When University of North Dakota hockey players found out coach Dave Hakstol was leaving last May, they were admittedly nervous. How can you replace a well-respected figure who just took his team to a conference title and was hired away to become the head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers?
"You're a little scared of what might happen," forward Drake Caggiula said.
That uncertainty was quickly replaced with stability and, eventually, more victories. The school didn't even wait a full day before replacing Hakstol with longtime assistant Brad Berry — though Berry had never been a head coach at any level.
Eleven months later, the move has clearly worked. Berry's Fighting Hawks have the most wins in the country and are back in this week's Frozen Four, where they will compete at Amalie Arena for the program's eighth national championship (and first since 2000).
"There was a transition process," said Berry, a former defenseman who spent parts of eight seasons in the NHL. "…In saying that, knowing how we do things here, the type of players we bring to North Dakota, there was kind of a seamless transition in that regard."
And for that, the 51-year-old Berry has his players and staff to thank.
The Fighting Hawks' coaching and support staffs were almost entirely intact after Hakstol left for the NHL. Berry played for the school from 1983-86 and had spent nine seasons as an assistant coach. He knew North Dakota's hard-nosed identity could succeed after helping it reach the Frozen Four five times, so he made no significant changes to the program's overall philosophy or systems.
Berry understood the players' strengths and weaknesses, so there were no initial growing pains; the Fighting Hawks lost only one of their first 13 games.
"By being here a number of years beforehand, you could see what has given us success and things that have worked and haven't worked," Berry said. "You know the personnel inside and out."
And the players knew him, too, which is why captain Gage Ausmus said the team was relieved when they found out Berry was being promoted. Berry already had the respect of the locker room, even if his personality was completely different from his predecessor's. Hakstol, Ausmus said, was so intense that players feared making a mistake.
"Coach Berry, you like him so much, you don't want to let him down," Ausmus said.
So far, the players haven't done that often. The Fighting Hawks enter Thursday's 8:30 p.m. national semifinal against Denver with a 32-6-4 record.
Berry admitted the jump to head coach came with a few bumps. His responsibilities were larger and different. He was now charge of the lineups, and Ausmus said Berry's speeches steadily improved throughout the season. He had to figure out how to help 11 freshmen acclimate, then figure out how to adapt when both of his scholarship goaltenders were injured three games into the season.
"That's something you don't usually see or want to see as a first-year head coach," Berry said.
But Berry's team recovered then, and they recovered from a loss in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference semifinals last month. The Fighting Hawks outscored their opponents 11-4 in the Midwest Region to make it back to the Frozen Four and earn a sixth game against Denver. The teams split the previous five meetings 2-2-1.
Caggiula said North Dakota's coaching transition has been flawless because Berry kept his and the team's personality intact.
"Once he stepped in as head coach, nothing changed about him," said Caggiula, who is second on the team with 21 goals and 25 assists. "He's still the exact same person. He's still an approachable guy. … He just had a new title."
And the same sustained success.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.