“I’ve been excited, but now, I’m starting to get nervous.”
Craig Hartsburg’s an honest guy. He wears it on his sleeve, and he’s wicked smart, too – just as he was during a 10-year playing career that was unfortunately cut short due to injury.
Hartsburg is now 56 years old and serves as John Tortorella’s top assistant (associate) coach on the Blue Jackets’ staff. But 37 years ago, at age 19, Hartsburg was drafted sixth overall by a team known as the Minnesota North Stars.
The North Stars played 26 seasons in Bloomington, Minn. before moving to Dallas in 1993. They were wildly successful, making the playoffs 17 times and twice advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. There’s still a fondness is many Minnesotans’ hearts about the North Stars, a team they felt was stolen from them; Hartsburg is one of those with nothing but great memories from his time wearing the iconic green and gold North Stars sweaters.
And this weekend, he has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to relive some of the best years of his life.
Hartsburg was invited (and graciously accepted) to play in the 2016 Stadium Series Alumni Game on Saturday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, leading up to Sunday’s Coors Light Stadium Series game between the Wild and Blackhawks.
To say he’s looking forward to it would be an understatement, and most of his eagerness doesn’t come from the alumni game itself.
Some of his closest hockey friends and former teammates will be playing, as well, including Curt Giles, Gilles Meloche and Brad Maxwell. Hartsburg was a key cog of those North Stars teams and a mobile defenseman who recorded 413 points in 570 NHL games, so he’ll be looked on to be an impact player on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s going to be fun,” Hartsburg said. “It’s a weekend of seeing old teammates that we haven’t seen for a long time, and seeing old enemies that we haven’t seen – but hopefully those days are long gone (laughs).
“Through the 80s, that was the core group of our team. I’ve talked to a few of them in the last couple of days and I’m looking forward to seeing everybody and telling everyone how great we were in the 80s.”
After going quite a while without skating at any kind of pace, Hartsburg joked that he’s had to crank it up in recent months. He’s been skating with the Blue Jackets’ front office staff on game days – a group that includes guys half his age and a handful of guys who played in the NHL not too long ago – to get up to speed.
Hartsburg just hopes the matchups are fair.
“If I play bad or good, it’s all their fault,” Hartsburg said with a laugh. “I haven’t hardly skated for years as far as going hard. I’m going to time my shifts. Hopefully they match the lines up right so the 56 and 57-year-olds can play against each other.”
Hartsburg was a little concerned about missing the Blue Jackets’ Friday night home game against the Buffalo Sabres in order to travel to Minnesota for the Stadium Series weekend, but his boss was quick to erode any notion of concern.
After the Alumni Game on Saturday afternoon (5 p.m. ET on NHL Network), Hartsburg will fly to Boston and meet the Blue Jackets before their Monday night game at TD Garden.
“It’s fantastic and I’m so excited for him,” Tortorella said. “If you ever watched him play, he was such a terrific player. He’s been talking about this for a while. He feels bad he’s leaving, but he has to go – it’s once in a lifetime. When you’re gone from the game, these are the most important people in your life, the relationships and the people you went through it with.
“Those relationships are so important, so he cannot miss this. We encouraged him to leave early because we want him to spend as much as time as he can…it’s something he’ll never forget.”