Consider Dave Hakstol’s face. It is a fine face – dark eyes, narrowing chin, smooth skin weathered just enough that he is boyish but not overly so. If he told you he was 49, which he is, you would not be surprised, but you would still say he looks good for his age. He has that blond-streaked hair, with that off-center part, that makes him resemble the actor Matthew Modine. As faces go, you’d take Dave Hakstol’s, which is why it’s strange that his face is such an abundant source of criticism for the Flyers coach.
It’s not what’s on Hakstol’s face that is the problem. It’s what isn’t. He does not scream. He does not shout. He does not gesticulate or grind his teeth or machine-gun a string of F-bombs at anyone. He doesn’t do any of these things during a game, and he doesn’t do any of them while answering questions from the media after a game. Sometimes, he glares, but only sometimes. When he is behind the bench, his face is a mask most of the time: emotionless, implacable, his mouth a tiny straight line.
If it is unfair and incorrect to say that Hakstol is universally disliked among Flyers fans, it’s just as wrong to suggest that he is beloved. He is not, and the Flyers’ overall performance since his hiring – three mediocre regular seasons, two playoff appearances, and zero postseason-series victories – is only part of the reason. Fans, more than anything, want to feel as if they’re along for the ride with their favorite teams, and Hakstol doesn’t open the roller coaster’s car door and lower the safety bar for anyone.
People here like to know that their coaches care. More accurately, they demand that their coaches appear to care. It was why they loved Buddy Ryan’s cutting and cruel one-liners about his own players and his empty braggadocio during his tenure with the Eagles, and it was why many went gaga for Larry Bowa’s twitchiness and tirades while he was managing the Phillies. They love the sound and fury, even if it signifies absolutely nothing, and Hakstol doesn’t even give it to them. He represents the antithesis of that approach, much as Andy Reid did. He is not Peter Laviolette or Ken Hitchcock, former Flyers coaches who laid themselves bare on the bench at the slightest provocation.
After general manager Ron Hextall hired him in 2015, for instance, Hakstol spent some time surveying the Flyers’ culture, in the locker room and during games, and decided that if anything, he said, “there was some wasted emotion, some misdirected emotion. I thought that’s one thing we needed to work at correcting early on. I’m pretty guarded by nature. I know when the TV camera is on me. … I’m going to do what I think is right for our team and provide what our team needs, and it’ll never be for show in front of a camera or anybody else.”
There’s an argument that it would benefit the Flyers if Hakstol were more demonstrative, if during games he didn’t project all the personality of a scrap of No. 4 sandpaper. Would they have gotten off to faster starts throughout the regular season if he weren’t so stoic? Would the Flyers have played better during their six-game first-round loss to the Penguins if Hakstol had shown more anger and frustration?
Perhaps, but that’s hardly a formula for building staying power over a season, a playoff series, or even a single game. Often, that early energy and intensity turn out to be nothing more than a sugar rush, and once the inevitable crash results, a team’s success or failure comes down to the talent it has and the system it plays.
That’s why much, though not all, of the criticism levied at Hakstol is just noise. The players themselves have affirmed that he isn’t so placid with them when the public’s eyes aren’t prying, and the Flyers aren’t yet at a stage in their collective development when it’s reasonable to expect them to go toe-to-toe with the NHL’s elite teams. Hakstol could exhibit all the great histrionics in hockey – break a stick over the boards, go full-Sam Kinison during a timeout – and it won’t turn Dale Weise into a top-line forward or stop Radko Gudas from burping up the puck near the blue line.
“He’s a demanding coach,” Hextall said. “He demands a lot of our players. He demands effort, and he does it behind closed doors. He doesn’t embarrass our players. I don’t look at that as a negative. Calling out a player in the media? Really? Is that the right way to go about things? I, personally, don’t think so.
“He’s not a showman. He’s not an actor. He’s real.”
Isn’t that what you want in a coach? In the choice between the veneer of authenticity and the real thing, do you really want the former just because it feels better? No, none of this means Dave Hakstol is destined to lead the Flyers to a Stanley Cup. It just means there are more meaningful standards by which to judge him, instead of merely by what you see, or don’t see, on his face.