Johnson: Don’t underestimate the Tanguay-Hartley combination
Veteran forward could be on verge of a bounce back season under the coach he had amazing success with in Colorado
Bob Hartley saw the magic up close when it was new and fresh and unspoiled. And now, all these years later, he remains utterly convinced the old conjuror still has a few tricks left up his sleeve; that time hasn’t eroded the unique ability to astound, to delight, to make people gasp out loud.
“Every time I look at my Stanley Cup ring,” he’s saying, studying his soon-to-be troops being put through their paces at WinSport Ice Complex on a snow-whipped Thursday morning, “I think of Alex Tanguay.
“Here’s a young man who gave me two goals in Game 7 of a Stanley Cup final. You gain a lot of trust in someone when he does something like that for you.”
The Hartley era officially opens Sunday with the start of the 2013 Calgary Flames’ micro-mini training camp at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
No one, outside of maybe the uber-enthusiastic Hartley himself, is more stoked for it to begin than Tanguay. No one, it stands to reason, should more greatly be impacted. Owing to their past association in Denver. Their ongoing friendship. Their mutual respect.
Needless to add, a galvanized Tanguay, still the most sublime passer of the puck anywhere to found in this town, sure of his role, re-vitalized in his ambition, would be of inestimable value in ending a depressing three-year playoff banishment.
“I’m excited,” enthuses Tanguay. “I think it’s going to be a big adjustment for some of the guys because Bob’s very meticulous with the way he prepared his game plan. There’s a lot of different things he’ll be a stickler about, stick positioning, things like that, which I think will be a great help to our team.
“He’s won everywhere he’s been. Obviously, he’ll be getting his way around here.
“I’ve been preaching to the guys: ‘Listen to him. He knows what he’s doing.’ ”
The ties that bind are strong. Hartley still refers to the 33-year-old Tanguay as “the kid” because that’s how he remembers him from Denver. Tanguay has worked his hockey camps, teed off at his charity golf tournament. Two days ago, a producer Hartley knows from RDS — a former employer — phoned after Tanguay made an appearance on the network.
“The producer told me: ‘This guy loves you. He’s so pumped to get on a plane and go back there.’ For me, that’s not a big surprise. When Brent (Sutter) left, Alex called me immediately and said: ‘We’re much better than we’ve shown. Come here. We need you.’ For me, that’s a pretty big statement.
“When he was playing in Montreal that one year, he took me for lunch, after they let the coach go there. He told me then: ‘You need to call them. You need to coach us.”
Their history, of course, is well known. At training camp 1999, Hartley stuck a raw rookie fresh out of the QMJHL Halifax Mooseheads on the No. 1 line alongside Joe Sakic, then threw another newcomer, Milan Hejduk, on the right flank the year after that. Together they were a sublime concoction, helping the Avalanche land a second Stanley Cup championship.
So, any perceived differences between tutoring a 20-year-old Alex Tanguay back then and inheriting the circa 2013 edition?
“I think,” replies Hartley, “that it’s going to be easier. Not that he understood the game poorly then, but he understands it better now. We all do. That’s what’s called experience.
“We’ve stayed connected, whether I was coaching in Atlanta, working on TV or in Zurich. Every once in a while he’d call and say ‘Have you seen me play lately? What do you think?’ I think there’s a strong confidence that goes between Alex and I.
“We always think of him as being shy. I think Alex the guy off the ice and Alex the guy on the ice and in the room are two different people. He’s a fun guy, an open guy. I think Alex works best when his role is clarified. And you need to talk to him. He can take the criticism, he can take the flowers. You just have to deliver it to him.
“He’s a guy I really look forward to coaching again.”
The feeling’s entirely mutual. Last year was, frankly, a bummer for No. 40, in terms of production (49 points in 64 starts) and influence. The prospect of having Hartley in charge, many feel, just might be enough to push Tanguay back to his optimum level: To the numbers he put up as an Av, or during his first season here as a Flame.
Given those brief, unsatisfying stops in Montreal and Tampa Bay, it’s been a while, or least seems that way, since he’s played like, well ... like Alex Tanguay.
“Two years ago,” he argues, “I felt I did. Last season, I’ll admit, I started out poorly. And then I started getting better and then the last seven or eight games I basically played with a cast on my left hand, on my wrist.
“It was hard.
“Last year, you know, was not what I expected. It was disappointing. Not good enough. But I feel good now. I’m really to go. I know Bob very well. I feel I’ve got more to bring. Certainly it’s on me to do that. I feel I’ve got another notch to get to. And I think Bob can help me get there.
“I was there when he did it (won a Cup) in Colorado. I know what it’s gonna take, what he’s going to bring. He likes to play an uptempo game. We’re going to be a fast-paced team. Hopefully can create some excitement.”
In a city parched for any sort of post-season buzz, that’d be welcome.
“Obviously,” says the new boss, “Alex knows me as a coach and as a person. I think he might be my voice, my echo, in the room. If one guy doesn’t really understand a decision, I’m gonna explain it to him, but Alex knows what I want and can help in that regard.
“I think he’s a great communicator. He’s a great guy. A very open guy. He respects people. People respect him. In that way, I think he’s going to be kind of a silent partner for me.
“As a player, well, as everyone knows some of the things he does are unbelievable.”
The old conjuror, with a few tricks still left up his sleeve?
Someone who was there when the magic was new and fresh and unspoiled believes so.
“If he can give me more than he gave me in Colorado,” adds Bob Hartley, with a small smile, “well, that’s going to be pretty unreal.”
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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