Kids are alright now for ex-Flames coach Bob Hartley
- Moving stoically past his recent firing by the Calgary Flames, former coach Bob Hartley is roughing it at his hockey camp for kids while he waits for a chance to return to the NHL.
YORK, Pa. — These days, Bob Hartley sleeps on an inflatable air mattress in the weight room of the local rink, not far from the doors to the bingo hall, surrounded by several hundred children who are fond of making fart sounds before curfew. “It’s just like a Ritz Carlton,” Hartley says, sounding more serious than not. “One of the largest bedrooms in the United States.”
For two decades, Bob Hartley High Intensity Hockey Camp has operated out of south-central Pennsylvania. He started in 1997 when he helmed the AHL's Hershey Bears. Most of that time, though, has been spent at York Ice Arena, a modest outfit ringed by tattered, dasher board ads for tax consultants and welding suppliers, with coin-operated heaters in the stands that cost two quarters for 15 minutes. But it’s the perfect setup, Hartley says. The surrounding complex has batting cages, swimming pools, and a putt-putt course. Meals are cooked and served in the nearby Catholic school cafeteria. And, of course, there’s the faux-Ritz upstairs that bunks roughly 190 campers and most of the coaches, including the 2015 Jack Adams Award winner and 2001 Stanley Cup champion.
“There’s many people in all kinds of businesses, they just put their name on something and they disappear,” Hartley said Monday, the first full day of camp’s second and final week. “I could’ve been here yesterday, kiss the babies and hug the parents and disappear for the rest of the week and I would’ve made my appearance… Some guys spend their summers playing golf. This is my golf game. I would rather spend a huge part of my summer teaching kids. I love it.”
In past years, Hartley says, these sessions served as “part of my training camp,” a way to focus on fundamentals with young skaters, all between ages seven and 18, before pivoting to NHL professionals. This year, however, offers somewhat unique circumstances for the 55-year-old. Early this May, with one year remaining on his contract, the Calgary Flames fired Hartley after four seasons, citing the belief that “Bob has taken this team as far as I feel he can take it,” as GM Brad Treliving put it. After a surprise Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance in 2014-15, a first-round win over Vancouver, and a 20-point improvement that earned Hartley the Jack Adams, Calgary regressed last season, finishing 35-40-7. At the time, Hartley expressed surprise over his dismissal, and by camp that hadn’t much waned.
“I didn’t understand,” Hartley says. “[Treliving] said I got fired and I didn’t talk to him again. But whatever the reasons he’s giving, if you’re fired, you’re fired. It doesn’t matter. I don’t waste too much time with this. You have to turn around. When you’re going through a tough stretch as a team, you always tell your team that you have to be strong in the face of adversity, you have to show pride. As a coach, when you’re fired, it’s the same story.”
Here in York, Hartley has different worries than, say, Calgary’s 22nd-ranked power play and 30th-ranked penalty kill, or its .898 team save percentage, or philosophical differences with management about the Flames’ system (which Treliving also acknowledged contributed to the decision). Today, for instance, is Picture Day, which means wrangling those 190 overnighters and some 70 commuters in front of a camera. This afternoon, Hartley will spend 20 minutes calling an airline that lost a camper’s hockey bag on a flight from northern Quebec. Tonight, when another camper stumbles on the ice and accidentally cuts himself with his skate, Hartley will drive the kid to the hospital for stitches and staples. Homesickness, rule-breakers, general youthful unruliness—it all falls under his jurisdiction, and that’s just fine.
“You can see how passionate he is about helping the kids,” says Johnny Gaudreau, Hartley’s former player in Calgary who has attended camp as a guest counselor for the three years now. “He’s always on the ice, always running around. There’s 260 kids here each week and he knows everyone’s name.”
Says Hartley, whom the campers call Uncle Bob, “That’s my commitment. I run two weeks of camps a year. I don’t sell cars, I don’t sell furniture. I deal with kids. There’s so much stuff going on, our kids in our society, sexual abuse and all kinds of abuse. It’s my name, my camp.”
He taps his chest.
“I’m running it with pride.”
The plan had always been to teach.
While attending high school in his small hometown of Hawkesbury, Ontario—population around 10,000—Hartley spent his summers working with mentally handicapped children. His role was sports director, organizing swimming outings and tennis sessions and ball hockey games in the gym. He liked the work, was planning to attend college and one day pursue a similar job full-time.
Then, less than two months before Hartley’s 18th birthday, his father suffered a heart attack and died. At the funeral, the general manager of the paper mill plant that had employed his father approached Hartley and offered him a job starting Sept. 7, the day he turned 18. Soon, a fifth generation of Hartleys was working at Canadian International Paper, and plans were put on hold.
