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Madden: It's right time to unload Hlinka

Saturday, October 13, 2001

I've watched hockey for 33 years, and I've never seen anything like it.

In hockey, the home team gets last change of personnel, giving the home coach the chance to seize favorable line matchups. I've often seen a referee wave a tardy line change back to the visiting bench in order to preserve the home team's legislated edge.

But Wednesday night at Mellon Arena, officials waved several line changes back to the home bench. The changes were made so ridiculously late that the refs negated them -- not to maintain either side's advantage, but to keep the game from being unnecessarily delayed.

That's what happens when your coach can't speak English. When he can't quickly translate and articulate his thoughts. That's what happens when your coach is Ivan Hlinka.

Penguins personnel used harsh words to evaluate the situation on the bench during the 6-3 loss Wednesday to the New York Islanders, the Penguins' third consecutive defeat to open the season.

"Total chaos," said one. Another was heard using an obscene term for, well, total chaos.

Check out this indictment: "By the time Hlinka figures out what to say, it's too late. It's already time to say something else."

It's not going to get any better. Ivan the Horrible just can't speak English. He listened to tapes this past summer, and his conversational English off the rink is better. But Hlinka obviously can't think in English, which is essential to quick verbalizing and adjusting on the bench. He thinks in Czech, translates his thoughts into English, then sees his line change get waved back to the bench.

Hlinka's meager attempts to improve his English this past summer, of course, were in direct defiance of management, which told him to take formal training. Better yet, Hlinka could have spent the whole off-season in Pittsburgh, a situation that would have forced him to speak English on a daily basis, which is the best way to learn.

Hlinka also could have spent some time this past summer watching tapes of the Penguins' slaughter at the hands of New Jersey in the Stanley Cup semifinal last season. That might have reminded him of the importance of rolling four lines, a concept he's already forgotten.The game Wednesday saw fourth-liners Dan LaCouture, Toby Petersen and Krzyzstof Oliwa play just seven, six and two minutes, respectively.

Or maybe Ivan the Horrible could have taken a moment to reconsider the concept of his stars killing penalties, something that wears them out and hasn't proven effective.

Is it Hlinka's fault that the Penguins have started poorly? No, not totally. But will it be his doing if/when they straighten things out? No. Having Hlinka on the bench is too often the equivalent of playing without a coach. When a coach can't communicate quickly and precisely, he is merely a spectator.

Hlinka's obvious lack of concern for excelling at his job is maybe the most maddening thing about the Penguins' coaching situation. He's been a head coach in the best league in the world for over a year, but Hlinka still doesn't speak English or understand many of the NHL's necessities and nuances. That's his fault, and nobody else's.

Luckily, the situation is easily remedied. Fire Ivan Hlinka. But do it in Czech, or he might not understand. He could wind up unnecessarily hanging around the rink for a couple of days.

If Hlinka does get canned -- and that day will come a lot sooner than it will later -- he almost certainly will be replaced by assistant coach Rick Kehoe, a member of the Penguins' staff for 14 seasons. The quiet, reserved Kehoe doesn't seem dynamic enough to be the boss, but players say he's a quality motivator and his reputation for teaching young players is well-known. Kehoe certainly knows the Penguins' way of doing things and has the respect of everyone in the organization.

Kehoe speaks fluent English. That alone makes him a better choice than Hlinka.

If Kehoe isn't the choice, assistant general manager Eddie Johnston might return for his third tour of duty behind the club's bench. E.J. is widely regarded as an excellent game coach. Penguins scout Herb Brooks might figure into the coaching mix at some point, but not until after he finishes coaching the U.S. Olympic hockey team at the Salt Lake City Winter Games in February.

Hlinka will be remembered as an experiment gone woefully awry; as a European coach who didn't understand -- or chose to ignore -- the differences in the way hockey is played on this continent; as a pathetic comedy figure, Pierre Creamer with a different accent; as the worst hire ever made by General Manager Craig Patrick.

It's easy to feel sorry for Hlinka, clearly a stranger in a strange land. But that sympathy is tempered by the knowledge that he's done little to remedy his own predicament.

Anyway, fire him. It's time to bounce a Czech. Total chaos should not reign on the Penguins bench for one second longer.

Mark Madden's talk show is heard from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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