CALGARY - Bob Hartley is back in the NHL. What's surprising is it's with the Calgary Flames.
The Montreal Canadiens seemed a likely destination for the Stanley Cup winner because of Hartley's Franco-Ontarian roots. Hartley was in discussions with the Canadiens and some pundits had already made his arrival in Montreal a foregone conclusion.
But the 51-year-old from Hawkesbury, Ont., has signed a three-year contract to coach the Flames, a stalled franchise that hasn't made the playoffs in three years.
He replaces Brent Sutter behind the Flames bench after Sutter and the club parted company in April. Hartley is Calgary's fifth coach since the 2004-05 lockout.
The Flames narrowly missed the playoffs under Sutter for three years in a row, finishing ninth in the Western Conference this past season at 37-29-16.
"One of the teams in the Stanley Cup finals, the L.A. Kings, just finished five points ahead of the Calgary Flames," Hartley said. "It's just to show you the difference between being a Stanley Cup winner and a non-playoff team is very, very slim.
"There's special expectations that come with a Canadian market. Growing up in Ontario, I've won many Stanley Cups playing pond hockey or in the street. I was very fortunate to win a Stanley Cup with Colorado and that's the kind of attitude I want to bring to this dressing room.
"I can promise you and I can promise the fans that we will not only give you entertaining hockey, but we will make sure that the Calgary Flames are a top team in the National Hockey League."
Hartley and Flames general manager Jay Feaster have a close relationship from their days together with the AHL's Hershey Bears. The two men won a Calder Cup together in 1997 before embarking on their respective NHL careers.
Hartley is the godfather of Feaster's son Ryan.
"We've always stayed in touch," Hartley said.
He has experience and a track record of success. Hartley coached for a decade in the NHL with both the Colorado Avalanche and the Atlanta Thrashers and won a Stanley Cup in 2001 win the Avs.
"He's coached Patrick Roy, he's coached Joe Sakic, he's coached Peter Forsberg, he's coached (Ilya) Kovalchuk in Atlanta," Feaster pointed out. "He's coached a lot of high-profile players. I think that is a plus for us.
"I think he's very good at understanding people, what motivates people, what drives people, what drives athletes, what players want to accomplish and how you go about getting that. Bob is a guy who gets people to believe in him. I think that's why he's had success."
The Flames pried Hartley away from the Swiss league's Zurich Lions, who were reluctant to give up a coach who led them to a league championship this season. Hartley had a year remaining on a two-year contract.
Calgary secured Hartley's release from the Lions late Wednesday and quickly called a news conference for the following day. Hartley said he informed new Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin of his decision Thursday morning.
"It was a quick decision, but I have no doubt in my mind that I made the right decision," Hartley said.
When Hartley negotiated his deal with the Swiss club, he asked for an out clause should the Flames, Canadiens or a possible team returning to Quebec City have a job opening.
"I told them 'I will sign any deals you want, but if the Calgary Flames, Montreal Canadiens or even the Quebec Nordiques, if they come back, those teams I would like you remember my picks,'" Hartley explains.
"Out of the blue, Calgary and Montreal are calling one year later so whether I have a crystal ball or I'm just a lucky man, I feel fortunate to be here with you guys."
Hartley had already spoken to Flames captain Jarome Iginla and teammates Alex Tanguay and Mike Cammalleri before meeting the media. Tanguay, who played for Hartley in Colorado, gave him a ringing endorsement on local sports radio.
"Bob will be very well received here," Tanguay told The Fan 960.
Hartley started coaching the Avs in 1998 and was fired partway through his fifth season in Denver. He was quickly hired by the Thrashers, who made their first playoff appearance under Hartley in 2006-07. He was fired just six games into the following season, however, when the team hadn't registered a point.
Hartley then worked as a television analyst for RDS before he was hired by the Lions. Hartley wants Jacques Cloutier, his assistant coach in Switzerland, to join his staff in Calgary. Feaster says he is working on getting that done.
Troy Ward, who coached the Flames' AHL team in Abbotsford, B.C., to playoff success this past season, was among the candidates to replace Sutter.