Well-versed in the art of ducking as a form of professional survival, from either flak or flattery, Bob Hartley is adept at rolling with the punches.
“Rocks or flowers,” he mused last fall of the types of ammo annually thrown at people in his highly-public, intensely-particular profession. “It’s either one or the other.”
Which of the two, naturally, depends on circumstances.
Well, head’s up …
Those weren’t petunias or hydrangeas whistling past his left ear a week or so ago.
No big, shiny trophy with names like Bowman, Sather and Arbour etched in for posterity to haul home this summer. No signature DQ 'Flaming C' ice cream cakes. No fawning. No fist-pumps or back-slaps at the neighborhood gas station.
Just a flurry of conjecture over job security and his qualifications for moving the program forward.
Not quite 12 months after dressing up like a waiter and accepting the Jack Adams Trophy on the Awards stage in Las Vegas, no less.
But hey, comes with a treacherous terrain.
Hartley is accustomed to being the convenient target, that ‘Yeah, but you can’t replace all the players’ guy. He’s far from alone in that fickle cocoon. Michel Therrien of the Montreal Canadiens, Claude Julien of the Boston Bruins have only just survived such scrutiny. Dave Cameron of the Ottawa Senators did not.
In his time, Hartley’s run the gamut: Hired, fired, feted, forsaken and fled overseas to re-establish his NHL credentials.
So this is nothing new.
“For me … you guys know me by now,’’ Hartley said. “It’s not about myself. It’s about my team.
“I never coach a day to save my job. I try to do what’s right. I try to do an honest job. I try to do what’s best for the Calgary Flames’ organization or whatever organization I’ve worked in in the past.
“That has always been my way of doing business. I’m not an ego guy.
“I do this because it’s my passion.
“My goal, my passion, my dream, is to come back next season and make the best of it.”
Understandably, given a non-playoff spring after the vertigo-inducing heights to which the Flames scaled a year ago, Hartley finds himself in the crosshairs, standing in the dock of public opinion.
Should he stay or should he go is a popular local parlour game hereabouts these days.
Hartley’s approval rating has undeniably dipped and there was no iron-clad backing from the general manager on clean-out day.
Everything, everyone, said Brad Treliving sombrely, is under review.
As it should be.
No one at Scotiabank Saddledome is a bundle of happiness these days.
In the ranks of the professional coaching business, there are, of course, precious few guarantees. The backward leap from canonization to canned has happened before, often, and will be ever thus.
Understanding as much, Hartley doesn’t even mind heading into next season without a guaranteed long-term commitment. Been there, done that. After all, he hung in before being rewarded with a contract extension midway through that triumphant 2014-15 campaign.
“Whether I have a minute, an hour, a week or 10 years left on my contract it doesn’t change the way I approach the game, the way I approach my job. We work as a group, starting with Brad, with Brian Burke, with my coaching staff. We share the same philosophy.
“We agree on the way Flames’ hockey should be played, on the style of our game. But at the same time, we know that it’s a business.
“That’s the way it is.”
The business is winning. Is improving.
And there’s no arguing the whole enterprise took a decided dip last season.
But when Hartley says “it’s always easy after”, he’s could not be more right. Yet even given the depth of disappointment endured in not following up the playoff run of two springtimes ago, his blue-chip bunch of kids -- Brodie, Gaudreau, Monahan, Colborne, Backlund, Bennett - all took further steps forward.
Clearly, the man can nurture emerging talent.
Hartley, the ultimate populist, helped bring the pride back to a wounded city, a relevance to a organization. That should never be forgotten.
In saying so, he deserves another shot to try back the ship off the rocks and back into open water.
“We have a big challenge in front of us,’’ Hartley freely admitted, already looking past the immediate personal conjecture and peering off towards September. “Lots of work and I’m already in training camp mode right now.”
In the last two tries, he’s broken even. This season shapes up as the tiebreaker.
In his position, you’re always ducking, either rocks or flowers.
“Last year,’’ he admitted last September, before this year's inconsistent exploits, “we had to prove we could do it. This year, we have to prove we belong.
"So, whatever we're going to read in the paper or see on TV, or whatever your neighbour tells you across the backyard fence, smile. Just smile."
A resigned shrug.
"Rocks or flowers.
“The plan doesn't change."
Neither, despite the storm clouds gathering overhead, should the coach.