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Smizik: Being Penguins coach not easy

Wednesday, October 17, 2001

The Penguins' organization takes great pride, and understandably so, in the fact it has been Pittsburgh's most successful professional sports franchise for more than a decade. Since 1990, the Penguins have won two Stanley Cup championships and participated in the playoffs every year. By comparison, neither the Steelers nor the Pirates has won a championship. The Pirates made the playoffs three times, the Steelers six.

Here's a curious fact about the three teams. While awash in this success, the Penguins have had six coaches (eight if you count two interim appointments). The less-successful Steelers and Pirates have had two and three coaches, respectfully.

It's strange for a team to have that much success and change coaches at the rate of about one every two seasons. The Penguins obviously take a different approach to the coaching situation than do most teams. In most places, 11 consecutive years in the postseason would guarantee job security.

The firing Monday of Ivan Hlinka -- who took the Penguins not only to the playoffs but to the conference championship round last season -- is typical of the Penguins' unique approach and certainly puts in question how long his successor, Rick Kehoe, can stay on the job.

Hlinka is not an easy man to defend. He might be the least sympathetic sports figure in Pittsburgh since Barry Bonds. He never became a personality within the city or even within the team. His inability to handle the language left him at a distinct disadvantage with players, media and fans.

But was he treated fairly by the team?

A serious charge leveled against Hlinka was an inability to communicate because of a lack of English skills.

General Manager Craig Patrick downplayed the language problem, which is understandable. Since Patrick hired Hlinka and was fully aware of his language difficulties, it would look rather foolish for him to use it as a reason for dismissal.

Hlinka was hired as associate head coach under Herb Brooks in February, 2000. In that role, it might be expected he worked closely with Brooks, who is a confidante of Patrick. If there was a language problem, it stands to reason Brooks would have reported it to Patrick. Whether he did or not isn't known. But Patrick felt confident enough about Hlinka's language skills that he named him to succeed Brooks for the 2000-2001 season.

Hiring someone with problems with English and expecting him to communicate well would be like the Steelers hiring a one-legged man and expecting him to be a deep threat as a wide receiver.

Upon being hired, the Penguins made no formal insistence that Hlinka improve his language. He was, in fact, allowed to spend much of the summer before his first season in his native Czech Republic.

After last season's significant overachievement, for which Hlinka received almost no credit, he was told to improve his language skills with formal instruction.

When it was discovered at the start of training camp that he had not, he was openly insubordinate, and speculation about his future, already heavy, intensified.

If the Penguins were going to fire Hlinka, they should have done it then. This would have given a new coach a chance to work with the team in training camp, develop his own style and not have to step into a bad situation dragging an 0-4 record.

Instead, the Penguins opened the season foolishly with what everyone knew was a lame-duck coach. How could Hlinka be expected to get production from a team that knew he would not be around? He was in the same situation Kevin Constantine was before being fired in 1999.

The firing, which Patrick claims didn't enter his mind until the Penguins' record fell to 0-4 Sunday, conveniently places the blame for the poor start on Hlinka. Nothing could be further from the truth.

For starters, Hlinka was given a lesser team to coach this season, a team with serious flaws.

Not only had Jaromir Jagr been traded, but the defensive corps, average at best, had been considerably weakened by the free-agent defection of Bob Boughner and an off-season injury to Janne Laukkanen, from which he has not returned.

Patrick added a couple of journeymen to the defensive corps. What he did not get in the Jagr trade -- and in retrospect this is inexplicable -- was a defenseman who would significantly upgrade the position. It might be expected that a five-time scoring champion could bring a player who would give the team immediate help.

It was a bad way to open the season. When the goaltending was below expectations and when Mario Lemieux missed two of the first four games -- neither of which can be attributed to Hlinka's coaching -- the end was near.

Further proof that coaching the Penguins is a job without a future.

No one knows this better than Kehoe, a first-year head coach who is assisted by two men whose combined coaching experience is less than three years.

Considering this team's history with coaches, he'll be lucky if he finishes the season.

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

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