Cross Checks: Bob Hartley

Flames not living down to expectations

October, 10, 2013
10/10/13
12:26
PM ET
FlamesDerek Leung/Getty ImagesThe Flames are scoring, winning and not believing the dire predictions.

If this were the English Premier League, the Calgary Flames, according to preseason predictions, would be slated for relegation after this season.

Fortunately, it’s the NHL, and no matter how many games you lose, you get to stay with the big boys.

And you better believe every single member of the Flames organization knows what has been said about them heading into this season.

"I told the players, 'If you read what they wrote about us, (1) we’re lucky to be in the league, and (2) if you read every single thing they wrote, you might want to retire,'" Flames head coach Bob Hartley told ESPN.com over the phone from Calgary on Thursday.

But, as opposed to focusing on wanting to prove people wrong, Hartley told his players to prove some people right. The right people.

"Jay Feaster and Brian Burke believe in us," he said, referring to the team's general manager and president of hockey operations, respectively. "Let’s prove them right. I said to the players, 'In life, I’ve always tried to prove people right those who believe in me. Your detractors, you can prove them wrong, but personally I want this group to be a positive group. I’d rather we go and prove our fans, our families, our sponsors right. We play for ourselves.'"

Hartley’s words have obviously found a receptive audience, with his team being one of the early season surprises on the young NHL season. And it’s not just because they've got points in all four games (2-0-2), but their compete level in those games has been impressive.

"They surprised us," said one member of a coaching staff from one of the teams Calgary has played. "They moved the puck really well and had good team speed."

The Flames are not going to match up talent-wise with most teams on most nights this season. But what Hartley and his staff are trying to instill early on is the fact they won’t be outhustled. And so far, it shows. They’re like a pack of wild dogs that haven’t eaten in two days. And all this without their top offensive threat in the lineup, as Mike Cammalleri remains on the shelf.

"Right now, the boys are playing with passion and playing hard," Hartley said. "There aren't too many secrets to our game."

The key for any kind of success this group was going to have this season was something decided at the end of last season.

"The biggest thing going for us is our conditioning," Hartley said. "I told the players at their exit meetings last season that since we were going to have a normal training camp and we were in a rebuilding process, I really believed that our No. 1 priority was our conditioning. There’s no way that we can raise the Baertschis, the Brodies, the Monahans and those young kids in an atmosphere of a country club. We have to teach them the right way. We have to make them good pros. And while we teach them to be good pros, for the veterans, we would give ourselves a chance to bring another gear to our own careers. I have to give all the players credit. They really bought in. You should see our fitness scores at training camp. We had some unbelievable scores."

And it was a hard camp. The tone was set early, with Hartley’s staff handing out T-shirts that had a firefighter flavor to it -- to underline the blue-collar approach for this season -- with the slogan, "Earn, Never Given." Every player’s job was on the line this season. The players worked out one day at a firefighter academy, there was paintball with the Canadian Army ... you get the picture.

And so far, they've bought in.

"This is a very fun group to worth with. They’re just unbelievable," Hartley said. "They show up to work every day. Our practices are basically [at] game intensity. They’re always in the gym. It’s really fun."

The man wearing the "C" has helped in that regard.

"Mark Giordano is doing an unbelievable job as captain. He’s a solid, solid, solid guy," the coach said.

It’s a long year, however. The plan in Calgary hasn’t changed. This is about rebuilding the organization from top to bottom.

Case in point, here’s the frank assessment from a Western Conference team executive who requested anonymity: "Through the first week of the season, they have proven to be a very hard-working team. That is a testament to their coaching staff. However, they have caught a few teams off-guard in the early going. As the season unfolds, they will be extremely challenged due to their reliance on young centers such as [Mikael] Backlund and Monahan, and will be hard-pressed to produce goals from their wingers. In addition, after Giordano, [T.J.] Brodie and [Dennis] Wideman, their defense corp is woefully thin. [Karri] Ramo hasn't played in North America in four years and Joey MacDonald has yet to prove that he can carry the load for a contending team. All this makes for a lethal combination."

And perhaps that’s why betting shop Bovada (it's called Bodog in Canada) came out this week in the wake of Peter Laviolette's firing in Philadelphia and listed Hartley as the next best bet to go. The folks at Bovada/Bodog must not have watched the Flames play early this season. The coach is pushing all the right buttons.

And, yes, Hartley was made aware of his new standing on the betting line.

"I don’t pay any attention to that stuff," Hartley said. "We know in the NHL, we’re all on an interim basis to start with. The day you start coaching a team, you know the clock has started. It’s just a matter of when.

"I don’t coach to save my job, I coach to win games. I've always been that way, and I will always remain the same. I feel as a coach if you’re not yourself, you have zero chance. I just want to give this team a chance to win. If my team has some success, I don’t have to worry about myself as a person. That’s how I've always looked at it. If I would have lived my life by every rumor, I would have coached 40 teams and been fired 60 times."

Then there’s a quick pause, before Hartley finishes his thought.

"My job is to prove Jay Feaster and Brian Burke right. Whatever Mad Dog or Bodog says, I don’t really give a s---."

Hard not to cheer for this guy, right?

Back in the day, when Bob Hartley was a young, aspiring coach not long departed from the windshield factory he worked at on the assembly line, his young son Steve insisted on dressing like his dad before departing the house to take in a game.

