Thoughts on Bob Hartley’s time with the Flames

Photo credit: Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

October 3, 2013.

Once the Flames finally committed to a rebuild, it was clear their on-ice style of play would have to change. Exit Jarome Iginla, off to chase a Stanley Cup with a better roster; enter Sean Monahan, prized sixth overall pick getting the chance to make an early impression.

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The new era kicked off on Oct. 3, 2013, when the Flames opened their season in Washington D.C. The Capitals have, for the most part, been one of the NHL’s best teams in recent years, so to start the rebuild off with a slaughter wouldn’t have been unexpected.

That’s not what happened.

Bob Hartley’s first full season as Flames head coach saw his team get off to an impressive start. Sure, they lost 5-4 in a shootout – but it was the way they played that had me floored. After years of watching listless, pathetic, mailed in hockey, suddenly I was watching a non-stop, full throttled attack. The Flames came out of the first period with a 3-0 lead: something that had been unthinkable not too long before.

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They relented, of course. With how hard the Flames were pushing, it would have been an impossible feat to see them keep that pace the entire game. But even as the Capitals went on to tie it and take their first victory of the season, the Flames never stopped being entertaining.

It was the first year of the rebuild. Losses were to be expected, but entertainment was not to be taken for granted.

Hartley may have been with the Flames during the lockout season, but things didn’t really get going until his first full season. And with the debut he had then, it was so easy to get behind him. Because the Flames might actually be fun to watch again.


Hartley was famed for having really difficult practices. It was a point of pride at times; particularly when Ladislav Smid came to the Flames roughly a month into the season and was subjected to one for the first time. Was Smid highlighting one of the problems in Edmonton, that they simply didn’t work hard enough? Was Hartley instilling an identity in the Flames the Oilers, several years into their perpetual rebuild by that point, had no hope of matching?

If you played for Hartley, you were going to work hard. And after years of watching the Flames appear to do just the opposite, it was a breath of fresh air.

But it didn’t get any fresher than the 2014-15 season, when everything went the Flames’ way. They needed a bounce? They got it. More importantly, they fell behind in the first two periods? They were prepared to come back in the third, and became notorious league-wide for pulling such nonsense.

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How did they do it? One of the easiest answers to supply was hard work, and there was likely a fair amount of truth to that. The Flames were able to keep coming back, and even withstand an injury to Mark Giordano, make the playoffs, and win a round, because Hartley had instilled a work ethic into them.

Hartley had a few rookies and sophomores to ground his philosophies and style into, Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau being chief among them. Because of him, they learned how to become professionals: never take a shift off. And it’s part of how they defied expectations one season.

One season of demonstrably fluked progress isn’t enough, though. And for as hard as players worked, at times, it was too much. We saw Monahan overplayed, occasionally too gassed to backcheck properly. People simply can’t realistically give it 100% every time they go to work, even if they’re being paid a lot of money to play a game.

But boy, were they a fun team to watch.

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Ebbs and flows

There were some things Hartley got right. Putting some rookies in a position to succeed. Uniting T.J. Brodie with Giordano on what quickly became not just the top defence pairing on the Flames, but arguably in the NHL.

There were plenty of things Hartley got wrong. Placing Mikael Backlund on the fourth line throughout the seasons, even after he’d already proven himself. A bizarre, unjustifiable infatuation with Joe Colborne. Insisting Deryk Engelland could be a top four defenceman without ever trying anyone else in the position. Insisting Lance Bouma could be a legitimate top six forward. Benching other rookies for no rhyme or reason, of particular note Sam Bennett in the playoffs. Playing multiple goons in the same lineup even with other options available. Refusing to properly utilize Dougie Hamilton and Michael Frolik throughout their first season in Calgary, even though they were two of the better players at his disposal. That one time he put Brandon Bollig on Gaudreau’s line, which I still can’t believe is a thing I actually saw happen.

And that doesn’t go into the league-worst special teams, the lack of structure in the defensive zone, the overall passivity that soon developed in the Flames’ game when they weren’t being exciting on the rush. The Flames became reactive, not proactive. Sometimes they created – but mostly they were left praying nothing bad would happen to them.

That famed work ethic that was, narratively, a big part of them making the playoffs; that won him a trophy? Gone. And when the main thing you’re known for, the primary reason you’re credited as being successful disappears, you aren’t going to have much of a future in the same spot.

That’s what happened to Hartley. He wasn’t known for systems play. He wasn’t known for special teams. He was known for getting the most out of his players. And at the start of his Flames career, that’s exactly what he did. But that kind of thing has a shelf life: particularly if you may have managed to disgruntle some of those under your tutelage along the way, perhaps in some examples described above.

