Back in NHL, Hartley attacks challenges in Calgary

Friday, 03.22.2013 / 4:28 PM
John Manasso  - Correspondent

After the Calgary Flames lost for the eighth straight time on the road Thursday, coach Bob Hartley did not look like a man who was enjoying his return to the NHL after a five-year hiatus.

But go back a few hours earlier after his team completed an optional skate and his love for what he does could not be hidden.

"When you coach in the NHL, it's not a job, it's a privilege," said Hartley, who won the Stanley Cup in 2001 as the coach of the Colorado Avalanche. "We're coaching the best hockey players in the world in the best hockey league in the world. As a kid, you're 6, you're 8, you're 10, you're 12, you're playing on the pond, you're playing in the rink, you're playing in the street, you dream of playing in the NHL.

"Well, obviously, that didn't happen for me, but later on the kid in me got behind the bench. That's certainly a big thrill. Like I said, that's a privilege for me. You have to be grateful for every day you step into an NHL arena, because you can't go higher than this."

When he was hired by Flames general manager Jay Feaster, a close friend since their days with Hershey of the American Hockey League, Hartley was charged with turning around a franchise that has not won a round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2004 or gone to the postseason since 2009. It represented the end of a journey for Hartley that made him a star among the French-language media in Quebec on RDS and earned him another championship on his résumé last year in Switzerland.

Though he said he is not much different from when he previously coached in the NHL with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2007, the experiences sound as if they have changed him.

"He likes to tell his stories and he's a pretty good communicator with other people," said his son Steve, 27, an assistant with Halifax in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and one example of Hartley's rising number of protégés among the coaching ranks. "But at the same time, I think one of the things he's told me about his time in the media is that maybe it opened his eyes to certain things and maybe to even be a better communicator with players, but also with the media -- how the media can help you, how it can hurt you. I think it was a good experience for him."

Bob Hartley said that whether it was as an analyst during training camp, the trade deadline or the postseason, he prepared for his work in the media as he did when he was a coach, and it helped to keep him sharp.

"Working in the media, around hockey, I still had my dose of my drug," he said.

Ironically, Hartley could be a confrontational figure with the media in the past during his NHL tenure, which included four consecutive trips to the Western Conference Finals with Colorado and five playoff berths. The way things are going in Calgary, however, it does not look as if he will add to that total this season. The Flames are tied for last in the Western Conference, six points out of playoff position, and their captain and the face of their franchise, Jarome Iginla, could be on the trading block.

Yet Hartley refuses to call his mission a rebuilding project, something that can be hard to sell in a Canadian market.

"For me as a coach, rebuilding is not in the vocabulary," he said. "You have to win today. At the NHL level [it is] far different from the AHL, where at the AHL you're not gauged on wins or losses, you're gauged on how many kids you bring up ready for the NHL and you grow up many young talented players in your organization. At the NHL level you have to win today, prepare tomorrow. But for me, that's always how I've been. I've always worked for the organization and I execute the mandate they've given me."

Among the Flames' bigger issues has been a team save percentage, at .881, which ranks as the lowest in the League. That is a result of a mix of factors, including an injury to No. 1 goalie Miikka Kiprusoff that caused him to miss 13 games, and struggles by his replacements until the Flames claimed Joey MacDonald on waivers. But the Flames' penchant for turnovers also showed up in a 5-3 loss against the Nashville Predators on Thursday, something Hartley and his staff have yet to be able to correct.

Those are the kinds of issues that Hartley, a consummate networker, is constantly on the phone with his disciples in the coaching ranks helping them to sort out. Thursday, he said he had just received a call from Patrick Roy, with whom he remains close since their days together with the Avalanche. In fact, Hartley's influence might be felt most closely in the QMJHL, where Roy coaches the Quebec Remparts.

In this season's regular season standings, three of the top five teams were coached by his former players. Eric Veilleux of Baie-Comeau and Roy each have won the Memorial Cup. In the AHL, Brad Larsen, who played for him in Colorado and with the Thrashers, has his Springfield team sitting in first place of the Northeast Division.

Some of his former players in the coaching ranks are even starting to bubble up to the NHL: Paul Jerrard is an assistant with the Dallas Stars, Pascal Vincent is an assistant with the Winnipeg Jets and Dan Hinote is an assistant with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

While Hartley's style may be that of a hard-charger unafraid to wield the whip, his son Steve noted how he had inspired some of his followers.

"I know his method maybe at times does not always sit with everyone," Steve said. "The credit goes to him to show I think he has reached a certain pretty good amount of his players over the years. When you talk to guys like Eric Veilleux, (Halifax coach) Dominique Ducharme, who I work with on a daily basis, they say playing with him was a great experience and a good influence, and when they became coaches that's who they somewhat want to model their style around.

"I think he enjoys giving back to them, helping them out, talking to them on almost a weekly basis. … It's a good sounding board to have when we do have questions."

Bob Hartley said he takes pride in that.

"I like to believe I am a very detail-oriented coach," he said. "I like to teach."

Some of his protégés -- Roy often is rumored -- could someday could rise to become NHL coaches. Among the interesting ones to watch is Steve Hartley, who is moving up the ranks quickly. Over the holidays, Steve worked as an assistant with Quebec's Under-16 team in an international tournament, which it won.

In his son's decision to go into coaching, Bob Hartley sees some of what caused him to leave a good job in a windshield plant in his hometown of Hawkesbury, Ontario, to coach the local junior team -- a journey that has brought him to where he is now.

"I was happy," he said of his Steve's choice. "Hockey is great. Whenever you can work around the game you love so much, so few people, they can look at 30, 40, 50 years old and say, 'I'm doing the job I was dreaming of as a kid.' Not very many people can say this, and obviously it's a very competitive business, but which market today is not competitive?

"You see big plants closing down. You see big companies laying off thousands of employees, so before I always heard there's no job security in this business. Well, in this world today, there's not too many jobs with security. That's why I told him, 'Hey, go for it. I'm supporting you.'"

Job security -- it's something Hartley knows all too well will not last if he cannot eventually get the Flames turned around. He said he has never been afraid of a challenge.

"Obviously, I'd like to win more than what we've been winning," he said. "I'm working with a great bunch of guys, I'm working with a great group of coaches, personnel, management. The ownership is really committed to making the Calgary Flames a winning organization. Obviously, we're trying to win today. That's the mandate that has been given to me."

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