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Mark's Madness: The case for hiring Eddie Olczyk

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

The hiring of Eddie Olczyk as head coach has the Penguins' faithful emotionally conflicted.

Olczyk is a great ambassador for hockey in Pittsburgh and one of the all-time good guys. Yet there is no logical reason for hiring somebody with zero pro coaching experience to guide a rebuilding process.

You may be rooting for Olczyk.

But you may also have a tough time believing in him.

Olczyk has charisma. But that charisma might be easily shoved to the side if the Penguins are out of playoff contention by Christmas.

If Olczyk fails, you can't blame him. And you certainly can't blame him for taking a job he has publicly coveted since the day it became available.

You can, however, blame Craig Patrick. Do it today. Beat the rush.

The Penguins' general manager underscored a growing reputation as one of the laziest executives in pro sports by conducting a coaching search that was farcical.

It was a search in which Patrick didn't have to look very hard because he only looked at one person. He didn't make the job qualifications too stringent, either. Patrick hired Olczyk because he likes him, period. High school kids do more research when choosing a prom date.

NHL types consider Nashville assistant Brent Peterson a strong possibility to be the next big thing in coaching. Patrick never asked for Nashville's permission to talk to Peterson.

Patrick just doesn't consider coaching important. Never has. He thinks players win games, and that coaches can only stir the drink bad. There might have been something to that attitude when the NHL had fewer teams. But with 30 teams in the league and the accompanying dilution of talent, success in the NHL hinges on coaching and goaltending and little else.

Olczyk's hiring was reminiscent of Pitt hiring Jamie Dixon as basketball coach. Patrick didn't want to ask someone who might say no. So Patrick asked someone who would definitely say yes.

Patrick must make two more key hires, namely a top assistant for Olczyk and a head coach for the Penguins' Wilkes-Barre/Scranton minor-league team. Those decisions are as crucial as the selection of Olczyk.

Olczyk wants former Chicago bench boss Lorne Molleken to be his top assistant, feeling his experience will help. But if experience is important, why isn't Molleken the Penguins' new head coach? And does Olczyk realize that he's asking the Penguins to hire his potential successor?

If it's possible for Patrick's job to be on the line, it is now.

If Olczyk fails -- if the Penguins don't improve as a team and as individuals -- then Patrick must take the blame and pay the price. What means more, past accomplishments and tenure or the continued pursuit of excellence? That's a question owner Mario Lemieux may have to answer at some point.

All that said, Olczyk is a marvelous hire in some respects.

Olczyk is excellent with the fans and media. His presence behind the bench might actually sell a few extra tickets. He is a tremendous motivator. He had a very good playing career, which means he automatically has the respect of the players. Olczyk was a star, a role player and all things in between, which means he will appreciate and understand every player on the roster. As a first-year coach, Olczyk is undoubtedly working cheap.

Biggest pro: Hair is perfect. I once saw Edzo drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic's.

Second-biggest pro: Gives great horse-racing tips.

Biggest con: Occasionally speaks of himself in the third person. Stop that!

Second-biggest con: Once played for the hated New York Rangers.

Perhaps we should be happiest for Olczyk because he no longer has to participate in the abject nightmare that is televised Penguins hockey on Fox. Olczyk has more of a stake in the results of games now, but I guarantee it's going to hurt less on the bench than it did in the booth.

The privilege of working with the great Mike Lange was undoubtedly offset by having to hype such tripe as the "sammitch of the game," the "late-night goal," the "drive of the game," etc. How does hockey have a "drive of the game?" It's not football. Oh, wait, I get it. When you desperately need a car sponsor, you run down logic like a dog in the road.

Yo, Fox: A broadcast cluttered with nonsense makes more fans switch channels than a bad team ever could. Make the broadcast better, and your ratings will go up. Heck, they have no other way to go.

The Penguins should start making decisions based on Olczyk's primary qualities. Olczyk's motivational skills would be lost on someone who doesn't speak English. So don't draft some sneaky Russian with the third pick overall in the NHL draft this weekend. Assuming that Quebec league goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is gone by then, take center Eric Staal from the Ontario League.

Staal would benefit immediately from working with Olczyk, who may not have coaching experience but does have experience at being the third pick overall (in 1984). Staal is considered a future NHL captain and perhaps the safest pick among the very top prospects.

Looking down the road, there probably will be a lengthy NHL labor dispute in 2004. Make Olczyk head coach at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for as long as the dispute lasts. Let Olczyk keep learning his craft while working with the Penguins' top minor-league prospects.

Hiring Olczyk instead of some video-happy, systems-crazed Mussolini may not be the best thing for the Penguins, but it does bode well for the potential return of Lemieux as a player. Lemieux would probably feel comfortable playing for Olczyk.

Each day that passes makes Lemieux's return more likely. The worst decision Lemieux could make regarding ticket sales would be to wait a long time, then decide to retire. Well, we're coming up on "a long time" right now, and Lemieux isn't stupid.

Olczyk commuted from his home in Chicago during his time as a Penguins broadcaster. As coach, however, he'll be living in Pittsburgh. That's good. Scotty Bowman's refusal to move to Pittsburgh from Buffalo caused him to miss many practices during his time as Penguins coach and was much more of a factor behind Bowman being "barred" from practice than player petulance.

Give Olczyk credit for having guts. Broadcasters don't often get fired. Coaches almost always do. Job security is what keeps ESPN's Barry Melrose behind a microphone instead of a bench. Anyone with the confidence to leave a career where he was considered an up-and-coming star to begin a new career where his credentials are immediately being questioned certainly has the fortitude necessary to coach.

Now, all Ed Olczyk has to do is win. Hey, it's impolite to laugh.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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