Nothing lasts forever

So that’s that. Hartley joined the Flames with an identity in mind. He achieved that identity. And then the identity burnt out, right around the time Calgary needed to take the next step forward.

But for as frustrating as Hartley’s methods became over the course of his time as the Calgary Flames’ head coach, I’m not going to forget the breath of fresh air he brought for that first game of the 2013-14 season. Of just how much fun I had watching that game, and how – while the first on-ice year of the rebuild eventually did drag – for the most part, the team was not the chore it had been to watch in previous years.

There was nowhere else he could take this team after that. Not when the ghosts of 2013-15 faded, all the good moments they brought still compounding a team that desperately needed a change in direction to move forward.

When Hartley first joined the Flames, it was at the end of their already-shut window; a time when just making the playoffs would have been good enough.

Hartley leaves the Flames after having laid a foundation for the beginning of a new era, a time when just making the playoffs isn’t good enough at all. He bridged the gap.


  • brodiegio4life

    this team was never going to reach the next level with him as the coach, his systems and player usage would’ve never allowed it. His main tactic was being a motivator and that clearly lost its influence this year.

  • BlueMoonNigel

    While the canning of Harley is neither here nor there for me, I am buying Tre’s explanation of why he let Harley dangle for three weeks before cutting the rope. Tre sounded way too much like Kenny King on that one.

    As for possible replacements:

    Marty Gelinas is a super guy but he would be to much of the same old same old. Old message new face isn’t going to do it.

    Ryan Huska is still green at the pro level. Moreover, before he becomes an NHL head coach, he should cut his teeth as an assistant coach at this level.

    Bruce Beudreau alienates his superstars. Just ask Ovi, Getzlaf and Perry. Later this year, the two highest paid players in the history of the Flames will be given long term contracts, and they will be joined in that same exclusive club by Samuel in 2017. BB with all that high priced help will be a disaster.

    Mike Yeo couldn’t win with the gold dust twins (Suter and Parise) and it took an Oilers’ castoff to save Yeo’s job last season. Just say No to Yeo.

    Maybe Tre will bring Ironman back with him from Europe after the Worlds. Let’s hope not.

    Wayne Gretzky used to school Marc Crawford when they were players. Do you really want Todd M to do the same with Crawford as coach of the Flames? I don’t. I’ve have never been that keen on Crawford.

    What about lasso big Joel Otto from the Hitmen? He’d sure command the respect of the players. Don’t think they could get him even if they wanted him. He has found his dream job with the Hitmen.

    Why doesn’t Tre hire his old boss Stoney Maloney? Maloney was brilliant as a GM. I recall a less than brilliant GM named Sutter being hired as a coach and he led his squad to not one but two cups. Why couldn’t Stoney do the same?

    Sticking with LA, Tre would be a damn fool not to see about the availability of Kevin Stevens. He has earned a head coaching job in the NHL, and he could be at the head of the next wave of great coaches,

    I have always thought Kurt Muller got a raw deal in Charlotte. He’s somebody Tre should be in touch with.

    I maintain the Oilers did a very stupid thing in firing Ralph Krueger as quickly as they did. Might be tough to lure him back to the NHL, but if there is one place in the NHL where the old Wrangler star might be willing to come to, it is Calgary.

  • Really good post.

    I am in favor of Hartley being let go (with one qualification), but I do think he deserves credit for the development of Brodie, Gaudreau, and Monahan (as well as Giordano reaching another level in his 30s). As anyone who has watched the Oilers the last ten years knows, talented players becoming quality NHL players isn’t something that just happens. A Greg Gilbert can set your organization back for years. He did well at was the most important part of the job when he was hired. But now that the Flames have a core, they need a coach who’s less behind the times tactically and in terms of player deployment.

    My one caveat is that whether this is a good move depends on the replacement. If they get a genuinely top-tier coach like Boudreau (and please, firing a guy for one-goal Game 7 losses — including one against Chicago in the conference final! — is dumb), it’s a home run. If they get a retread who’s been away from the league for a while, like Crawford, I don’t like it. If they get an untested coach like Travis Green — well, I think Treveling has earned the right to have his judgment respected but I’m not wild about that. AHL coaches are a major gamble — Green could be really good, and he could bellyflop and move the team backward. (Dallas Eakins was a hot coaching prospect too.)

    • BlueMoonNigel

      Talk around the campfire in SoCal last spring after the Ducks were eliminated was that Boudreau did an Orvel Tessier on the players and called them “heartless” and “gutless” among other things. Many of the players, including Getzlaf and Perry, petitioned for his firing before the season began, but they were defeated. Many have attributed their slow start to the season as a conscious effort by the players to get BB fired.

