There is a school-teacher sort of quality to Calgary Flames coach Bob Hartley – not the tyrant type or the ones you want to forget, but the calm and inspirational ones who show patience and determination and instill all the right values.
Hartley is in a unique position – coaching a rebuilding Flames team that opens a five-game road trip in Montreal on Sunday, with three of its starting centres on the sideline because of injury, along with its leading goal-scorer, Mason Raymond. Injuries are a fact of NHL life, but in a salary-cap world, the hardest ones to overcome are the ones that deplete a single critical position. So instead of having regulars Mikael Backlund, Joe Colborne and Matt Stajan in the lineup for Friday's date with the Nashville Predators, the Flames' centre-ice corps consisted of Sean Monahan, Paul Byron, Lance Bouma and call-up Markus Granlund.
In theory, this could have represented an opportunity for Sam Bennett, the team's No. 1 pick in the 2014 entry draft, to play but alas, Bennett too is on the shelf – sidelined by major shoulder surgery that will keep him out four to six months. But there was Hartley on Friday, completely unfazed by the challenge, speaking animatedly about Michael Ferland's NHL debut and the fun they're having collectively, a team projected to finish last in the conference, a tick above .500 and playing everybody tough every single night.
"There's a bunch of kids here; it feels like Romper Room, but that's okay," said Hartley.
Hartley joined the Flames two years ago after winning a championship in the Swiss League with Zurich, reuniting with general manager Jay Feaster, with whom he'd worked previously in the Colorado Avalanche organization. Feaster was subsequently replaced by a new regime in Calgary, featuring Brian Burke as director of hockey operations and Brad Treliving as GM.
Normally, this can create an awkward situation, and Hartley is on the final year of his original contract, with no clear sense of what happens next. In training camp, Hartley was okay with the arrangement and understood that for all the good things that have been accomplished here in the past little while – mostly how the Flames have forged a new hard-working identity after playing for years as a tired, old squad – the bottom line in professional sport is winning, and Calgary didn't do enough of it last year. So he's trying to navigate that fine line – balancing the need to develop players with the goal of winning NHL games.
"Leaving Zurich, part of the talk was this team had to go through a rebuild – and you can't go through a rebuild if you don't show confidence in your young players," said Hartley.
"For me, it's a very easy equation. If you put tons of pressure on those kids, they're going to crumble. You don't give them a chance to succeed. So we're giving them challenges and they're having fun and they're working hard. We're making everything possible."
Through a first month that went unexpectedly well in Calgary, the Flames were a respectable 5-4-2 in their first 11 games, including an impressive 4-2 road trip midmonth that saw them hand two teams, the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville, their first losses of the season.
Wherever they play, the Flames get high marks for their effort, squeezing every last bit of performance and production from a lineup that's getting excellent goaltending from Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo, and has an under-the-radar deep defence corps, built around team captain Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie. But scoring was supposed to be an issue, and it has been, and it probably isn't going to improve any time soon, not with the handful of players who were producing offence suddenly not available.
But Hartley is nothing if not positive. The team motto – from the start of the Hartley era – was 'nothing given, everything earned' and they've been true to that. The most well-known prospect in the organization is Sven Baertschi, a former first-rounder, who has struggled in the minors in the first month. Some organizations might have done the expeditious thing and given the hot-shot prospect a look anyway during the injury spree, but others were playing better, so they were promoted instead and are now getting their NHL breaks.
"There are too many freebies in pro sports," explained Hartley. "When there are freebies, usually it doesn't equate to success. Accountability is out the door.
"As a coach in pro sports, you're always being judged. It's like having your office under a microscope. Fans rate you. Your bosses rate you. Media rates you – and the players rate you. They rate every one of your decisions … and that's the way it is.
"The best way to build something, and to hope for success, is with honesty. If it doesn't start with hard work, I don't know. I never went to school, so I only know about hard work. Hard work creates standards.
"Last year, we said, 'earned, never given' – then Brad came in and he added 'always earned, never given.' When I sat with him the first time, it was great, because we talked about philosophies and it seemed as if we'd already worked three or four years together. He supports me because those are his own beliefs – and looking at his background, nobody gave him anything either."
Hartley is the original self-made man. He came to be an NHL coach through a long, circuitous path – working in the mills of his Hawkesbury, Ont., hometown and moonlighting as the coach of the local tier-two junior team.
He's won championships in junior, minor pro, the NHL and in Europe. In Colorado, he had the luxury of a gloriously talented lineup in their Stanley Cup run and now they're trying to develop one with the Flames.
In short, Hartley's lived the motto – everything earned, nothing given. A contract extension some time soon wouldn't be the worst idea they ever had in Calgary.