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Savran: Hlinka's ouster was sure thing

Saturday, October 20, 2001

Dead man walking. That's what Ivan Hlinka was. Short of winning the Stanley Cup, short of recitations of Shakespeare tripping lightly off his tongue, short of avoiding a losing streak any longer than two, Hlinka wasn't going to finish the season and probably not the calendar year as the head coach of your Pittsburgh Penguins.

Less than an hour after the Penguins were officially eliminated by the New Jersey Devils last season -- anyone who watched the futility on ice in Games 3 and 4 accepted the inevitability -- owner, player and de facto captain Mario Lemieux conducted a news conference in the bowels of Continental Airlines Arena. One of the first questions posed concerned Hlinka's future with the team.

Now, how many times would the employment status of the head coach be an issue on a team that had reached the NHL's equivalent of the Final Four? The issue was raised because it was an issue. Even during the playoff victories against Washington and Buffalo, it was an issue. Maybe it was not openly discussed amongst management's inner sanctum, and certainly it was never raised in public, but it was there, like an ignored elephant sitting on the living room sofa. The seeds of discontent had been sewn long before the dismissal this week.

If the Penguins' doubts were such, why didn't they make the move after the playoffs? I suspect they didn't for three reasons. One, it would have been politically incorrect to fire the coach of a conference finalist, even if they were convinced they made it that far in spite of him, not because of him. Two, the club believed, and still does, that Hlinka's knowledge of the game is beyond reproach. At any level in any country. And third, they were hoping a second season would be a second chance to iron out communication problems and adapt to the nuances and protocol of coaching in the National Hockey League.

Protocol? Before the start of every playoff series, a supervisor of officials meets separately with the competing head coaches. Each has the opportunity to inform said league representative of some of their intended strategies, but mostly to point out the illegal practices (in their view) employed by the opponent. They do so in hopes the on-ice officials will be instructed to watch for such tactics and call appropriate penalties. I'm sure much of it is so biased it goes in one ear and out the other. But if it gives you even the slightest edge, it's worth the few minutes you're afforded to plead your case. In a tightly contested series, it might make a difference.

On the morning of Game 1 of the Penguins-Buffalo series, Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff rattled the eardrums of the league official. When it came time for Hlinka's equal time, he declined. He either didn't comprehend the potential importance of such a meeting or didn't believe it was necessary. That didn't escape the attention of the Penguins' traveling party. Obviously, the Penguins won the series anyway, and I'm not suggesting they might have done so in fewer than seven games had Hlinka lobbied that supervisor. But this is what I mean by perhaps not grasping nuances and protocol.

This all could have been learned in a second-chance season. But when you start 0-4, there isn't time or patience for second chances.

That said, could the bad start have been avoided, considering what was lost in the off-season? I look at Philadelphia getting immediate help from Jan Hlavac and Kim Johnsson, two of the three players acquired in the Eric Lindros deal. I see Bill Muckalt and Zdeno Chara as mainstays in Ottawa, just part of the return for Alexei Yashin. In Buffalo, Slava Kozlov, the price extracted for Dominik Hasek, is paying dividends. Here, you see no immediate return for Jaromir Jagr. The trio received should provide a great deal for years to come, but not yet. How much better might their record be with a contribution from at least one established NHL player?

But even that, in all likelihood, wouldn't have been enough to save Hlinka. If it wasn't the season-opening losing streak, another just like it down the road would have done it. It wasn't a matter of if, but when.

Stan Savran hosts a sports talk show from 8 to 9 p.m. weeknights on WBGG-AM (970).

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