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NCAA coaches are getting a foothold in the NHL

For years the NHL was rather barren when it came to hiring coaches with college pasts, but the state of the game is dictating more of a development approach

When new Dallas Stars coach Jim Montgomery started to contact his players, he went to the phones first. But after a couple conversations with European guys, he realized he would much rather talk to them face-to-face. So with GM Jim Nill’s blessing, Montgomery headed off to Sweden and Finland to make the rounds. He got a lot more out of the experience.

Montgomery is part of a cohort of NHL bench bosses that were drawn from the NCAA ranks. He made his name at the University of Denver, winning a national championship with the Pioneers and helping develop talent such as Will Butcher, Troy Terry and Henrik Borgstrom. He was recently joined by former Boston University coach David Quinn, who is now in charge of the New York Rangers, bringing the number of ex-college coaches in the NHL up to five. Detroit’s Jeff Blashill, New Jersey’s John Hynes and Philadelphia’s Dave Hakstol round out the crew, who represent the most NCAA/NHL coaches ever in the history of the league.

So what’s with the shift? Given how many NHL players are now coming out of the college ranks (32 percent, according to College Hockey Inc., an NCAA advocacy group), it only makes sense that NHL franchises go to where the talent is being developed.

“With ‘Hak,’ I like how well-rounded he is as a coach and a person,” said Flyers GM Ron Hextall, who hired Hakstol in 2015. “I like the discipline he instills in his group and I like how his teams come together.”

As a nice illustration, Hakstol’s Flyers dropped only one game in regulation in the final 11 contests of this season to nab a playoff spot.

Dallas is hoping to get back into the post-season in 2018-19 and Montgomery’s structure should help that quest. Coming from the college ranks also gives him a unique advantage in forging relationships with young NHLers, since he’s been working with players in their early twenties (and teens) for years now. For the Stars, that should be great news for kids like Julius Honka and Miro Heiskanen, to name a couple.

“Most NHL teams have seven or eight players in that age range now,” Montgomery said. “You have to develop them because of the salary cap.”

Perhaps there was an aversion to hiring college coaches in the past because the NCAA schedule is rather sparse compared to the NHL or major junior, but the allure of running a college program could have played a role, too. Quinn noted in his opening press conference that the Rangers were the only reason he would have left Boston U. and it’s been pretty common to see coaches lord over an NCAA team for decades, from Red Berenson at Michigan to Jerry York at Boston College. Before Quinn ran the Terriers, Jack Parker was Boston U.’s head coach for nearly 40 years.

“You’re the coach, GM and scout for the team - it’s your baby,” Montgomery said. “It’s not an easy decision to leave.”

Now, it seems the gate has opened and the college route is just another route for a coach to take into consideration.

“You have to have a track record of developing players,” Hextall said. “And you have to look at the coach’s style and ask if it will work with professional players. ‘Hak’ treated his players (at North Dakota) like pros, not like kids.”

So who’s next? Minnesota-Duluth’s Scott Sandelin seems like the next candidate. Sandelin has two national titles in eight years, plus a propensity for developing defensemen with the Bulldogs. And the other big frontier is Europe. Hextall believes that coach would need an experienced assistant because of the change in rink size and how that might affect tactics, but sees it happening eventually (Rikard Gronborg would be my first choice).

In the meantime, we’ll get a chance to see what Montgomery and Quinn can do with their first opportunities as NHL head coaches. The last ex-Division 1 college coach to win the Stanley Cup was ‘Badger’ Bob Johnson with Pittsburgh in 1991 - seems like an NCAA product is about due for another.


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