Johnson: Hartley holds court on opening day of training camp
Flames boss puts troops through spirited session and comes away impressed by their fitness
Bob Hartley certainly can’t be accused of not doing his homework.
“Hey, guys,” he admonished, searching for an opening in a densely-packed semicircle of media mutts cantankerously awaiting his arrival in front of the Calgary Flames interview backdrop, “I have to get through.
“I only need a bit of a lane.”
He then dipped a shoulder, as if spying a tiny shaft of daylight between Dimitri Tsoumpas and Stanley Bryant.
“Just like Jon Cornish.”
Localize, localize, localize.
You win hearts, then you win games.
The first real day of the Bob Hartley coaching regime here took in nearly two hours of on-ice lickety-split Sunday, a pace to pop the lung-lining of his lockout-idled NHLers.
Hartley barked. He cooed. He explained. He studied.
The new boss has been insistent since the instant he signed on to try to climb this perilous Kilimanjaro that this would, at the very least, be fast, feisty group.
“That,” he assured everyone following the first practice, “is going to be the daily routine. Today, I think we went about an hour, 45. During the regular season, whether we step on the ice for 10 minutes or 30 minutes, it’s going to be a time for business. If we go on the ice to drag our feet, well, we might as well stay in the locker-room and watch TV.”
Then, noting that both TSN and Sportsnet representatives were among the opening-day throng, Hartley, an old RDS pundit himself, smiled benevolently.
“I won’t say the channels. Because there’s competitors here.”
Then, to everyone’s amusement, and satisfaction, he added: “I watch both.”
You get the feeling the same cultivated diplomacy won’t extend to the unattentive, the slackers, the self-aggrandizing among the charges put in his care.
What did come across was the enthusiasm everyone had to be back. Hartley has had to wait a long spell for the first day on his new job.
“In meetings, we had the veterans meeting, the full-team meeting, the video ... after every meeting we’d go back in the coaches’ office and the first comments, whether from Jacques (Cloutier), Conny (Craig Conroy), from myself, (was that) we felt the excitement from everyone.
“It almost felt like a big-game day. This is great. The players are excited, too. It’s going to be like this for the 30 NHL teams.”
Having had some time now to digest the compressed regular-season schedule released by the league late Saturday, and which opens Sunday at home to Jumbo Joe Thornton and the San Jose Sharks, Hartley sounded neither overjoyed nor dismayed.
“We knew it would be condensed. But it’s condensed for everyone. The one thing I told the entire staff and the players is that there are no excuses. We were not in the playoffs for three years. We have to find solutions. I didn’t come to Calgary for excuses.
“I said: ‘We are quality people. Quality people find solutions.’ The schedule will not be an excuse. We’re already meeting over travelling, over days off. We will take care of our athletes. To manage their days off, to manage the conditioning — whether on the ice or in the gym — is all something new for most of the 30 NHL coaches. Very few coaches were around (in the last lockout-shortened season, 1994-95). So it’s new for us.
“It’s going to require lots of thinking and adjustments.”
Calgary’s late opening date — earlier on, while the new CBA ratified, speculation had the Flames opening up north in Edmonton on Saturday — gives Hartley and his crew an extra day to prep in what is a murderously-short lead-in.
“It’s a good factor. How much of a difference it will make ...” He shrugged. “It certainly helps. And we certainly hope to take advantage of it. But at the same time, they’ve got to be quality days. We had our plan laid out, like I told you guys months ago, anywhere from a four- to a 10-day plan.”
Given the peculiarity of the situation, he seemed genuinely pleased with the conditioning of his players. The customary fitness testing was abolished owing to the crazy circumstances and players only underwent medicals.
So Sunday was the first time the new boss had a chance to gauge how much work is in order.
“I think the credit goes to the Dinos’ coaches, Mark (Howell) and Cory (Cross). They’ve done an unbelievable job with our players. I watched two practices and you guys were also at a couple of days at WinSport. It was an NHL pace. Plus, I think that the guys worked out very hard. I look at their body fat and everything.
“I’m very, very proud of the players. They showed a great commitment during the work stoppage. And I think it showed today, during our first practice. It still doesn’t give us any points in the standings, but I’m still proud of our first practice.”
The doors were opened to the Dome on Sunday, and the Flames’ first twirl was watched by a couple hundred fans. At the conclusion of the workout, Hartley had his players offer a salute to those fans in attendance. A small gesture, yes. One that doesn’t begin to heal the scars, no.
But the mending process had to start somewhere.
“The people here in this community,” he explained, “have made me feel welcome. They were anxious for this day. So I told the players, this is a great day for the game, but it’s also a day we can give the game back to our fans. I was real happy with the response of the fans.
“At the end of practice, I said: ‘Hey, those guys stayed with us for almost two hours. Just give them a little ‘salute’,’ like we say in French.
“It’s not about who decided to do it. It was well deserved.”
With his unflagging enthusiasm, his commitment to the community, and in Sunday’s salute to only a few of the many so aggrieved, so rankled by yet another senselessly protracted work stoppage, Bob Hartley has already started winning hearts in this town.
The tricky part, winning games, starts Sunday.
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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