      BB is the wrong man for the Flames. He resents 21-year-old men making $6-$7 million because he played in an era where players never got that sort of gravy. Sure he is making pretty good coin now as a top-tier coach, but his youth is long gone. With BB coaching the Flames, it won’t take long before Gaudreau, Monahan and Bennett are either openly feuding with him as Ovi did or quietly burning with hatred for him as Getzlaf and Perry did. No team is going to win the cup unless its top players are its top players and BB doesn’t bring out the best in his best.

      • wot96

        You have no idea whether he resents 21 year olds or why. That is speculative at best and possibly defamatory at worst.

        Similarly, what Gaudreau, Monahan and Bennett will or won’t do is speculative.

        Try to keep it relevant AND believable.

        • al rain

          Um, I hate to break it to you, but a large chunk of what we all read in Ari’s (and others’) articles here is rampant speculation. We regularly (including today) get inside looks into what is going on in the dressing room and the coach’s mind.

          Here’s one example:
          “Benching other rookies for no rhyme or reason, of particular note Sam Bennett in the playoffs.” Does this statement look at all familiar to readers?

          Ari is saying that because the coach didn’t publicly give a reason, that there must not be one. Ari is saying that it is impossible that there was a reason that was kept internal. I can think of many possible reasons myself.

          For the record, what she’s writing here is plausible and the first thing that comes to my mind, and I think, probably true. But it’s still speculation. Because let’s face it, there is a ton of stuff going on inside an NHL team that we will never hear about.

          Point is, large swaths of this is speculation. Best make your peace with that, dude.

          • wot96

            Speculation is not the issue. It is really whether it is plausible, or, as I originally put it, believable.

            Saying that Boudreau resents 21 year-olds for making $6 or $7 million a year is not plausible, without more. Just like saying, as someone else implied, that there are at least three cokeheads on the team is not plausible, without more.

  • King Quong

    I just hope the flames find another offensive minded coach and keep up the exciting hockey. I want to see Gaudreau have the chance to lead the league in points and would love to continue seeing the flames defense green lighted for offense.

      • KACaribou

        Sometimes FN needs a reminder that Bob Hartley is a real person who has friends and family. He certainly doesn’t deserve the treatment he has received here.

        Great reality check reminder for FN. Flames news is so small compared to world events, and the Hell-Like flames coming down on Fort McMurray and the real lives it too will affect.

        • ChinookArchYYC

          That’s great advice. You should consider this yourself when commenting about the FN writers and fellow FN commenters.

          Sports fandom is mostly about putting real concerns to rest for awhile, nobody is claiming the real world is less important than a sports story. Your constant condemnation and patronizing has gotten very old. Stick to hockey, you actually have interesting opinions when you stop trying to be smarter than everyone here.

          Now is this when you respond with “I thought this was a place to share differing ideas” or “I’ll side with a real NHL coach, not Bloggers”.

          • KACaribou

            Boy you sure told me. Hahaha.

            Favourite Coach Bob moment: when he gooned Tortorelli and the Canucks. Changed the course of the team from that point on, and probably was the beginning of the end for Torts.

  • beloch

    Changing coaches is probably a good thing for a NHL team to do every so often. Hartley has taught this team a lot of things that will stick with them even after he is gone.

    • Work ethic: Over the past couple of seasons the Flames never gave up when chance did not favor them. Sometimes that let them hang on for dramatic comebacks. Other times it was only enough for them to avoid a blowout. Still, this is something that will hopefully stick with the players.
    • Great rushes:Under Hartley, the Flames have been deadly on the rush. They seem a little lost when they finish a rush and still have possession of the puck, but hot damn they’re deadly on rushes!
    • Active Defence:It’s arguable the Flames should play a slightly more defensive style of hockey (entertaining hockey is good, but winning is even better). If they can do that without sacrificing the offensive production from their blueline, that’d be killer.

    A new coach can build on this. Now that this team is actually able to enter the o-zone on a semi-regular basis, it would be great to have a coach that can teach them to be deadly when they have the puck in the o-zone, instead of just when they’re entering it. That gets you more 5on5 goals and it’s the key to an effective powerplay. Tweaking the balls-to-the-wall offensive focus of the Flames’ blueline to do a little more defending would also be welcome.

    Hartley was a great coach for the last couple seasons and has taught this team a lot. Now they’re in need of a new teacher, and that should not be interpreted as anything bad about Bob Hartley. He’s a great coach and I’m sure he’s just what some other NHL team needs right now. We wish him well.

  • urbzy

    About damn time. Never liked the hiring in the first place- couldn’t understand why BT kept him around- was floored by the Jack Adams award- glad we’re moving forward.

  • freethe flames

    I heard two interviews this afternoon that interested me. One was with Eric Duhatchuk saying he thinks two likely candidates; Krueger and Playfair. I found this interesting.

