It wasn’t love at first sight for Bob Hartley when it came to hockey. But once he caught the coaching bug, the rink became his home away from home.
By Louis Jean It’s a few minutes past 6 a.m., but Bob Hartley has already been up for a while. His hair is freshly combed, and his eyes are bright. While most of Calgary is still asleep in the morning darkness, Hartley walks down the steps of his tidy two-story house. From his backyard, he can see his home away from home, the Saddledome, just an eight-minute drive away. As Hartley hops into his white SUV on his way to the office, his mind is already spinning. His thoughts are full with everything he wants to accomplish that day. And his plate is clearly full. Following his Jack Adams Award nod last summer, Hartley was the toast of the coaching community. But good times are often fleeting in the NHL. This season, the Flames have regressed significantly, as many puck watchers and stats-heads predicted, and Hartley is determined to get his team back on track. The hours of an NHL coach are unforgiving, but for Hartley it’s only natural. “I like being the first one in the building,” he said, “and I like locking the door when I leave.”
Hartley’s work ethic comes from his days toiling in a windshield plant in his hometown of Hawkesbury, Ont., an area that has been the preparation ground for some of the best coaches in recent years. Pat Burns, Alain Vigneault, Michel Therrien and Claude Julien all learned their craft within a 45-minute drive of Hawkesbury.
Hartley started at the plant when he was 23. He was a hard worker who wasn’t afraid to put in extra time when needed and was good at what he did. He was also someone his co-workers rallied around. Every year, Hartley organized a company hockey tournament, even getting a marching band to take care of the entertainment. It was in Hawkesbury that Hartley, a goalie in youth hockey, began coaching. In November 1987, after losing its first eight games, the local Jr. A club fired its coach. The team begged Hartley, who was its goalie coach at the time, to take over. He wanted nothing to do with the head coaching position, but he was good friends with the team president, so he took the job on an interim basis. He didn’t particularly like coaching, so every two days, he’d ask for an update on when the new bench boss would be hired. But as days turned into weeks and later months, he started enjoying it and discovered he was a natural. The players responded to his methods, and the team started winning. After a crucial come-from-behind win in the playoffs, Hartley was bitten by the coaching bug. “When we won that game, it was as if I was injected with a dose of coaching,” he said. “From then on, I knew this is what I wanted to do.” It didn’t take much time for the interim tag to be peeled off. Hartley became the club’s full-time coach and eventually led it to a championship in 1990. After the team repeated as champions the following year, Hartley made the single most important decision of his life. He quit his full-time job, with benefits and security, to pursue a career in coaching. The guys on the assembly line thought it was a rash decision, but his talents had caught the eye of the Morrissette family, owners of the QMJHL’s Laval Titan. He was hired in 1991 and brought a championship to Laval two years later. He then did the same with the AHL’s Hershey Bears, the Colorado Avalanche’s farm team, in 1997. One year later, Hartley was rewarded for all his hard work when the Avs gave him the opportunity he’d been waiting for since changing career paths. But the tough-as-nails coach was in for a rude awakening. There was some dead wood to deal with, and it was starting to rot. The Avalanche had a loaded team that had won a Cup two years before, but complacency and entitlement had settled in. On top of that, Hartley had to find a way to handle one of the most talented yet hottest-burning characters in the game, Patrick Roy. On Dec. 21, 1998, the two almost came to blows. Roy didn’t appreciate Hartley pulling him with less than two minutes remaining in a game against Anaheim. It was actually a disguised timeout to rest his star players in what was a close game. The Avs won, but Roy wasn’t happy about getting the hook. An hour after the game, still in full equipment, he went into the coach’s office and ripped into Hartley. “When he came into my office, the coaches and I had our bags on our shoulders and were walking out the back door,” Hartley recalled. “When I saw Roy’s eyes, it was pretty clear he wasn’t coming to deliver a Valentine’s Day card.” Things got heated, and Hartley suggested they settle things the next day. Still fuming, Roy grabbed his stick and broke the TV in the room. The next morning, Hartley called Roy and asked him to come to the rink earlier than usual. He didn’t want things to linger and cause a distraction. They patched things up right then and there. “I wasn’t necessarily proud of how I reacted,” Roy said. “But Hartley showed me that he cared more about the team than about himself. He could have said, ‘Either he goes or I go.’ But he didn’t. He put his ego aside, and two years later, we won the Stanley Cup together.” By June 2001, when the Avalanche had won their second Cup in franchise history, nobody back home in Hawkesbury was questioning Hartley’s decision anymore, and no one there thought he was crazy to chase his dream. Hartley just wishes one person had been there to celebrate it with him. “If I have one regret, it’s that my dad (who died when Hartley was a teenager) wasn’t there to see me when I won the Cup,” he said, fighting back tears, in a rare moment of emotion for a man who tends not to reveal very much of himself in public. Even his closest friends say as soon as things get too emotional, he shuts down. A year and a half later, Hartley was let go by the Avalanche, but he was promptly picked up by Atlanta. He coached the Thrashers for four full seasons until he was dismissed again in early 2007-08. After a brief but successful career as a TV analyst in Montreal, he returned to coaching in 2012 and won a championship in Switzerland. It was then that the Calgary Flames came calling. There are many itineraries that can get a coach to the NHL. Hartley chose a circuitous route, but one thing has remained constant for him. “I would kill to win,” he said. He’s not serious. Probably. The NHL’s comeback kings didn’t do much winning early on this season. Hartley’s Flames struggled to find that late goal like they did so often last season. The goaltending started out a mess, and key additions, like defenseman Dougie Hamilton, took longer than expected to mesh. But can you really count a Hartley-led team out? History suggests the answer is no. Surely that’s because he’s willing to get up earlier, work harder and stay longer than just about anyone else. And his track record suggests that if anyone can get the Flames back on track, it’s the old windshield plant worker from Hawkesbury.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the January 25 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.