The Toronto Maple Leafs’ loss is the hockey world’s gain.
In May 2020, Jack Han and the Toronto Marlies agreed to part ways. Since then, the ex-Marlies Assistant Coach and Maple Leafs Hockey Operations Assistant has published a book, Hockey Tactics 2020, and started the Hockey Tactics Newsletter for fans interested in winning hockey’s finer points.
“I think there really is a thirst for talking more intelligently about tactics to the average fan,” Han told The Athletic.
Just as interesting as Han’s hockey insights is the story of his unlikely rise to some of hockey coaching and management’s highest echelons.
Han was born in Tianjin, China in 1989. In 1996, his family immigrated to Montreal, where Han was first exposed to the sport.
However, considering the sacrifices that his parents made to get to North America, they didn’t quite understand their son’s very Western career pursuits.
“My parents were really supportive and they’re proud of me. They were always very caring and attentive to what I was doing. But sports was just not in our culture, right?” Han recalled. “So they would make these weird comments like you should be focused on your studies because what’s this going to lead to? There’s no point in doing this.
“The more serious issue is, for first-generation immigrants, this is just so far out of the realm of possibilities.”
Han, however, refused to cap his own ceiling, going from Digital Content Coordinator for the Montreal Canadiens to Video & Analytics Coordinator for McGill University’s women’s hockey team to behind the bench for the Toronto Marlies.
San Jose Hockey Now caught up with the 31-year-old to talk about the admiration for former San Jose Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer expressed in his new book, the lack of visible role models in hockey for people of Asian origin, how women’s hockey icons became his most important role models, and why he donated his Calder Cup ring to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
This is Part 1 of a two-part interview with Han. Part 2 will be subscribers-only: Han will share his thoughts on what’s right (and wrong) with Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
SP: In your book, you expressed a lot of admiration for Peter DeBoer. How would you assess his work in San Jose? Many Sharks fans weren’t so enamored with him.
JH: The success that he had kind of speaks for itself.
In my book’s bonus chapter with Ken Hitchcock, he had a lot of admiration for DeBoer, the way that he’s able to maximize his best players. We’re talking about Ilya Kovalchuk in New Jersey. Back in 2012 when they want to the Final and Kovalchuk was playing almost 30 minutes some nights.
One of the reasons why DeBoer was able to get so much out of Kovalchuk or Thornton or Pavelski or Couture, he deploys his players by zones. He has players who start a lot of D-zone shifts, for example, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, a great defensive defenseman. He has players who start a lot of O-zone shifts like Thornton or Couture or Pavelski.
That very specific division of labor allows him to get more out of this players and puts them in situations where they’re especially good.
SP: For me, the prime example of DeBoer using his stars to the max was Brent Burns.
When Pete came to San Jose, Todd McLellan’s staff had a lot of questions about having Brent play defense. Brent is not a traditional defenseman in a lot of ways, he’s very risk-oriented player.
Pete put Brent in a place where he could take risks and not be afraid of being punished. Some times, those risks blew up in their face, but by and large, it was a positive. Even changing the offense to highlight Brent’s point shot, even though for most teams, the point shot isn’t offensively optimal. But on this team, with a Joe Pavelski for example, who rolls to the net so hard plus has the hands to tip any shot, this was a successful.
JH: Yeah. And what I can say is, from experience, whatever you do as a coach, there is always going to be someone criticizing.
There are basically no correct answers. So we’re trying to avoid the least correct answer.
I think the way that coaches should be evaluated by fans or by media, it’s not by the number of mistakes that they made, but by their overall, can they get the big things right?
It’s the same as running a business. If you get the big things right, then you might leave some money on the table, but the business works. Whereas if you do the small things right, but then the big things are off, the business goes bankrupt.
SP: Moving onto to your story, can you talk about some of the general challenges that you faced being a Chinese-Canadian at some of the highest levels of hockey?
JH: I didn’t face any kind of overt discrimination coming up through the ranks in hockey. But it was more overcoming the initial lack of support, people to look up to. Basically, nobody has been on this journey, whether it’s in my family and in the Chinese community, or even when you look at the type of career path I had just in general, right? Who goes from writing for an NHL website to doing video and analytics for a women’s Canadian university team straight to the NHL?
It takes a level of, how should I say this, almost like recklessness to think that you can do it. You’re a sample size of one.
SP: Yeah, you bring up an interesting point about the expectations that many Asian families have for their kids. And you kind of have to break through that at some point. When did you break through that sort of self-ceiling?
