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Brother Karsh's Column for LetsGoPens.com

How Falls The Sky

October 16, 2001

Monarchies are a funny thing. Usually they're not very good for a country, yet they can last for generations. How? Common enemies.

The key to being an effective king lies in appearing benevolent and deftly deflecting the heat. The goal is to keep your court and country in your corner, and to always find somebody else to take the fall.

Today the draw bridge is up and the funeral pyre consumes the coaching career of Ivan Hlinka in Pittsburgh.

Never mind that ninety-five percent of the season remains, in the revolving culture of immediacy America thrives on, it's now that matters, and right now, the Penguins are pathetic.

It's not that they're losing, it's that they don't even appear to be trying. Was Head Coach Ivan Hlinka really to blame? No, but he wasn't helping, and there's an old saying about somebody who's not part of the solution.

Hlinka didn't roll four lines of forwards, didn't make adjustments during games, mishandled talent, couldn't communicate well in English, and refused to admit any of it. But none of this excuses the insulting, xenophobic, and jingoistic calls for his head on a plate.

Ivan Hlinka was fired because someone needed to be fired. Period. He wasn't fired because he's incompetent, because he "can't speak English," or because he "thinks in Czech," whatever that means. Ivan Hlinka was fired because the team he coached to the Eastern Conference Finals last season became a league doormat within the span of a single off-season.

With his success on the international stage and the aura of reverence that surrounds him, it's tough to suggest Hlinka is anything less than a great hockey mind, and things would have surely been different if that mind had ever truly acclimated itself to the National Hockey League. But that's not why Hlinka was asked to come to Pittsburgh, and that's not why he was asked to leave.

Originally, Hlinka was brought in to corral the petulance of the game's greatest player. This worked for about half a season. Now that player is gone, and while it can rightfully be said that Hlinka lost the team, it should also be noted that he did so in large part because this team entered the season willing to let themselves be lost.

With the influx of youth, the injuries to both Hans Jonsson and Janne Laukkanen on defense, and Jagr in D.C., it should have been obvious that the Penguins could struggle early. Although few people could have guessed that the adjectives to best describe the Penguins' play would border on profane.

The Penguins are offensively impotent, defensively inept, and they're getting worse by the game. No longer does 0-19 just reference Barry Bonds in post-season baseball, it personifies the Penguins' power play through four entire contests.

Sadly, this situation puts new Head Coach Rick Kehoe behind the eight-ball, with no training camp to instill his own system and little latitude to lose many games, but such is the way life goes.

Maybe this is Kehoe's reward for being with the club since 1974, and maybe he'll make the most of it. But even he has to know who will get the credit if he can shoulder this weight, who will take the fall if he can't.

Thankfully there is always a bright side in every situation. In this case it's that the Penguins need to improve in every single area of the game. Congratulations, Chico, it's all uphill from here.

On top of which, Kehoe will endure this trial by fire enveloped by the constant speculation that he is only keeping the bench warm for a coach to be named later. Perhaps he is, but it's tough to imagine what coach in their right mind would take this job knowing that no coach has had the last word in Pittsburgh for nearly a decade.

There is a short list of usual suspects, Pat Burns, Ted Nolan, Bryan Trottier, even Kevin Constantine and Mike Keenan, but all would want far more control and ask for far more discipline than the Penguins have ever been willing to give.

No, it will almost assuredly have to be someone from within the organization to fill this void and today that answer is Rick Kehoe. Somebody who's done everything the organization's ever asked for may not deserve to be put in this position, but a promotion's a promotion, and the masses seem to be mollified for the moment.

Still the question remains, will this even come close to solving the real problem with this team. Coaching is a means, not an end, and only time will produce the kind of familiarity and consistency currently absent from all but the second line. Only experience will turn youngsters like Kris Beech, Milan Kraft, and Toby Petersen into reliable NHL performers. It isn't a matter of 'if' the Penguins can play better, but when, and this would have been true whether the man behind the bench was Ivan Hlinka or Ivan Lendl.

Yet, perhaps even more than how much better the Penguins can be, this hiring will also test the question of how long the players will give a new coach their undivided attention before they consider giving up on him like they did on the two that preceded him. Today the Penguins and their fans stand behind Rick Kehoe as they would have stood behind any coach, from the legendary Scotty Bowman to some random peanut vendor from section F. Still, in the back of the mind, there is that question which can't help but wonder, at what point will this monarchy sing "God Save The Queen," without crossing its fingers and thinking, "God, save us all." At what point should they stop leading lambs to the slaughter before somebody takes a step back and considers that the enemy here may not live beyond the castle walls, it may reside within.

Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com and feels that Ivan Hlinka is a great coach who should have been relieved from duty the day Jaromir Jagr was traded. Although, Brother Karsh also feels that if he were in charge, he would currently be coaching the Penguins to a 4-0 start and the whole discussion would be moot.

Back to Karsh's Column List


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