Ultimately, the Calgary Flames' choice when it came to making a new coaching hire was between the tried-and-true candidate, Bob Hartley, and the rising star, Troy Ward. Both were familiar to Flames' general manager Jay Feaster, who worked closely with Ward this season, where he did a commendable job guiding the team's primary minor-league affiliate, the Abbotsford Heat.
But Hartley was an intriguing choice too, someone who'd coached extensively in the NHL for both the Colorado Avalanche, where he won a Stanley Cup, and with the Atlanta Thrashers, where he had a team that was often overmatched in games.
It was never completely clear which way Feaster would lean. Officially, he tried to deflect his interest in Hartley by noting that he was one year into a two-year contract to coach Zurich of the Swiss league. But when Hartley took the job in Switzerland, he negotiated an out-clause for three possible destinations, Calgary and the Montreal Canadiens, along with a third city, Quebec that is hoping to land an NHL team one of these days.
Hartley is known as a hard task master. Left winger Alex Tanguay knows him better than any player on the team, after breaking in with Colorado as a rookie when Hartley was coaching there. Tanguay's relationship with Hartley reportedly had some up-and-down moments, but there is little doubt that whatever Hartley's methods may be, they work. Zurich won a championship; Hartley also won in the minors with Hershey in 1997 and then in the NHL with the Avs. Moreover, the notion of hiring a coach with an old-school attitude is de rigueur again in the NHL, in the wake of Darryl Sutter's success in Los Angeles, and Dale Hunter's with the Washington Capitals.
In a statement, Feaster called Hartley, "a winner. Bob has won at every level he has coached, from the QMJHL to the AHL to the NHL to Switzerland, and we are confident he is going to continue his winning ways in Calgary," said Flames General Manager Jay Feaster. "He is a tireless worker, an outstanding motivator, a great bench boss and game strategist; and a teacher at heart. Moreover, he is a great person as well. We look forward to Bob and his wife Micheline joining the Flames family, and to Bob taking our hockey club to the next level."
What I remember most about Hartley is a time when I was travelling with the Avalanche, soon after they'd acquired Theo Fleury from the Calgary Flames. The trip took the team to Florida, for a game against Pavel Bure, and after falling far behind, they rallied on an exceptional third-period performance from Peter Forsberg. Post-game, Hartley had a lot of nice things to say about Forsberg, and in every reference, he pointedly referred to him as Mr. Forsberg. Mr. Forsberg this. Mr. Forsberg that. It was a means of showing respect; and of distinguishing this virtuoso performance from a lot of other very good ones.
Hartley knows how to handle skilled teams. He knows how to handle high-end players. He should be a good coach for Jarome Iginla.
Hartley thanked the ZSC Lions for agreeing to let him leave the organization after a championship season to pursue the opportunity in Calgary, a city he knows reasonably well after his years in Denver with the Avs.
"It's great to return to the League in a city, a community and an organization that has such an outstanding reputation and passion for hockey and success. I look forward to assuming my position and starting the preparation process for the 2012-13 season."
During his five seasons in Colorado, the Avalanche won four division titles and made four appearances in the conference finals. Hartley's third season was ultimately his most successful one as Colorado steam-rolled through the league with a 52–16–10–4 record, a division title along with the President's Trophy and the Stanley Cup. Hartley's tenure with the Avalanche franchise ended in December of 2002 with a 193–109–48 regular season record and a 49–31 playoff record. His 193 wins are a franchise record. He became the only coach in team history to record 40 or more wins during his first four seasons as head coach.
Hartley was running Atlanta during the 2006-07 season in which they won their first Southeast Division title, setting new franchise records for wins and points with a 43–28–11 record, good enough for 97 points and third seed in the Eastern Conference. The team also clinched its first playoff berth in franchise history. A slow start for the Thrashers in 2007-08 season resulted in Hartley and the club parting ways.