Johnson: Candid Hartley has perspective and optimism as Flames embark on rebuild
NHL club’s head coach: ‘I don’t care how tought the situation. It’s not gonna scare me.’
Perspective. It’s helped keep Bob Hartley sane.
“You know, hockey has given me everything,” the Calgary Flames’ boss is saying Wednesday, game-day morning of a Vancouver Canucks’ visit, one more playing-out-the-string day waiting to be stricken off the calendar. “I love the game. I OWE the game. We’re in the business of winning here. That’s my job. The only gauge. I understand that.
“So I’m as disappointed, as frustrated, as anyone when I leave the rink after we’ve lost a game. It hurts. Everyone. The fans. Players. Coaches. I’m as competitive as anyone.
“But when you’re the head coach of a team, you’re the mirror to everyone around here. Players. Trainers. You name it.
“So if I drag everyone down, it’s only going to get worse.”
Through the suffering this season, that 13-game road losing streak, the laxative-like defensive play, the realization that the playoffs were once more nothing but a pipe dream, Bob Hartley has remained remarkably even-keel.
He told us early on: “You’ll find out, I’m always the most optimistic guy in the room.”
And in that, he’s been true to his word.
Hartley hasn’t yet burst a blood vessel. Or thrown a hissy-fit. Overturned any tables or called out any of his lollygagging troops.
At least outside the thickly-insulated walls of the Calgary Flames’ inner sanctum, anyway.
There are far worse things in this life, he knows, than a blown lead or a wet-noodle power play or even the extended pain of a full-on rebuild.
He doesn’t go home and weep silently into his pillow at night or scour the neighbourhood for a cat to kick.
“That,” he says pointedly, “wouldn’t do anybody any good.”
For balance, for a sense of proportion, he needs do nothing more than remember back to Sept. 29th, 2003, the day Atlanta Thrashers’ defenceman Dan Snyder was critically injured after his Ferrari 360 Modena, being driven by his friend and teammate Dany Heatley, crashed into a brick pillar and iron fence.
Hartley was coach in Georgia back then. Snyder, just 25, died six days later.
“At 5 o’clock I’m at the hospital with the Snyders that last day,” Hartley recalls softly. “I have tickets for Game 1 of the playoffs, the Cubs and the Braves. I went there, to the hospital, and Mrs. Snyder is all bubbly. She was such an unbelievable lady. So strong. They’d just performed a CT scan on Danny and found a space between his skull and his brain. The swelling was going down.
“She said that in two three or days from now, they were planning on reducing his medication and removing him from his coma, to see how reacts. So everything was upbeat. Optimistic. We had hope. Things were going to get better.
“I leave for the game. In the fourth inning, I’m sitting there at the ballpark with my wife, Ilya Kovalchuk and my video coach and we get the news: Danny Snyder’s dead.
“I rush back to the hospital, and he’s in a wide-open room, the machines were all gone. The mom wanted me to go and see him for a final time.
“You’re there, but you can’t believe it.
“That teaches you a life lesson.
“So, yeah, hockey’s important. But . . .”
But. Hartley still has the strap of Dan Snyder’s watch, given to him by LuAnne Snyder. He’s worn it in every game he’s coached since Oct. 5th, 2003, as a reminder.
“It can’t always be easy,” says Bob Hartley. “For me, coaching is just like life. Good days. Bad days. It’s what you make of them.
“My first year in junior A, when I took over after an 0-8 start, I had absolutely no experience. I didn’t have one practice drill, no clue what to tell players. Nothing. The columnist in my hometown, Yvon Legault, wrote, I’ll never forget this, he wrote: ‘Well, Bob Hartley. No experience. Can it really get worse?’
“Great guy. He organized my golf tournament after that for 11 years.
“We won, like, nine games out of 46 for the balance of that first year. After this, we turned the organization around, made lots of changes. For me, it’s not about proving certain people wrong. It’s about proving other people right.”
Often he’s spoken of this being the greatest challenge of his coaching career. Hartley recalls how he and assistant Jacques Cloutier sat in their office at the Hallenstadion in Zurich after he’d skippered the Lions to a Swiss league title. Calgary GM Jay Feaster had called about a job. They scoured the Flames’ organization, top to bottom — draft picks, the farm team, the roster here, the pluses and minuses, pros and cons.
He arrived here under no illusions.
“For myself, there was no doubt in my mind it was something I wanted to see through. I still feel that way. I understand that hockey goes in cycles. I knew I was getting an aging team. We would try to make a run to see if we could get it turned around the way it was and if it didn’t work, we’d go to Plan B.”
That plan would be a total rebuild, the jettisoning of stalwarts such as Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester, and the pending departure goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff. A dependence on youth. The preaching of patience. In essence, starting from scratch, and all that entails.
Enough to make even stout-hearted men recoil in horror.
“I never take it home,” says Hartley. “I can flush good things or bad things. I refocus real quick. Let’s face it, I spent from 18 years old to 26 working in two plants. A paper plant and a windshield plant. Lots of times, if I feel sorry for myself, I go back to those days. Shovelling bark at 4 in the morning in minus-30 along the Ottawa River and eating sandwiches as hard as cement because they were frozen solid.
“I have a great deal of respect for life. I have a great deal of respect for people. I had a great dad, a great mom and I was taught to always give my best, no matter what.
“I don’t care how tough the situation. It’s not gonna scare me.”
And this is a tough situation. There are no quick-fixes in this game (a fact the organization has belatedly come to admit). The process is apt to be prolonged and painful, and promises to test the love of a city.
“I coached six years of junior. I coached five years in the American league. Working with kids. I love it. We have some great people here. A great bunch of guys. Do we need help? I think so. It’s gonna take time but I believe there are brighter days ahead.”
‘Ahead’ could take in a fair chunk of time. Just don’t expect Bob Hartley to lose his cool, blow his top, lash out at the fates.
“Whatever’s happened the night before,” he explains, “no matter how disappointed or frustrated I might be, the next morning I have to roll up my sleeves and go at it again. Give my best the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that.
“As long as it takes.
“I owe this to my players. I owe this to myself. I owe this to this organization.
“If I don’t do this, I don’t deserve to be a coach.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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