Hartley calls Flames job the biggest challenge of his coaching career
Head coach notes he knew what he was getting into, but he relishes the risk of turning around a flailing franchise
In a rare quiet hour before heading to the airport, Bob Hartley is reminiscing about the day he quit a steady job in the windshield factory to work full-time in hockey.
“I announced to all my buddies that I had just given my resignation letter to the boss,” the Calgary Flames head coach is saying. “I had two weeks to go and then I was going to be coaching. They told me, ‘you’re crazy. You’re going to get fired and everything.’
“You know what? That plant got shut down six years ago, and I’m still coaching.”
Hartley is a meticulous sort, planning drills at practice down to the minute and studying game film until the guys on the screen blur into one another.
So there’s a clearly a moral to the story of the plant in his hometown of Hawkesbury, Ont., or else he wouldn’t be telling it.
Yes, his Flames are in big trouble, with a fourth straight season out of the playoffs more of a probability than a possibility. And yes, Guy Boucher lost his job over the weekend as head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, an NHL team with a better record than the Flames.
But just like when he quit the factory job, Hartley knew turbulence and risk were part of the package last summer when he walked away as head coach of the Zurich Lions to step behind the bench in Calgary.
He knew the Flames were the oldest team in the National Hockey League. He knew they lacked size and sandpaper. He knew many of the star players were past their prime. He knew about the lack of blue-chip prospects in the system.
He knew. He knew. He knew.
“I could have stayed in Zurich, in one of the nicest cities in the world, just off a championship and everything,” Hartley says. “You know how it works in that business. But that’s not me. I’m always looking for a new challenge, and this one is probably the biggest of my coaching career.”
“Hey, I wanted to do it. And I’m having fun doing it.”
“For sure,” he says. “But again, I didn’t get into a surprise box. I sat in Zurich with (associate head coach) Jacques Cloutier. We looked at what was on the team. We looked at what was on the farm team. We looked at the draft picks and everything.
“Since 2004, I know the full story. Since 2004, we didn’t pass the first round. For the past three years, we missed the playoffs.”
Hartley, 52, signed a three-year deal to coach the Flames, so he never saw this as a short-term project.
“We can talk about anybody’s future,” he says. “What’s your future as a coach? What’s your future as a businessman? I read in your paper every day that big companies are laying off good people who have given them 20 or 25 years of their life. You have to enjoy what you do. You have to accept the challenges.
“When you accept (feeding) the lions, you have to take the risk of maybe being bit.”
Under Hartley’s rule, the Flames are decent from an offensive standpoint (10th overall) but brutal in their own end with a goals-against average of 3.33 (29th overall.)
With the trade deadline just eight days away, speculation whirls about new homes for everyone from captain Jarome Iginla (perhaps Mayor Naheed Nenshi should stock up on tissues for an entire city), to goalie Miikka Kiprusoff to defenceman Jay Bouwmeester.
In what could be his last home game as a Flame, Iginla scored in the third period Sunday to pace Calgary to a 3-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues.
“For me behind the bench, it’s the winning goal,” Hartley says. “Jarome is my captain. Jarome is my player. But after this, after the game, the fan in me is still well alive. You’re going back home, and you think about this. You think, ‘what a great goal and what a great captain.’
“For me, there’s Lanny McDonald and there’s Jarome Iginla. There’s lots of great Flames who wore that jersey with lots of pride, but I’m very fortunate. I’m coaching a great individual.”
Over the weekend, Hartley phoned Boucher — a man at least temporarily out of the coaching business — to offer his condolences.
“I left him a message,” Hartley says “The coaching fraternity is a very small one. We’re only 30. But at the end of the day, those are the risks.”
Risk, to Hartley, is simply impossible to avoid.
“In my little hometown, people working in plants would spend their entire lives working in plants,” he says. “But these days you never know. The Japanese come in with new technology and bang, your plant is out of the market.
“All my friends were telling me, ‘don’t go coach. It’s suicidal.’ But unfortunately for them, they’re the ones without a job.”
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