website’s fan forum dedicated to that topic. It attracts its share of apologists and defenders as well as critics, but it flares up again with each early-season miscue or late-season disappointment. Aside from discussion about prospective recruits, committed recruits, and former players, that topic attracts the most attention on our site.

Dave Hakstol is a seven-time Spencer Penrose finalist (national coach of the year). The only way that a coach can be named a finalist is by winning the regular season title in his conference or by bringing his team to the Frozen Four. You might say, “Well, yes, then they had to name him a finalist. They didn’t have a choice.” But why do you think that those are the qualifications for coach of the year finalists in the first place?

Because they’re the two toughest things to do in all of college hockey. And Hakstol has done one of those things twice (WCHA champions in 2009 and 2011) and the other one six times.

And lest you think that I’m just focusing on the Frozen Four appearances, let me remind you of a few other things:

He’s produced a Hobey Baker winner (Ryan Duncan, 2007), developed countless NHL players (including T.J. Oshie, Travis Zajac, Drew Stafford, and Jonathan Toews), and continues to bring in high-quality talent year after year. There is also something to be said for stability, as Hakstol is just the fourth head coach in the past 45 years at the University of North Dakota.

This year’s coaching job may be his best yet. After graduating Danny Kristo, Corban Knight, Carter Rowney, Joe Gleason, and Andrew MacWilliam (plus losing Derek Forbort early to the pros), Hakstol had to find a way to replace the 176 points that those six players collected last season (48.8% of UND’s production).

He’s done it primarily with a group of freshmen and sophomores who have appeared in 396 games this season, registering 61 goals and adding 106 assists. North Dakota seniors have accounted for just 35 of the team’s 338 points this year (10.4%).

In other words, the University of North Dakota men’s hockey team has an even brighter future than its past or even its present. And that’s saying something.

And finally, this from the Twitterverse:

Jayson Hajdu ‏@UNDSID · Mar 30
“Haj, can I tweet ‘hashtag fire Hak’?” — @UNDMHockey player to me in the locker room after last night’s win (over Ferris State in the Midwest Regional Final).

Jonathan Schaeffer ‏@J_SchaefferUND · Mar 30
@UNDSID did I read that right??? Hopefully sarcasm?

Jayson Hajdu ‏@UNDSID · Mar 30
@J_SchaefferUND Completely. (The players) hear it, too, and think it’s nothing short of laughable.

Alright, fans, it’s your turn. State your case. Leave your thoughts below.

10 thoughts on “#firehak? Making A Case For Dave Hakstol”

  1. Dave… a great summary! I personally think Hakstol has done a great job. Sure we want a National Championship but there are so many variables (as you mention) that a lot of things have to add up in order to get one. I think Hakstol eventually will. Also, there are a number of things that make a great coach and sometimes it does not involve winning. Items such a morals, academics, building character, etc. In addition, there are those that say they have the right to express their opinion in support of the philosophy to fire the coach. They are absolutely correct… they do. Still doesn’t make them right.

  2. This won’t change the mind of the haters (or as they like to call themselves the real fans of UND hockey). Nothing but a “Natty” should save his job – they love how cool that sounds. Reality is if someone put the same criteria on their job performance they would be on the street tomorrow. Actually the fan site now allows every coach who loses a couple of games to be put on the hotseat by annonymous “fans”.

  3. Nice summary and puts everything into perspective. Coach Dave Hakstol is a great leader and a wonderful ambassador for the University of North Dakota. Not afraid to sign my name.

  4. First, I’d like to say that in no way am I saying Fire Hak – and I think most of the critical posters are just expressing frustration and do not want him fired. I am writing to take issue with your often repeated idea that it is “way harder” to win a championship now days. Utter nonsense. There are almost exactly the same number of Division I teams and one team wins it all every year. The current format does require you to put together 4 good games. Many teams have done this including Minnesota Duluth and Yale. However, since only 3 of Hak’s teams went in at a #1 seed, it is a good bet that most of his tournament teams would have not even gotten in the 1980 tournament. The 07 and this year’s teams would not have made it under the format used in 82. Under the format for 97 and 00, this years team would be home watching also. In any case, a 1-5 record in the frozen 4 doesn’t win any championships under any format. I agree that this year’s coaching job was fantastic – I hope we can get it done and get this topic buried for good.

  5. I agree that Hak has done a good job at UND. But, regarding the idea that the “stars have to align” to win a Natty, I disagree. Since UND last won, Denver got two, Minny got two, Wisconsin got one, Duluth got one, and BC has like 87 of them. Granted, some if it is luck, but some of it has to do with team preparation, and UND looked awfully flat in some of those Frozen Four losses.

  6. If money were no object for teams/travel,I’d like to see all conferences top loaded with an equal amount of historically quality programs, irregardless of geographic dispersion. Let each conference beat itself to hell during the season and let the cream rise to the top and those go onto represent in the national. Yale had a light season last year and got in because the pairwise is weighted to give bonus points for wins against more successful programs and that includes within it’s own conference. If those measurements just look at wins against some of those conferences, then those wins shouldn’t have carried the same weight because as they are assembled today, conferences are not equal, not even close. I’m sure everyone would like to coast in to the nationals with fresh legs and little or no injuries. Anchor all conferences with proven programs, and make sure part of the equation to getting to nationals includes having played enough games. Extra credit for those playing more than the set amount and dbl-extra credit to those who defeat out of conference leaders during the regular season.

  7. Former UND head coach Gino Gasparini, quoted in the Grand Forks Herald today: “It’s a lot tougher to get to the final four today. The difference is that now you have to go through these regionals and they are one-game shots. Anybody can beat anybody. There’s a lot more parity nationally now than there used to be.”

  8. While I enjoyed this article I don’t see the fire hak crowd changing their minds given these or any other facts.

    It’s not that I believe the fire hak folks are incapable of following your logic. I just don’t think many in the fire hak crew are actually UND fans but rather trolls and fans of other teams here simply to stir the pot.

    In reference to what I believe are a very small number of actual fans in the fire hak camp: if they feel that way after the past decade then they aren’t likely changing their minds without an NC.

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