Penguins fire Hlinka after starting year 0-4

Posted: Tuesday, October 16, 2001

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- So much for the Pittsburgh Penguins' European Experiment.

The Penguins fired coach Ivan Hlinka on Monday after an 0-4 start and replaced him with assistant Rick Kehoe, the team's best player before the Mario Lemieux era.

Hlinka, who coached the Czech Republic to the 1998 Olympic gold medal, led Pittsburgh to the Eastern Conference finals in his only full season. But his limited command of English made it difficult for him to communicate with players, and there were questions even last season if he would return.

With the Penguins off to their worst start in 18 years and Hlinka still largely distant from his players, general manager Craig Patrick decided to make a change following a 4-1 loss Sunday in Buffalo.

''We're 0-4, and we can't afford to be 0-5 or 0-6,'' Patrick said. ''We've got a number of young guys who need to learn the game in the NHL and if there's any kind of communication problem, it's going to slow down their progress. At 0-4, we can't afford that, we've got to be at the top of our game as soon as we can.''

Lemieux, the Penguins' player-owner, agreed with Patrick that a change was necessary.

Hlinka ''took it hard,'' Patrick said. ''It was tough on him. He's been in the business a long time and he understands changes have to be made, but he's not happy about it.''

Kehoe, the third-leading scorer in Penguins history behind Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, becomes their fourth coach in three seasons following Kevin Constantine, Herb Brooks and Hlinka.

''I think in the past, he may not have wanted to be a head coach, but now I can sense he wants to be,'' Patrick said. ''The last couple of years, he's become much more assertive, much more outgoing and much more take-charge than before.''

Hlinka had no ties to the Penguins before being hired as associate head coach in February 2000. Kehoe, however, has been a Penguins player or an assistant coach for 27 years, serving under Scotty Bowman, Bob Johnson, Brooks and Patrick, among others.

''I've had the opportunity to work with some great coaches, to watch how they operated,'' Kehoe said. ''Now I've got the opportunity to take over and give it a shot.''

Assistant coach Joe Mullen said Kehoe is ''a hands-on guy'' who ran many practices and meetings and formulated much of the on-ice strategy. Mullen and assistant Randy Hillier will remain on Kehoe's staff.

''Everybody respects Rick, and that's a big part of it,'' Lemieux said.

Kehoe didn't take long to make changes before Tuesday's game against Ottawa. He plans to move Martin Straka and Alexei Kovalev off the second line and onto Lemieux's line, with rookie Kris Beech and Alexei Morozov joining Robert Lang on the second line. Stephane Richer, who had been skating with Beech on Lemieux's line, was dropped to the third line.

The 50-year-old Kehoe played in two All-Star games while scoring 312 goals in 732 Penguins games. He won the Lady Byng trophy for sportsmanship after scoring a career-high 55 goals in 1980-81, then retired in 1985 after 14 seasons.

Kehoe has been with the Penguins so long, this is the second time he has seen a coach fired mostly because of his inability to communicate. Pierre Creamer, who was French-Canadian, was let go for much the same reason in 1988.

Before Lemieux's comeback last season, the Penguins had the most European-dominated roster in the league -- Jagr, Straka, Kovalev, Lang and Darius Kasparaitis among them -- so it seemed natural to bring in a European coach.

But Hlinka had problems from the start, and not just with the English-speaking players. He had several runs-in with the often-moody Jagr, who played for him on the Czech Olympic team. Jagr was traded to Washington during the offseason.

''Sometimes there was miscommunication on the bench and in the locker room, sometimes he (Hlinka) would try to say something and he couldn't say it to the guys because the English wasn't there,'' said Straka, who is also from the Czech Republic. ''But he's a lot better coach than people think.''

Hlinka has this season and next remaining on his $600,000-a-year contract.

Hlinka and the Finnish-born Alpo Suhonen became the NHL's first two European-raised coaches last season, but neither is still in the league. Suhonen, who was criticized for not running a tight ship, wasn't brought back by the Chicago Blackhawks after missing the final seven games last season for medical reasons.

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