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Madden: Brooks as coach fits updated Penguins

Saturday, February 03, 2001

When the Penguins hired Czech native Ivan Hlinka to be their head coach this past off-season, it seemed like a good idea.

The Penguins were primarily Czech in composition, primarily European in style. Hlinka coached the Czech Republic to Olympic gold in 1998 and had built a reputation as a coaching legend in Europe. He seemed like a man who would have the respect of Jaromir Jagr and thus be a steadying influence on the Penguins' captain. All in all, Hlinka looked like the logical choice to coach the Penguins.

Not anymore.

Mario Lemieux came out of retirement. General Manager Craig Patrick made a flurry of moves to increase the Penguins' toughness. The Penguins are suddenly a lot more North American in both substance and attitude. This isn't the team Hlinka signed on to coach.

So he shouldn't coach it any longer. It's time for the Penguins to bring back Herb Brooks.

Hlinka is an experiment. The Penguins would have never hired Hlinka if the team hadn't been mostly Czech. The Penguins would have never gambled with Hlinka had they been a legitimate championship contender, which they weren't until the day Lemieux announced his comeback.

With Mario back, there's no need to experiment. It's time to win a Stanley Cup.

Hlinka won't necessarily hurt that quest.

But he definitely won't help it.

Hlinka's English is still terrible. A non-Czech Penguin told me that Hlinka hasn't spoken with him once all season. Hlinka often communicates with the Penguins' non-Czechs by using the Czechs as translators, but that's a pretty shabby way to coach a team.

Hlinka is a poor game coach. That was evident in Wednesday's 5-1 home loss to Philadelphia, when the Flyers got practically every line matchup they wanted. That should never happen at Mellon Arena, where the Penguins get last change by grace of being the home team. Hlinka reportedly feels that line matchups are inconsequential, but they weren't Wednesday. Not many centers are as big and strong as Lemieux, but Philadelphia's Keith Primeau is, and he skated against Mario all night.

Hlinka seems to have no regard for -- or knowledge of -- the personnel and tactics of his team's foes. He reportedly just wants his team to play its game. That's idealistic but hardly realistic.

The Penguins have done a good job utilizing certain defensive concepts lately. The tough players have gotten on the ice at the right times. But Lemieux -- an informal player-coach, to be sure -- is probably the guy implementing strategy in those departments. Assistant coaches Rick Kehoe, Joey Mullen and Randy Hillier are doing a good job making up for Hlinka's shortcomings, too.

Hlinka seemed to have minimal commitment to excellence from the moment he got the job. He should have spent this past summer in Pittsburgh, studying the NHL via videotape and improving his command of the English language. He spent the summer in his native Czech Republic instead.

Right now, Hlinka is about as anonymous as a head coach in the NHL can be. He's merely along for the ride.

His reputation might get him respect in Prague, but not in Pittsburgh. Here, results count.

Brooks can help get those results.

Brooks knows how to mesh North American and European styles and players better than any coach available, maybe better than any coach ever. He also knows how to work with stars. The Penguins have the ideal mix for Brooks to guide.

Brooks is still on the Penguins' payroll as their Minnesota scout. Reassign him to Pittsburgh, just like last season when he replaced Kevin Constantine. If you want to let Hlinka save face -- and if you want to let the organization save face for hiring him -- make him and Brooks co-coaches.

Brooks supposedly didn't want to coach anymore after his stint with the Penguins, and it's true that certain elements of the job were driving him crazy. But Lemieux's presence would ensure Brooks a less maddening work environment -- i.e., with Lemieux around, Jagr is easier to handle -- and so would Tom Barrasso's continued absence. And anyway, if Brooks doesn't want to coach anymore, why did he agree to coach the 2002 U.S. Olympic team? That experience will pack more pressure into a couple of weeks than an entire NHL season. I'm certain Brooks would come back to Pittsburgh if his old friend Patrick called.

The Penguins, for better or worse, largely coach themselves. The presence of Lemieux and Jagr guarantees that.

But Brooks could be an inspiring, galvanizing influence. He can communicate. He's an excellent game coach. He knows how to exploit opposition weaknesses, how to smother opposition strengths.

Hlinka seemed like a good pick to coach the Penguins in October.

But these aren't the same Penguins. Experiment over. Bring back Herb Brooks.


Mark Madden's talk show is heard 4-8 p.m. weekdays on WEAEs-AM (1250).

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