The Dakota Rapids entered this season full of optimism. Having made their high-flying offense even stronger and tightened up their leaky defense, the Rapids were widely picked to challenge the defending champion Anchorage Igloos for the Western title. Instead, the Rapids find themselves floundering in .500 purgatory for the second straight season, well behind both Anchorage and the first-place Michigan Gray Wolves. According to team sources, coach Harold Engellund may soon pay with his job if Dakota can’t execute a quick turnaround.
Engellund always seemed like an odd fit for the Rapids. In his playing days, Engellund was a burly enforcer known as “Harry the Hit Man,” and he makes no secret of his fondness for physical, hard-hitting hockey. The Rapids, a team built around speed and finesse, are the polar opposite of Engellund’s preferred brand of hockey. But according to team sources, it’s not the clash in styles that has proved problematic; rather, the coach seems too fond of his players to discipline them.
“I never thought I’d be saying this,” said one team executive, “but Harry the Hit Man has gone soft on the guys. He really likes them, and thinks of them like his kids. That’s the problem. He likes them too much to drive them hard.”
The Dakota front office was particularly disappointed with Engellund after a surprising 5-4 loss to expansion Seattle last week. The Rapids appeared sloppy and disorganized, allowing three goals in the first period and surrendering the deciding goal on a 3-on-1 rush with less than five minutes left in the game. The front office figured the loss would be a good opportunity for the coach to lay down the law and warn his players to get it in gear.
Instead, Engellund’s postgame remarks were strangely subdued. He didn’t call out any of his players, remarking that Seattle was “better than we thought they were.” He didn’t shake up his lines or make his players take extra practice.
“He treated it like just another loss,” said the same team executive. “If you’re going to be a contending team, these are the games you’ve got to win. But he’s not displaying any urgency, and neither is the time. This is the time to challenge the players and say, ‘Hey, you’re better than this.’ But he won’t do it.”
Engellund defended his approach in a postgame press conference after Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to Anchorage. “Nobody I know ever did a better job because someone was screaming at them and telling them they’re lousy,” the coach said. “I know when I was a player, a lot of coaches took that approach, ‘cause they thought it made them look tough. But if you’ve got to scare your players into playing hard, you’re not really coaching.
“I could stand up here and pound the podium and yell and scream and throw my players under the bus, but I’m not gonna do that. Are we playing as well as we’d like to? No. But pounding my chest and making my guys run extra laps isn’t gonna fix anything.”
Engellund’s supporters believe that the front office’s disenchantment stems from another source: an ongoing power struggle over the team’s future in net. According to these sources, Rapids executives are pushing Engellund to give more playing time to 22-year-old goalie prospect Christien Adamsson, a native South Dakotan who could potentially spur ticket sales. The coach, on the other hand, prefers veteran Jesse Clarkson, believing he gives the team a better chance to win.
“They’re using the team’s record as an excuse to push [Engellund] out,” said a source with ties to the coach. “After they get rid of him, they can say that the team’s too far behind to compete and that it’s a rebuilding year, and they can get a new coach who will play Adamsson more.”
Engellund declined to comment on those rumors, but did say, “I pick my starters on merit, and nothing else.”
One thing that both sides agree on: If the Rapids don’t show significant improvement by midseason, Engellund is likely to be dismissed. That gives the coach and his players only a couple weeks to execute a turnaround.
“We’ll just have to see what happens,” said Engellund.