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Columnist Bob Smizik: Relatively speaking, naming Hlinka coach a risk for Penguins

Thursday, June 22, 2000

The case could be made that Ivan Hlinka is one of the five best hockey coaches in the world -- maybe even the best. Hlinka not only coached the Czech Republic to the Olympic gold medal in 1998 -- a stunning upset over an elite field -- but he also has overseen the development of the hockey program of that country to the point where it now ranks as the best in the world.

 

Naming such a man coach of the Penguins might normally fall into the category of no-brainer. But it's far from that, despite the heavy European and Czech influence on the team.

General Manager Craig Patrick is taking a calculated risk by naming Hlinka the successor to Herb Brooks. While there is a school of thought that insists Hlinka's absence of National Hockey League head coaching experience will limit his effectiveness, that is not the largest obstacle to his success.

Hlinka has a distinct problem with the English language, and although that might not sound like a large handicap, it can be monumental.

No team in professional sports should be more aware of that than the Penguins. They need look no further than Pierre Creamer, who coached the team during the 1987-88 season. Despite an excellent resume and a winning record (36-35-9), Creamer was dismissed after one season.

He had major problems with the English language, which led to communication difficulties. His native language was French and, despite a background in the American Hockey League, he was never able to overcome that with the Penguins.

His inability to communicate cost him respect and eventually turned him into somewhat of a buffoon.

Hlinka speaks English no better than Creamer, possible worse.

He had a difficult time at a news conference yesterday announcing his hiring. He frequently failed to grasp even the most basic questions. He would give answers to questions that weren't asked.

Communication is a basic skill in coaching. It's not about dealing with the media, it's about dealing with players, coaches and officials. The language of the NHL is English, and Hlinka needs to speak it better than he does.

Patrick downplayed Hlinka's language problems. "Maybe if he was walking down the streets in Upper St. Clair, it might be a problem," Patrick said. "But he's fully understood in the locker room and he understands what people are saying."

But if English-speaking people are having difficulty understanding Hlinka's English, what about the many players in the Penguins' locker room to whom English is a second language?

Patrick, of course, has a credibility problem when it comes to Hlinka.

When Hlinka joined the Penguins in late February as associate head coach, it was widely believed he would be Brooks successor. But at a news conference shortly after the Penguins were eliminated from the playoffs, Patrick dismissed such talk.

He said: "I'm going to wait until all the dust settles and have our year-ending review with everybody, then make decisions from there. At this point, we haven't made the decision."

But yesterday, Patrick said that as far back as March he realized Hlinka was "the perfect fit" for the Penguins.

In Hlinka's defense, he had just returned from the Czech Republic and had not been speaking English for an extended period. In the vernacular of sports, he was rusty.

But that raises another question: Because the language is so integral to his success and because he seems unwilling to devote the necessary time to grasp it, does Hlinka have the necessary commitment to this job?

Hlinka said he will soon return to the Czech Republic and spend most of the summer there. He said he will be tutored in English while there.

But the coach of the Penguins, particularly this coach, would be better served by spending the summer in Pittsburgh. If he were tutored in English here, he could implement his learning in everyday life. He won't have that opportunity in Europe.

Contrary to what Patrick said, Hlinka is not the perfect fit. He's a bold gamble that could pay off enormously for the Penguins, a team close to excellence.

He's no Pierre Creamer, neither in demeanor nor personality. He's a bright fellow and a giant of the game. But he'd be even bigger if he could master the language of his sport.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.



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