By the end of the game the toddler, decked out in a suit and tie not unlike that worn by his father behind the bench, would be fast asleep on his mother's lap but happy as a clam in his coach's suit.

"Now he's a coach," Bob Hartley said, not a little bit of wonderment in the voice of the Calgary Flames coach.

Steve Hartley only vaguely recalls the mini-me suit -- "very vaguely," he said -- but nonetheless it is interesting to chart the sometimes intersecting, circular paths fathers and sons choose, as father and son find themselves dressing in their own coaching garb on a daily basis, following similar routines and chasing similar dreams.

Steve Hartley, 27, is an assistant coach with the Halifax Mooseheads, the most dominant major junior team in North America, a team that as of this writing had won 11 straight in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs and boasted two of the top junior players in North America in Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin.

"It's an honor just being able to work with some of the best young players in the world," Steve Hartley told ESPN.com recently. "Every day getting a chance to see how great they are," he added, referencing the entire team and not just MacKinnon and Drouin.

Steve Hartley recalls his younger days in Colorado, when his father was coaching a Colorado Avalanche team blessed with some of the greatest talent of all time. The younger Hartley has enjoyed a long friendship with defenseman Ray Bourque's son Chris, and sometimes after the Avs were done with their workouts, Steve, a young goaltender, would be peppered by shots from the future Hall of Fame defenseman. Steve also was given a gift of equipment by Patrick Roy after Roy's final season in the NHL.

Next, the Mooseheads will play the team in which Roy has an ownership stake and whom he coaches, the Quebec Remparts.

Hartley
Dale Zanine/US PresswireLongtime NHL coach Bob Hartley (shown in 2006 with the Atlanta Thrashers; he's now with the Flames) won the Stanley Cup while with Colorado.
Earlier this season, Steve Hartley heard a knock on the door to the coaches' office and looked up to see Roy standing there, dropping by for a visit. As if we need reminding that hockey is a small town spread out over vast distances, when Roy was nearing the end of his playing career he would press the senior Hartley about coaching philosophies, the ideas behind various drills, banking knowledge that he would use in the future.

And then there is Halifax GM Cam Russell.

The former NHL defenseman hails from nearby Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. He jokes that he was Cole Harbour's first star, before a kid named Sidney Crosby. He's been involved with the Mooseheads since 2000, when he was an assistant coach. He took over as head coach in 2006-07 and is now the GM of the team.

Russell's final NHL season was spent playing for the Avalanche. His coach? Bob Hartley.

He said Steve Hartley has the ability to connect with players and isn't afraid of the grunt work that comes with high-level coaching -- tasks like breaking down video and studying opponents' tendencies.

"He's a guy that puts in lots of hours," Russell told ESPN.com. "He has a good knowledge of the game and a really good rapport with the players."

Having played for the elder Hartley and watched the younger Hartley work the Mooseheads' bench, Russell said the two have distinct personalities.

"Steve is a little more animated a little more vocal," Russell said.

As a former player and coach, Russell conceded that he had no idea of the transition from playing to coaching teenage boys.

"It was the biggest eye-opener for me," he said. "I thought it would be an easy next step. But you've got to maintain that even keel. You have to be the hardest-working person in the room."

Steve Hartley has that work ethic. That his father is an NHL head coach whose name is on the Stanley Cup isn't a bad thing, either.

"You don't see that every day," Russell acknowledged. "It's kind of cool."

Steve Hartley spent many summers working with youngsters at the hockey school his father has run for years in Hershey, Pa., where he coached in the American Hockey League. After abandoning playing as a career -- he spent two years with NCAA Division I Miami University and then closed out his career playing Junior A hockey in Joliette, Quebec -- Steve returned to Atlanta, where he was born during his father's tenure as coach of the Atlanta Thrashers.

There, he started helping out J.A. Schneider, younger brother of longtime NHLer Mathieu Schneider, who was trying to grow a local junior hockey program, the Atlanta Knights. At one point Steve Hartley took over as coach of the team and had success in his first coaching experience.

"I really enjoyed it," he said. "I kind of got the bug."

After a couple of years working with young players in the Atlanta area, Steve Hartley returned to Joliette to take the head coaching job there. Last season, he got the call to join the Mooseheads in Halifax, where Dominique Ducharme, Hartley's former coach in Joliette, was the head coach.

As Steve Hartley has charted a career as a coach, he's relied on his father's advice, including turning down at least one offer of a head coaching job in the QMJHL.

"When you start, you think you know a lot," Steve Hartley said. "The more you work at it, though, the more you find out how little you know.

"It's unreal how much you can learn in a couple of years or a couple of seasons. I consider myself very fortunate to have been around some really good hockey people."

That list would include his father, of course. The two still talk almost every day.

"I'm happy to have the dialogue. Sometimes he'll tell me about mistakes that he might have made that he doesn't want me to repeat," Steve Hartley said.

Sometimes Steve will send along a clip of something that happened in a Mooseheads game, "and I'll ask him some questions," Steve said.

"He's always available. I think that's the biggest thing."

That is no small thing, given how demanding the life of an NHL coach can be.

"He wants to do it. I'm just supporting him like many people supported me," Bob Hartley said in a recent interview. "Everyone says it's a crazy life, but if you're passionate and you like it, why not?"

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