When the Calgary Flames hired Bob Harley in late May, it was fair to wonder whether the team made the right choice.
Will he still have it after five years away from the game? Should the Flames have gone a younger route? Is he the right coach to get Calgary back to the post-season?
There’s no question Hartley has a certain reputation in NHL circles.
When he was first introduced to the media in Calgary, one writer asked him about his “Bob Heartless” nickname, referring to his alleged cold and demanding track record.
The term ‘cold’ might be a little harsh, and I don’t get the sense that it applies in the numerous chances I’ve had to talk to him. Demanding, on the other hand, seems to be as accurate as it gets.
Steve McCarthy joined the Abbotsford Heat this season, the top affiliate of the Flames, thanks to his connection with Hartley. McCarthy won a Swiss League title with him last season and also spent parts of three seasons with Hartley in Atlanta.
“He’s a very demanding coach and he demands results and when you don’t get that he’s hard on you,” McCarthy told Sportsnet 960 The FAN last month. “I had a tough time with him in Atlanta and then the same thing in Zurich last year. There was a stretch where I wasn’t playing well and I wasn’t in the lineup, and that’s just how he works.”
McCarthy never played a full season in Atlanta, thanks in part to various injuries and issues with his performance. Hartley rode the former first-round pick for all kinds of things, ranging from conditioning to defensive play
To say the 52-year-old expects the best from his players would be an understatement.
“I would say he’s demanding, there’s no doubt,” Marc Denis, who played for Hartley, told sportsnet.ca. “Things have to be a certain way, especially when it comes to worth ethic and the level necessary to compete night in and night out is always asked.”
Denis played for Harley in Colorado and in the AHL and realizes why his former coach has had plenty of success along the way.
“He’s a great technician; he’s a student of the game. He’ll try to provide the players with the tools necessary to get there and to play the system that he wants to be played.”
However, Hartley’s impact on players doesn’t really become clear until you talk to a player who was in his doghouse on more than one occasion.
“In the moment, it’s not fun at all,” said McCarthy. “But when you take a step back in the summer, or the following year where you may not have him as a coach…you realize how much of a better player you are.
“It’s tough, it’s demanding, and obviously there are some days that are better than others. But it almost seems when you’re away from the game and you take a step back, you realize how much he pushes you out of your comfort zone, and when you do that, you become a better player.”
With over 300 NHL wins to his name with two teams, Hartley can boast a Stanley Cup championship with the Avalanche in 2001. He’s also the only coach that led the Atlanta Thrashers to the playoffs, something they did back in his final full season with the team.
Setting high expectations isn’t a brand new concept in the coaching ranks. It’s something that should be expected from any coach at this level of the game.
At the same time, you don’t get a reputation like Hartley’s without it being rooted in truth. It’s a truth the coach doesn’t back away from because he knows it’s something that has helped him get to where he is.
“I remember the best minor hockey coach that I had was in the Ontario Provincial Police,” Hartley told Sportsnet 960 The FAN. “At the time, we thought that he was tough with six o’clock practice and before we went to school we had to bring our school reports to him. I never brought my school reports to any other coach. We had to wear a tie…if our tie was crooked a little bit, well we could sit the first period on the bench.
“At that time, we were not very happy, but looking back, this guy was trying not only to teach us about hockey but to teach us about life and winning the right way.”
One thing about Hartley, he really does inspire confidence when he speaks. But so did Sutter when he first took over, and the results just weren’t there for him.
This is a team, despite some new additions, that is aging and has not made the playoffs in several seasons. Until we see how things play out on the ice, we can’t really applaud or condemn the team’s newest coaching choice.
That being said, from what we’ve heard from and about Hartley, I don’t think it’s wrong to be excited about what he may be able to accomplish in Calgary.