Johnson: Hartley has been waiting months for this
New Flames head coach eager to see his squad in action on the ice
Even at the height of the schoolboy shenanigans, through the alternating high drama and low comedy, enduring more stops and starts than are to be found in the most sadistic bag skate, Bob Hartley refused to buckle under, give in to despair and believe the end was nigh.
Being, he’ll readily admit, a guy who’d go looking for sugar in a sand dune certainly helped.
He’s a sort of whistle-toting, whip-cracking Patron Saint of Lost Causes. Making him, of course, absolutely ideal for this gig.
“No. No,” protests Hartley, when asked if he’d ever lost hope of marking his Calgary Flames’ head coaching debut at any time in this aborted abomination of a 2012-2103 season. “You’ll learn pretty quickly that I’m always the most positive guy in the room. I always think there’s a solution.
“I’m not an excuse guy. I’m a solution guy. To my way of thinking, you either create excuses or find solutions. (The dispute) was between the NHL and the NHLPA. It’s just not fun. It’s the same for you guys, the fans, for everyone. It was a conflict that needed to be resolved. That’s a part of business. I wasn’t going to solve it.
“Obviously, we’d watch and listen every day. Waiting. Hoping.
“And they found a solution.
“I’m anxiously awaiting opening the doors, meeting our guys and getting them working.”
Like everyone else who isn’t insanely addicted to Twitter 24/7, Hartley rolled out of the four-poster on Sunday morning to be greeted by the news that the 113-day labour stoppage was at an end.
“It’s a pretty good way to wake up. You turn the TV on and you see Mr. Bettman and Donald Fehr, side by side. Right away, we could assume that it was good news.
“We’re all in the office right now. There’s definitely excitement around.”
So now, suddenly he’s faced with the reality of putting an improved product on the ice at the Scotiabank Saddledome; of taking what is widely regarded as a small, soft team and propelling it back into the Top Eight in the West for the first time since Iron Mike Keenan was running the show many moons ago.
Just call him Bob the Builder.
“This,” he’s saying early Sunday afternoon, “is a sprint. Not a marathon. Obviously you want to hit the ice running. Obviously, that’s the goal for 30 teams. There’s not a second to waste. The teams that are able to put winning streaks together in a shortened season will be in the playoffs. And obviously that’s my No. 1 goal right now, to prepared these guys physically, emotionally, so that we ... go. Right away.
“We’re not used to this. From the last time, ’94-95, there aren’t too many players still around. I remember I was in the minors then. We’re gonna play for the same goal but in a completely new game. How you manage your people, your time . . . it’s a totally new mindset. New territory.
“But it’s the same for 30 teams. So like I told you before, there are no excuses.”
If there’s any advantage to levelling the playing field it just might be, oddly enough, the brevity of the season. The long, tortuous haul of an 82-game odyssey has a funny tendency in sorting out the knock-off Gucci from the authentic article.
And in Miikka Kiprusoff, the Flames possess a goalie capable of whisking any team into greener pastures in the short-term.
“You name me a good team,” says Hartley, who’d often cash in an insurance policy named Patrick Roy during his salad days in Denver, “and I’ll name you a good goalie. And we have one.”
Among the top five. From the back out, though, it’ll need to be a collective effort. Starting in the coaches’ room.
“We took this time to really build chemistry within our staff. We watched hours and hours of video. We’ve prepared for a five-day camp, a five-day camp, a six-day camp all the way to a 10-day camp. We didn’t know how long it would last.
“The one thing, if we can spin it positively, is that I was able to discover this great community. I went through many minor-hockey practices, breakfasts, lunches. We had three coaching clinics with minor-hockey coaches. I went to open an outdoor rink. I met lots of people. I love people. I understand that a big part of my job away from the Xs and Os is to be one of the flag-bearers for the team in the community. I can feel what the Flames mean to this city.
“And I take pride in that.”
That pride can in actuality only be rekindled by an unexpected trip back into the post-season. Hartley knows that better than anyone. As he himself said, he’s a solution guy.
“It’s going to be a nice challenge,” agrees Bob the Builder, itching to take out his tool box and get busy on renovations. “We haven’t made the playoffs for three years. And basically this is the same core of players. It’s a veteran team.
“But I left a good situation in Zurich on my own. Nobody put a gun to my head and told me I had to take this job.
“We understand that what we’ve done in the past was just not good enough. Now my job, and my partners, is to find another gear for our players. We have to glue many pieces together. We’ve analyzed many parts of our game. And we also have a pretty good feel for this team.
“I can’t wait. I wish we’d started this morning.”
The guy’s enthusiasm is so infectious you can’t help but wish him the best, now that the moment of truth is finally at hand. Reason says otherwise but, hey, there were moments when the season itself seemed to be a lost cause. And he believed there was sugar in that sand dune, too.
“I want to make a promise to the fans from myself, my staff, the players, the management, we’re going to give everything we can, not only to get into the playoffs but to challenge for the goal. I didn’t come to Calgary to just be in the playoffs.
“I have much bigger dreams than this.”
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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