It’s been said one gains recognition by doing things better than everyone else, or by doing things differently.
Jack Han does both.
Han gained notoriety when he was hired to work in the Toronto Maple Leafs Player Development department for the 2017-18 season. He was known in the hockey world at the time for his writing with The Athletic and his “One Minute Tactic” videos that received plenty of traction on social media.
But Han’s first experience on a high-level coaching staff came at McGill University.
Han was a handful of years removed from completing his marketing degree at McGill. He had worked with the Montreal Canadiens and Labatt and held a full-time job writing for the ATP tennis tour.
Looking to immerse himself in elite level hockey in 2014, Han cold called Peter Smith, the long-time head coach of the McGill Martlets women’s program. It was an unlikely partnership; Smith is one of the foremost coaches in women’s hockey history and Han had no experience at the university level at the time.
“Peter and Jack had a lot of the same ideas about how the game should be played,” said Thomas Côté-Miller, Han’s assistant who took over the Martlets analytics when Han joined the Maple Leafs.
“He just happened to be looking for a video coach,” recalled Han. “What I saw was an opportunity to build something and learn from basically a hockey legend. Peter is someone who’s very curious and learned and very open to new ideas. Over time I discovered what kind of a warm, kind and generous person he is. We’re friends for life.”
Smith and assistant coaches Alyssa Cecere and Stewart McCarthey eventually came to trust Han and value his input. The work of the analytics team played a big role in McGill’s 2016-17 season, which included a berth in the U SPORTS National Championship final.
With Côté-Miller’s help, Han deduced the team would perform better with a lineup that featured eleven forwards and seven defencemen. He presented his idea to Smith prior to a do-or-die semi-final game with a spot at the National Championship on the line.
“It’s tough to manage a bench when you play 11-seven, so it took some convincing to make that work,” said Han. “After the second game in Ottawa I had a heart-to-heart with Peter. We’d built up that trust where I was really able to put my foot down and say, ‘we play 11-seven, or we lose and the season’s over.’
“I think Peter slept on it and the next morning he came back and said we’re going 11-seven. We won that game and then we got to the National final.”
Earlier that season, the analytics duo convinced Smith to try a five-forward powerplay set up, with all five players being left-handed shots. Their man advantage was among the most efficient in the country that year.
“We had a stacked forward corps and a defence that wasn’t very strong offensively,” recalled Côté-Miller. “Jack had been pushing for that for awhile, and I think halfway through the season Peter went to the five-forward powerplay that would stay out for pretty much the full two minutes. It was a different way of thinking.”
Around this time, Han was the subject was a widely shared feature by TSN’s Bob McKenzie. Hockey fans had taken notice of Han’s minute-long tactics videos on Twitter and he had also been writing for The Athletic, which was just a start-up at the time.
Han told McKenzie he had received several offers from professional teams, including one from an AHL franchise. No one could have foreseen the position he would eventually accept for the 2017-18 season.
“He was kind of secretive about it all,” said Côté-Miller. “His name was definitely out there. Towards the end of the season he told me, ‘I got hired by [Toronto General Manager Kyle] Dubas to do some player development and analytics stuff.’”
His official title would be Player Development Analyst for the 2017-18 season, and Han was shifted to a Hockey Operations Assistant the following year. From the outside, it would seem like a monumental rise from university women’s hockey at the 1,600-seat McConnell Arena to one of the biggest franchises in the NHL and Scotiabank Arena.
However, Han insists that the work he was doing for McGill allowed for a seamless transition to the Maple Leafs.
“We had such a professional, streamlined and vast operation at McGill, I was on the same page with what was happening in Toronto,” said Han.
In a study of contrast, the media release that announced Han’s hiring also confirmed that Stéphane Robidas – a veteran of nearly 1,000 NHL games – would also be joining the department.
“Having worked with Stéphane for a few years, he’s just an amazing person,” said Han. “I would ask him lots of questions and he would ask me lots of questions. For him to be so open to my experiences and my thoughts was just incredible. The same goes for a lot of the other people I worked with for the Leafs.”
Han believes hockey is changing in that sense. During the Maple Leafs 2019-20 training camp in Newfoundland, the staff took a group picture after dinner one night.
“If you look at that picture and all the faces – men or woman, white or Asian or black – it’s such a relatively more accurate portrayal of what Canadian society looks like than you would see in a similar photo for other teams or the Leafs in the past. So I think we’re moving in the right direction for sure.”
After spending 2019-20 as an assistant coach with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL, Han and the Leafs mutually parted ways, but he is far from bored.
With Michael Farber serving as his editor, Han is publishing an eBook featuring his knowledge of hockey coaching and analytics. Entitled “Hockey Tactics 2020”, the book is available for pre-order. Han is also organizing a newsletter that gives a platform for young people looking to break into hockey to publish their work.
Helping others with non-traditional backgrounds navigate their way in the hockey world is something Han has prioritized throughout his career.
“When I started with the team and he was in town, he set up a time and we grabbed a cup of coffee,” recalled Roderick Mackinnon, who worked alongside Miller-Côté when Han joined the Maple Leafs. “He wanted to learn more about me and what my ambitions were.”
“One of the first things that Jack told me was one of the best competitive advantages you can have is producing results quickly and efficiently,” said Mikael Nahabedian, another member of the Martlets analytics team. “With Jack I started understanding how the five players move together on the ice. Instead of just looking at one player at a time, you look at how the five players are interrelated on the ice.”
Moving back to Montreal and adopting a dog with his girlfriend are also on Han’s to-do list, but he won’t soon forget his roots with the McGill women’s hockey program.