JH: The way that I was raised by my family was to aspire to education, aspire to a good career, aspire to a stable, financially secure living.
But what happened was we left China in ’96, I traveled with my parents around North America because of the work. I went to say, about 10 different schools between first grade and university. They were always chasing the American dream, the Canadian dream of having a six-figure salary, having a house. But I could see the different economic trends, the dot com bubble, the security that you think you will get if you do all the things right, it might not be there anymore.
So I’ve always had this doubt that if I followed this path that my parents wanted for me, I may or may not be happy, I may or may not be secure. So at some point in my early 20s, I was like, I have a certain skill-set that, I enjoy writing and I enjoy understanding the why behind certain things. I wanted to dig deeper and read up on something or really research it and understand and maybe try to change it. That’s what led me to work in hockey.
Hockey has been with me since a young age, but, I had never really been coached by someone or been around someone who really thought the game at a high level.
I was really curious what that was like. I wanted to be in their shoes and figure out what they knew that I didn’t know. That’s still the biggest motivation for me to figure out what’s true in the world, at least in hockey.
SP: You talked about the lack of the visible role models for you coming up. You know how important that is for a person of any color coming up. So who ended up being your role models?
JH: A lot of my role models were female players.
Here you have NHL’ers making seven figures, going to the Olympics for the first time in Nagano. But then you watch the women’s game, aside from the Olympics and the World Championship at that point, these women had nothing. They were really amateur athletes. I thought it was really interesting to see the same game played by different genders with such divergent kind of financial rewards. I was eight or nine or 10 years old, but I was already seeing this is what gender does. This is what being different or looking different can impact your financial bottom line, which I never thought about before.
A couple of years later, [French Hockey Night in Canada] did something really innovative, they hired Danièle Sauvageau, who was the the coach of the Canadian national women’s team at the 2002 Olympics. They hired her to be a color commentator. I would watch her every Saturday night and say to myself, well, at least there’s a woman now, so maybe someday there’s gonna be an Asian person there.
It’s an oblique way to feel represented because she’s a white woman and coached hockey. But at the same time, she didn’t play at a high level; she was a policewoman.
I saw her on TV, I realized I don’t have to be a white man to have that job. (laughs) We’re maybe like a third of the way there or something like that.
Hayley Wickenheiser. I wore No. 22 in high school; Hayley wore No. 22.
I’ve actually worked with Haley for the past couple years; I never told her that.
The funny thing is when I did my coaching certification with Hockey Canada, Danièle was my instructor and I worked with Haley for two years.
And the other [role model] was Kim St-Pierre. She was Canada’s goalie in 2002 and 2006. I’ve always known about McGill University, but she played for the McGill University women’s team. I’d end up going to McGill and working for the women’s team.
In different ways, Danielle, Kim, and Haley, they were the three people who had the biggest impact on my hockey career at that point.
Which is crazy, right? Because these people are the furthest thing away from an Asian-Canadian first-generation boy. But I was looking for role models anywhere I could get them.
SP: Did that spur the donation of your 2018 Calder Cup ring to the Hockey Hall of Fame? You’re probably the first Chinese-Canadian behind an AHL bench, to work in hockey ops for an NHL front office.
JH: We talked about Larry Kwong, right? Larry Kwong was the first Chinese-Canadian to play in the NHL, but he was also the first person to break the color barrier. I didn’t learn about Larry Kwong until 2018 and that’s when he died. It was a very big regret for me not having him as a role model when I was growing up. I never knew he existed despite reading every single hockey book I could put my hands on.
So this idea of representation, as a person who has worked in hockey for the past few years and reached a level where few, if any, Asian-Americans has reached, I felt it was really important for my achievement to be seen. So you can have an effect on other people whether they want to work in hockey or go into something else that’s not typically available to Asian-Canadians or Americans.
It was important for a small part of me to be visible in the most famous museum of our sport.
Maybe just seeing that wing in an exhibit at the Hockey Hall of Fame is going to start something else. Once again, if you go back to Danièle Sauvageau, I don’t think she ever had the intention to inspire an Asian-Canadian kid.
The other side of it is, I feel like we’re more overlooked.
It’s a small way to get our people recognition or representation because culturally, we’re taught to be humble, understated. I certainly am not as a person, generally speaking. I feel like I need to speak up here and put my foot down and say this is important.
Part 2 of this interview, featuring Han’s evaluations of Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic will be appearing later today only at San Jose Hockey Now.
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