Why Dave Hakstol’s jump from college to pros is a rare coaching move

Legendary NCAA hockey coach Jack Parker is watching Flyers bench boss Dave Hakstol take the chance he never did by jumping from the college ranks to the pros. 
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Legendary Boston University men’s hockey coach Jack Parker was offered a chance to coach an NHL team three times during his time with the Terriers. On all three occasions, he declined.

Parker, who finished his 40-year career third on the NCAA’s all-time wins list with 897, all at BU, ultimately preferred to remain at the collegiate level.

“[Then-Boston Bruins general manager] Harry Sinden offered me the head coaching job in 1997, and I was very close to taking it,” Parker said in a recent telephone interview. “I thought a lot about it. But I realized what a nice gig I had [at BU]. I didn’t want to give it up.” 

Now Parker is keeping a watchful eye as another former collegiate head coach, Dave Hakstol, who is in his first season as the bench boss of the Philadelphia Flyers after leading the University of North Dakota for 11 years. 

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In sports like basketball and football, it has become increasingly common to see successful college coaches jump to the professional ranks: Nick Saban, Billy Donovan, Fred Hoiberg, Rick Pitino and Lane Kiffin are some of the most notable names to toil in both ranks. Yet when the Flyers hired Hakstol, 47, on May 17, 2015, he became just the fourth to ever go from NCAA hockey to the NHL. 

What makes hockey different? Everyone has his or her reason for accepting or declining a job, but according to Parker, many college coaches simply do not want to leave a familiar and comfortable environment where they own final say on team decisions. 

“When I was the head coach at BU, I was the head coach and the GM,” Parker said. “In the pros, you’re just the head coach. You’re not running the whole show. That was something that wasn’t to my liking, and I know other coaches feel the same way.” 

Parker was offered his first pro coaching gig in the mid-1970s by his old friend, and ex-BU head coach, Jack Kelley, who served as the first coach of the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association. He wanted Parker take over for him so he could focus solely on his other job as the team’s general manager. 

But Parker was still young then, having only started as head coach at BU in 1973. The thought of coaching players his age or older factored into his decision to turn down the opportunity. Parker did not receive another pro offer until roughly 20 years later, when he was presented with the Bruins job for the first time in 1991 and again in 1997. 

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Parker admitted he would have “liked to have seen that first check” from the Bruins had he taken the job, but lucrative opportunities are not always common for coaches who are looking to move on from the college ranks.

If a coach wants to coach professionally, often times they end up in the AHL or another minor league system to start, according to Parker. Those jobs often carry less salary than some college positions, making the decision to move even harder. 

Another reason centers on player relationships. In college, coaches can create special bonds with their players that endure for years: Players return to campus in the off-season to train or tutor the next generation, and some even slide next to their coach on the bench when their playing careers are over to try their hand at the trade. 

But those relationships don’t always come in the NHL, and if they do, they are not achieved easily. Professional players can have professional egos, according to Parker, and college coaches may not want to add managing a locker room of strong personalities to their already busy checklist.  

“Most superstars are superstars because they play hard, but their are egos there,” Parker says. “Managing those egos is the most difficult part of the job.”  

On paper, Hakstol has the numbers to be a successful NHL coach. He compiled a 289-143-43 record at North Dakota, and his teams earned a spot in the NCAA tournament every year, including seven trips to the Frozen Four. His former charges include Travis Zajac, Drew Stafford, T.J. Oshie, Jonathan Toews, Brock Nelson, Derek Forbort and more.

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But history shows that collegiate success does not always translate to the pros. Ned Harkness left Cornell after winning two national titles to coach the Detroit Red Wings in 1970. He lasted just 38 games in the NHL ranks, compiling a dismal 12-22-4 record before being replaced midway through the 1970-71 season. 

Herb Brooks coached four NHL teams in seven seasons after leaving the University of Minnesota in 1981, but finished his professional career with 219-222-66 mark, having never made it past the second round of the playoffs in five chances.  

The last coach to jump from college to the NHL was also arguably the most successful: “Badger Bob” Johnson won more than 230 games and the Stanley Cup during his six seasons with Calgary and Pittsburgh after leaving the University of Wisconsin in 1982.

It’s clearly too early to predict how Hakstol’s NHL career will turn out. But regardless of the level of success Hakstol achieves, Parker believes his jump from college to the NHL could be the beginning of a new trend.

“I think (that move) is going to happen more often. Most guys have the talent (to coach professionally),” Parker says. “A lot will depend on how Dave does. But I think more and more coaches, particularly the young guys, have their eyes on going pro. The greatest coaching in the world is happening in the NHL. It wouldn’t surprise me to see more coaches go there.”