Inside Bob Hartley’s rise from working in windshield factory to NHL head coach
We sit down with the new Flames bench boss for an in-depth interview on what makes him tick
Bob Hartley tried as hard as he could to turn down his first coaching job in 1987.
At the same time, Jacques Tranchemontagne tried as hard as he could to coax him into it.
And, eventually, Tranchemontagne, the president of the Hawkesbury Hawks junior ‘A’ team at the time who also happened to be Hartley’s former minor baseball coach, won.
“No. 1, I didn’t know what I was doing,” Hartley, the head coach of the Calgary Flames recalled the other day on a quiet moment at the Scotiabank Saddledome. “And, number two, you’re coaching in junior ‘A’ hockey and coaching kids who still have the dream to move onto the NHL. By taking that job, I knew I would be kind of dishonest to the kids because I couldn’t really help them.
“I couldn’t be a difference.”
Hartley also felt he had little to offer players who were only a few years removed from him.
But, on top of his lacklustre resume, he was also enjoying his no-stress gig as a volunteer goalie coach with the Hawks in his hometown — something he did as a pastime while he worked his day job at the local windshield factory to support his wife Micheline and their daughter Kristine and son Steve. He was happy.
“I had never coached in my life before,” Hartley said. “I didn’t know how to run a practice. You tell this to a kid, ‘We’re going to have a coach that’s never run a practice.’ Kids will say, ‘How can this guy make us better because he’s never done it?’”
Sensing his trepidation — and having offered Hartley the job numerous times unsuccessfully — Tranchemontagne took another approach.
“He said, ‘I’m firing the coach,’” Hartley said. “Then he said, ‘There’s a new coach coming in from Montreal but he can’t be here for two weeks. I need you to bail me out for two weeks.’”
Sure enough, two weeks went by. Then two months.
Hartley protested, pointing out his shortcomings.
“I’m no good,” he said.
“I can’t do this,” he said. “And I don’t want to do this.”
But Tranchemontagne continued to stall.
“He kept going on and on,” Hartley said. “’He said, ‘Oh yeah, but the guy asked for more money. You have to give me another week.’ I took this job in November. So it was a long November, a long December, a long January, a long February, a long March. But at the end, I started to feel that drug … that coach from Montreal never existed. He told me this to get me to do it.
“When we finished (the season), I said, ‘I don’t know where you are in your coaching search. But I’d like to coach.’
“And he started laughing.”
Two championships later, he was hired as the head coach of the Laval Titan in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. A league championship and Memorial Cup appearance and Hartley was dubbed the coach of the Quebec Nordiques’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Cornwall Aces. Two division titles in three years.
Then, when the Nordiques relocated to Colorado, Hartley took over as the head coach of their AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears and captured a Calder Cup, leading the team to four consecutive playoff appearances.
But his welcome to the NHL moment came in 1998 when he was hired by the Colorado Avalanche:
“It was a Sunday night. I remember it by the minute — by the second. I was in the middle of landscaping and my wife was cooking dinner. We had friends over and kids in the pool and everything. The assistant GM (Francois Giguere) called me — and I was dressed for trimming shrubs and everything. He called me and said, ‘We have a flight for you in about two hours to Colorado.’ He said, ‘We’re meeting you tomorrow. I have a scoop for you. Bring your nicest suit. You’re not coming in for an interview — there’s no interview. It’s your job. And be ready.’
“From then on, it was just a race. I went into the house and told the wife, ‘Stop dinner. You need me to get to the airport. Which suit am I going to take?’ That phone call, my wife brought me the phone and said, ‘I think it’s Francois.’ It was about 4:30 in the afternoon. That was the greatest moment but it got real ugly.”
A terrible storm had set in, causing a delay on his initial flight out of Harrisburg, P.A., which, in turn, caused him to miss his connecting flight to Denver in Pittsburgh. Quite a nightmare, actually.
“I went to the counter and they said … ‘we have no room for you.’ The guy at the counter was kind of a young man and I said, ‘Are you a hockey fan?’ He said yes. “I said, ‘Give me a chance. Get me on this plane. I’m going for an NHL job.’ He said, ‘Really?’ and I said, ‘I cannot tell you more but see what you can do. Put me in the luggage. I need to go.’
“(Colorado) had told me I had the job. But I was almost reacting like a kid. I wanted to be there so much. I probably got there at 2 p.m., signed the contract, and the next day there was a press conference and it was done. It was an adventure.”
Hartley also managed to take some time out of his busy schedule preparing for the start of the 2012-13 season to answer a few of our other questions:
What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in hockey?
As a kid, I wanted to be a lawyer or, when my dad died when I was 18 years old and when I was in high school, I was in charge of mentally handicapped kids in a day program. I really liked this. No. 1, I liked teaching. And when I go back home, they still recognize me. But when my dad died, I decided to stay home with my mom and little sister and went to go work.
You’ve won $50-million in the lottery, what would be your first extravagant purchase?
I live very simply. I would certainly help people around me that needed it. But, number 1, I don’t believe in (the lottery) because I never buy lottery tickets. I will never win. I don’t need $50-million. I have the game of hockey, a great family, so I consider myself a rich man.
Favourite or future travel destination?
I love Switzerland, I love Zurich. I spent a year there. What a great city. By no surprise, that city is voted one of the top-three cities to live in. That was just unbelievable.
Favourite non-NHL sports team?
I have quite a few. My favourite one, but they’re not there anymore, is the Montreal Expos. I’m a big, big baseball fan so they were my favourite. And in the NFL, the Denver Broncos. I went to practice with them a couple of times. But I’m a sports fan. I also fell in love with the Stamps. I went to three or four games actually. I like every sport.
Favourite non-hockey athlete?
I love GSP (UFC fighter George St-Pierre). I’m a big fan of my mixed martial arts.
Who would you draft first overall for your NHL fantasy team?
Probably Sidney Crosby. And I’m going to take him because he’s not going to score any goals against us.
Dan Snyder (who played for Hartley with the Atlanta Thrashers before passing away in a car accident in 2003). He loved life.
Landscaping. I love landscaping. I love being dirty in the mud, like a kid.
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