Wednesday, April 6, 2011

NCAA Coaches and Hockey Canada

Jonathan Toews, Dany Heatley, Andrew Cogliano, Dan Bertram, Jeff Tambellini, David LeNevue, Mike Cammalleri, Dylan Olsen, Mike Van Ryn, Cody Goloubef and Paul Kariya. All past members of Canada's World Junior team who came to the team from the ranks of NCAA hockey. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Canada's roster historically comes from the CHL, collegians have played a key role in the past.

But not behind the bench.

According to Scott Salmond, the Senior Director of Hockey Operations for Hockey Canada, a Canadian born NCAA coach has never been on the staff for a Canadian U20 team.

I can't honestly say that I'm surprised by that but my question is... why?

I think the obvious assumption to make is that the relationship between Hockey Canada and the Canadian Hockey League is so strong that the coaching staff just naturally comes from Major Junior. That is a theory that was more or less confirmed by Hockey Canada when asked to comment.

"We have a very strong partnership with the CHL and we feel we select the best coaches available."

That led me to my next question; "is Hockey Canada open to the idea of having their U20 head coach coming from NCAA hockey in the near future?"

I actually was a bit surprised by the answer this time around.

"There is an application process," Salmond explained, "We would consider any Canadian coach that applies and would make a determination on who is the best coach available."

I can instantly think of four NCAA coaches who it would be easy to argue that they are near, if not at, the top of the "best coach available" list.

The Denver Pioneers are the last college program to win back-to-back National Titles and they have consistenly been a competitive team for at least a decade. George Gwozdecky, from Thunder Bay, Ontario, has been at the helm of the Pioneers since 1994-95 and has helped a plethora of players in their developemnt to eventually reach the NHL. Under Gwozdecky, the Pioneers have not had a sub-.500 season since before the turn of the century. Pretty touch to argue with a track record like that.

Enrico Blasi is one of the top coaches in college hockey and he's only been behind the bench at Miami for 11 seasons now. Since his overhaul of the RedHawks program, Miami's worst season in the last six saw them "floundering" with a winning percentage of just .619. We're seeing more and more RedHawks reaching the NHL like Dan Boyle, Ryan Jones and Tommy Wingels. Blasi is another Ontario product.

The 2011 Frozen Four includes North Dakota and Michigan who both happen to be coached by Canadians.

The legendary Red Berenson leads the Michigan Wolverines to their 11th Frozen Four appearance under his tutelage. The Regina-born coach has helped countless Wolrines on their way to NHL stardom including Mike Cammalleri who was listed at the start of this write up for his own contributions to Hockey Canada. Michigan has qualified for the 16-team national tournament a mind-numbing 21 consecutive seasons, all with Berenson patroling the bench.

Alberta is the home province of Dave Hakstol, the head coach of the North Dakota Fighting Sioux. He's been behind the wheel of the Sioux for just seven seasons but this is their fifth appearance at the Frozen Four. Players who will credit Hakstol in helping them reach their goal of playing in the NHL include Toews, Travis Zajac, Matt Greene, Drew Stafford, Chris Vandevelde, T.J. Oshie, Brian Lee and Taylor Chorney. Not only that but it's largely a directive from Hakstol that so many Canadians are recruited and developed by the Sioux. Half of the players on the UND roster this year are Canadians.

All four of these coaches are more than qualified. I imagine that Berenson, who holds dual citizenship, would be scrutinized by some as being too old and others would argue that since most of the players would still come from the CHL that NCAA coaches wouldn't be familiar enough with the strengths and weaknesses of the team.

I would counter by reminding that since there would be CHL coaches on the staff as well as a 3-week lead-up of camp and exhibition games before the WJC begins, that's not a big concern. As for age, Hockey Canada went with Pat Quinn between NHL gigs with Toronto and Edmonton so there is no reason to think Red Berenson, the former Sports Illustrated cover model who actively deals with this age level all the time, would be any less capable.

So what's standing in the way? Apparently nothing but an application.

"We have not received any applications from [coaches in] the NCAA," was what I was told by Salmond.

But honestly, if one of the above names did express an interest, should we really believe that Hockey Canada would seriously consider someone outside the CHL? Is there really any reason to think a NCAA coach couldn't be successful behind Canada's bench?

"No, there's no reason except politically," said Red Berenson, "I think Major Junior hockey, the CHL, would be really against that. As far as the abilities or the experience level I don't think there is any difference."

So will Berenson be putting his name forward any time soon?

"I would have years ago but I wouldn't now," he said, "It's a great opportunity, it's been a jumping stone. A lot of coaches who were in the World Junior, you look at where they are now and a lot of them have gone up."

But Berenson, who is exactly where he wants to be and doesn't need to "move up" says the others would be great candidates.

"Hakstol would be great, Gwozdecky and Enrico [Blasi], these guys are real cracker jack coaches."

So what about Warburg, Alberta's Dave Hakstol?

"Obviously I would have an interest in doing it," Hakstol told me, "Growing up in Alberta I know the mass importance of that tournament to our country and to all of the young players that are playing. It would be a great honour. I have such a high level of respect for Hockey Canada and the things that they do... I think anybody that has grown up there and been around that would be very proud to have any type of opportunity to be involved with the world junior team."

So does that mean he would be interested in applying for a job on the staff?

"For me it's about building relationships, it's not about one individual coach and definitely not about me," he said, "Definitely if there were ever an opportunity, through an application process or any other process, to be a part of a successful world junior bid... I would definitely want to be a part of that."

To me that means Hakstol would jump at the opportunity just to be a part of the coaching staff, not specifically as the head coach. In the big picture, if a Canadian NCAA coach ever lands a role with the Canadian U20 team, that first time it would more than likely be in an assistant position. It's good to know then that Hakstol is willing to take on that role if he was asked.

Canada has settled for silver the last two times out. Is not the important thing to assemble the best team of players regardless of where they are playing? Why should it be any different with coaches?

Would the relationship between Hockey Canada and the CHL really be strained if there was a NCAA coach on the bench - even as an assistant coach? We're still talking about a Canadian here! Has the recruiting war gotten so out of control that a Canadian NCAA coach is viewed by the CHL as some kind of traitor?

I certainly hope that's not the case. Players asked to check their egos when it comes to the World Junior tournament, should any less be expected of those who assemble the team?

Maybe it's time to consider all the options out there. Maybe it's time to think outside of the CHL box.

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