Johnson: Hartley calls out his own team for being soft
Coach seething over lack of response from Flames players when goalie Joey MacDoanald was run
Toughness, Bob Hartley knows, is essentially a state of mind. It’s measured on the left side of the chest, not in sheer tonnage, on scales.
Not all adversity, he understands through experience, is found on a scoreclock, like in Dallas. Not every game turns into a track meet or the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies.
“You can,” repeated a peeved Hartley, deep in the catacombs of the Scotiabank Saddledome late, late, on latest-loss night, Wednesday, “be 5-8 ... and be tough.
“I remember in Colorado, coming in here and you always had to play against Theoren Fleury. Missing teeth. Snarling at you, grimacing in pain or anger. He wasn’t going to back down. He wasn’t going to give an inch.
“You’d come in here, see Theo sneering across the ice at you in warm-up, and think ‘Well, it’s going to be a long night ...’
“No, we don’t have the biggest team. And, sure, being 6-3, 6-4 helps, but at the same time your desire to compete can make up for a lot. Yes, we do want to compete and I love every single guy on this team but ...”
Hartley was quietly livid (his reaction inside the dressing room afterwards went, mercifully, unrecorded) over an embarrassing lack of action that followed goaltender Joey MacDonald being pile-driven into his net Wednesday by an onrushing Trevor Lewis.
But the gnawing dissatisfaction from the 3-1 loss obviously ran deeper than that.
The L.A. Kings represent the current Harvard Law Exam of manhood in this league. The litmus test for all those intangibles golden-tongued analysts wax eloquently on about when discussing teams with championship material. How can you hold up under Dustin Brown’s prodding or circumvent Dustin Penner’s block-long backside to make that vital defensive clearance or push past 6-foot-3, 227-pound Jordan Nolan to gain the zone?
Finding a way around, or through, the roadblock. That is the test you’ve signed up for.
Wednesday, the Flames flunked. Sent back to remedial school.
Under-fire captain Jarome Iginla was one of the few who embraced the task. Under the assault, though, Jiri Hudler, so very, very fine so far, and Roman Cervenka melted into the background. Alex Tanguay, too. Michael Cammalleri had moments, but too few.
The physical challenge didn’t, alas, bring out the dormant ornery-cuss side of Curtis Glencross.
Those sizable L.A. forwards kept pounding away at the exceedingly well-mannered Calgary defensive corps — inexplicably, cranky Cory Sarich was a healthy scratch — or taking up squatter’s rights in MacDonald’s front yard with impunity.
None of which escaped Hartley, whose growing candidness to openly address the ills of his group is becoming a breath of fresh air in an antiseptic atmosphere of catalogued cliche.
“We have to be a hungrier, grittier,” he went on. “Tough, to me, is to be intense on the puck, to drive to the net, to finish your check, to win the battle along the board. Stuff like this. Playing tough doesn’t mean you can’t be a skating team. Doesn’t mean you have to fight all the time.
“If we can’t do it on an individual basis, we have to do it as a block of five or pack of 20. That’s what we’re trying to cultivate here. And obviously we’re seeing results that show we’re not there yet.
“I don’t like our results right now.”
Bob Hartley’s right. You can be 5-8 and play tough. Two of his biggest stars in Denver, Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, weren’t giants but played with a determined sense of indomitability. Arguably the toughest hombre ever to don Flames’ silks wasn’t Tim Hunter, Nick Fotiu or Chris (Crimein’) Simon. No, it just might’ve been the India Rubber Ball from New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Joey Mullen. Five-foot-nuthin’, Joey. Dastardly defencemen used to knock him down repeatedly, cross-check him, spear him, mash him on the end boards and he’d just pop right back up and score a winner.
That, brother, is tough.
As the loss total begins to creep upwards and the gap to eighth widens ever-so slightly, the back of GM Jay Feaster’s neck grows ever redder and Hartley becomes more and more pointed in his assessments of his group, the best way to salvation is clear.
“We need,” said Bob Hartley, “some guys to change a bit, to get out of their playing style, get out of their comfort zone. If they won’t, someone (else) will have to do it.
“That’s my job, to say ‘Hey, maybe you’ve never done it but there’s always a first time.’ To get that out. Because I don’t like where we sit right now in the standings.
“I knew what I was getting in this job. I came here because I felt myself and my staff could bring solutions.
“This business is not a good business when you lose.”
And toughness, the kind of toughness essential to success, he knows, is essentially a state of mind.
As a coach of yesteryear around these parts, someone who was actually as tough as his reputation, Brian Sutter, once memorably exclaimed: “It’s not the size of the bull, it’s how well he’s hung!”
If this isn’t to be another springtime of broken promises, it’s time for these Flames to man up, to embrace ol’ Brian’s rather rustic dictum.
They may reside north of the border, but on a more consistent basis, and certainly when faced with the litmus-test likes of the L.A. Kings, a bit more slightly south of the equator is essential.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow him on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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