Four years later, CIP shut down and Hartley moved onto at a windshield factory that had just scored a big contract from Honda. Another four years passed as Hartley dabbled with hockey camps and clinics on the side, before his peewee baseball coach—now the president of Hawkesbury’s junior A team—asked him to help guide the goalies. Hartley accepted the offer but brokered a part-time deal, unable to miss work at the plant whenever his shifts cycled from 4 p.m. to Midnight.
“We didn’t win an exhibition game,” Hartley recalls. “We started 0-8. At 0-4 [the president] came to see me and said, ‘The kids would like you to coach, they’re pushing for you.’ I said, ‘No, I’m in the plant, I have a good job and a great family.’ In a year or two, I’ll be a minor hockey coach and it’ll be great. That’s all I needed to be happy.”
After the eighth loss, though, the head coach was out. The president convinced Hartley to accept an interim role, saying that a successor had already been found and would arrive within three weeks. The successor, it turned out, never existed. And thanks to a thrilling playoff win in a first-round series, which Hartley says “put the drug of coaching into me,” the ruse didn’t matter. “That really inspired me. I said, ‘Gosh, I can coach. I want to coach.’”
Up the ladder he climbed. In 1997, Hartley and Hershey won the Calder Cup, and that summer his camp launched in town. Promoted to his first NHL job, with Colorado, in June '98, Hartley oversaw four straight conference finals appearances with the Avalanche, winning the Stanley Cup in 2001. Over the next decade, he would twice be fired at mid-season—Colorado in 2002 and Atlanta in '07—win the 2012 Swiss championship with Zurich, and return to the NHL that May. Now, three GMs and a 134-135-25 record with the rebuilding Flames later, Hartley again is looking for work.
Several European clubs have called to gauge his interest in returning abroad, Hartley says, but he’s holding out for another head NHL job. “I’m not saying later on in my career, I wouldn’t mind going with a young coach and guiding him through the way, being a big brother and help him in his situations,” he says. “But it’s just the way it is.” He and his wife Micheline plan to spend this year at their houses in Quebec and Florida. “I’ll be on the ice,” he says. “I’ll help junior teams, I’ll help peewee teams. Hockey’s hockey. Whether it’s a Learn to Skate program, three to six years old, you have to be creative and you have to do your best. That’s what I love.”
In a way, Hartley's camp offers a global experience that mirrors the NHL. A significant chunk of enrollment comes from Quebec, and the brochure pitches English immersion for native French speakers, like Hartley himself. Chinese and French skaters have attended in the past, he says; this year’s roster contains Romanians, Ukrainians, Czechs, Finns, and Swiss. For the mini golf and ball hockey tournaments, North American campers are required to team up with international peers. Fridays bring pump-up music blared through the rink and an inflatable Stanley Cup replica for winning teams to parade around the ice. Rick Guinan, a local high school teacher and Hartley's de facto manager of rink operations, even puts on white gloves to handle the trophy.
Everywhere are reminders of Hartley's previous stops. The camp banner contains a Flames logo, and this week he’s wearing a black Calgary tracksuit onto the ice. Gaudreau and fellow Flames forward teammate Sean Monahan spent Tuesday afternoon signing autographs, taking pictures, and skating with the older groups. (“I didn’t imagine there were going to be this many kids,” Monahan says.) Other ex-players, such as Alex Tanguay, Joe Sakic and Mark Giordano have visited. Among the regular staffers are Eric Perrin, a forward during Hartley's tenure in Atlanta, and Paul Jerrard, a defenseman on the '97 Calder Cup team and, coincidentally, among the assistant coaches who were hired to accompany Glen Gulutzan, Hartley’s successor in Calgary.
“When they were talking to him, he called me to say it feels awkward a little bit,” Hartley says. “I said it doesn’t feel awkward. There are empty seats there. If it’s not you, it’s going to be somebody else. That’s the way you have to look at this.”
This outlook, Hartley says, has helped him move past Calgary. He draws pride from the growth of young core members like Gaudreau and Monahan, who were both named to Team North America for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, and the late-blooming Giordano. “I went through three GMs in four years,” he says. “I consider myself lucky to have made it that long. But at the same time, I know the work that we put in and I know the direction that the team is going, so obviously that was very motivating for us to keep going. We felt it was a major turnaround.”
But these concerns are not currently on Hartley’s mind. Not with the lost luggage and voicemails from worried parents and Picture Day in full swing.
“Pitter, patter, let’s get at ‘er,” Hartley says, standing by a backdrop and posing with each individual camper. He looks at a visiting reporter, winks, and smiles. “The good thing is, on Monday, they don’t stink as much.”