Last week, before the NHL lockout became official, Bob Hartley was sitting behind his desk, in the bowels of the Scotiabank Saddledome, uncertainty in the air, pondering the task ahead. Hartley is the first-year coach of the Calgary Flames, hired away from the ZSC (Zurich) Lions in the off-season to replace Brent Sutter.
Overall, it was a relatively quiet summer on the hired-to-get-fired front, with only three of the seven Canadian-based NHL teams actually changing coaches. The Edmonton Oilers promoted Ralph Krueger to replace Tom Renney and the Montreal Canadiens hired Michel Therrien to take over from Randy Cunneyworth.
No one can predict exactly how long the lockout may last, but if there’s some form of a shortened 2012-13 NHL season, you can already be sure of a few things: Training camps will be truncated; the schedule will be squeezed; and teams will need to hit the ground running, or risk falling behind too far too fast in the spring toward the playoffs.
This is not good news for the Flames, Oilers and Canadiens and their respective new regimes. Nowadays, NHL players generally report to training camp in top physical shape – a different approach than say, 40 years ago, when training camps were held so players could get fit. Conditioning is usually not an issue.
Most of what happens now is teaching.
Some would argue that the NHL is overcoached, and if so, September is the time when that over-coaching occurs. Players meticulously learn the system, become familiar with the coaching staff and generally figure out the intricacies of how they’re supposed to play.
Krueger may have the easiest time of the three, because he was promoted from within the Oilers’ organization, so he has a good handle on their personnel. But for Hartley? Apart from having a young Alex Tanguay on the 2001 Colorado Avalanche team he led to a Stanley Cup, he has limited first-hand experience with the players he will eventually come to rely on.
Hartley sent out a four-page questionnaire to Flames’ players in the summer, and most had been returned before the lockout began.
“For me, the person is more important than the player,” said Hartley, in an interview. “I don’t believe as a coach that I motivate the player. I motivate the person. So if I don’t know the person, I’m relying on luck, or I’m shooting in the dark. I’m a details-oriented guy, so obviously, I need time.”
Time he may not have.
But Hartley hastily added: “At the same time, we’re not here to make excuses. I came here and my mandate from the owners and from [president] Ken King is pretty clear. We want to win. Rebuilding is not part of our dictionary here.
“We have an established group, a core that can make the difference. I’ve always been a big believer in communication, but it’s even more important this year. Not only am I new, but Marty Gélinas and Jacques Cloutier [his assistants], we are a new group. So that makes it even more challenging.”
Hartley was at pains to say that he had no issues with the way the Flames played last season under Sutter, but suggested he would take a different approach. Hartley’s teams in Colorado played an attacking style. In Switzerland, where the 1-4 defensive posture is common, he implemented a go-go approach and the learning curve was slow in the beginning.
His Zurich team was 5-8 out of the gate and he briefly considered going against his natural coaching grain by implementing a more defensive oriented system. In the end, he stuck with his program, the players finally figured it out and ultimately, Zurich won it all.
Something to keep in mind, if the Flames require a similar adjustment period.
“As a coach, I believe I have my own recipe book,” Hartley said. “That’s what makes us all different. That’s why some of us succeed and some of us fail. It’s not only depending on our style, it’s how our style matches and meets with what we have [player-wise].”
Hartley has a long history with Flames’ general manager Jay Feaster dating to their days together with the Hershey Bears. He was also a candidate to fill the coaching job that opened up with the Canadiens earlier this summer.
He could have returned to Zurich as a conquering hero this year to run a team that plays a not-so-taxing 50-game schedule and visits such grim locations as Lugano and Davos.
Instead, he took up the challenge of coaching the Flames, a team that has missed the playoffs for three years running and, at best, appears to be treading water, with an aging core and a captain, Jarome Iginla, coming off a modest 67-point season. Many nights, the Flames looked like a stale team last year, and finished ninth overall in the NHL’s Western Conference.
Hartley, a bubbly cauldron of effervescent positive energy, likes to talk about the fortunes of the team that finished directly in front of the Flames.
“This community missed the playoffs for three years in a row,” he said. “At the same time, our friends from L.A. finished five points ahead of us, and while we’re still a non-playoff team, they’re the Stanley Cup champions. So if you go through 82 games last season, you can pinpoint five points that got away.
“So we’re talking about a fresh start here that includes everybody. We cannot be in our own comfort zones.”