    The other one was with BB who was on about letting BH go because of different views of the game. BB started talking about the need for more truculent hockey and playing Burke style hockey. I hope whoever they sign has big shoulders.I like abrasive hockey but I also like skilled hockey. Burke also implied that BH had enough players to Burke style hockey and I am scared that means we will more of Bollig.

    • piscera.infada

      The other one was with BB who was on about letting BH go because of different views of the game. BB started talking about the need for more truculent hockey and playing Burke style hockey.

      The more I hear Burke talk, the more I think he just says things that people want to hear. He also talked about puck possession–and how virtually every successful team has the puck more than their opponents.

      Treliving echoed that this philosophical difference was one of the main reasons they let him go. Hartley wanted more of the same, Treliving wanted more structure defensively, and more possession offensively. None of that signals to me that they’re moving away from speed and skill.

    • Franko J

      I thought Playfair for the most part did a good job, his demise came to the fact that the GM was too involved with the team and Playfair was in his shadow.

      Krueger had the Oil heading in the right direction. Again shafted by circumstances.

      Plenty of qualified coaches available and no shortage of speculation who it will be.

      • Stu Cazz

        Playfair’s demise did not come about as you say…his demise came because he could not win on the road. He did not have the necessary control and discipline of his players…..

    • jakethesnail

      After listening and reading opinions about possible candidates for the next Flames coach, it appears to everyone that Burkie is running the show in Calgary and not Tre!

      An article this morning talks about coaches that have a track record with Burkie – and that is a few (but they are unemployed at the moment!). No mention of Tre in the article at all.

      I am afraid that the next season will be a lost season for the Flames. Ron Wilson, Marc Crawford, or Randy Carlyle? I am having dry heaves as I write this!

      • piscera.infada

        That’s because people outside of Calgary only see “Burke the blow-hard”–that goes doubly in the centre of the hockey media universe: Toronto. That’s fine, but it’s pretty clear to everyone who follows this team closely that Treliving is, in fact, running the organization. Enough of the over-the-top trash about “who’s running the show”.

        Take a deep breath, step away from the ledge… It’s all going to be fine. If Wilson, Crawford, or Carlyle are coaching this team come October, pigs will be flying all over the place.

        It’s funny because outside of the Toronto media, it seems like most talked about candidates are Boudreau and Green right now.

        • Big Ell

          I really hope so but they are talking about Carlyle on Twitter. I’d prefer more Hartley to Carlyle. Maybe BT is just going through the process and interviewing guys to humor BB but who knows.

          • piscera.infada

            Who is talking about Carlyle on Twitter? During these times, the source matters. There also needs to be more to their “insight” than “Burke previously worked with ‘x’, I wonder if ‘x’ will be considered”.

            Honestly, if this management team actually thinks a Carlyle or Wilson hiring makes sense, then they are beyond out of touch–might as well pack it in now boys.

          • Big Ell

            Sorry, I should have been more specific. Renaud Lavoie;

            “Avec le départ de Bob Hartley, Randy Carlyle sera un des candidats qui aura une entrevue avec les”

  • Franko J

    I liked Hartley’s interviews and wish him the best on his next coaching assignment.
    At least he coached for the most part entertaining hockey. Hopefully the next coach can continue to do the same.

  • BlueMoonNigel

    Best man for the Flames job is still employed, but he too could soon be a casualty. He is Willie Desjardins.

    With him you have to separate the good coach from the bad president and GM. You can’t tar him with the same brush as Linden and Benning.

    Willie Desjardins has never been a real fit in Vancouver. He isn’t West Coast. He’s a born and bred prairie boy who should be coaching one of the prairie teams. Heck, when he used to coach in Japan he still wore his Stetson and cowboy boots.

    He has spent the vast majority of his coaching life working with young talent, so that would make him a natural fit for a team like the rebuilding Flames. He’s a teacher, and that’s what this club needs.

    Willie Desjardins has always been a top drawer guy, so he will always represent the team well.

  • RKD

    He did coach a style that produced a lot of entertaining hockey as opposed to the Brent Sutter boring defensive style. However, with TJ Brodie out and terrible goaltending we could have used that defensive play. He laid some great groundwork and had successes internationally but his bizzare player usage and poor special teams led me to believe he was not going to be the guy to take us to the next level. He’s 15 years removed from a Stanley Cup, he did good things in Atlanta and here but those just seemed to be a good year or two. He’s not at the same calibre of the type of coach we need that will take us to the next step up.

  • RedMan

    Really liked Hartley as a person – he was witty, subtle, funny, interesting, and generous with his comments about others.

    As a coach, he brought a very entertaining brand of hockey to Calgary, where we were all sick and tired of watching aging stars mail it in day after day.

    His use of the defense, being among the leader in the league for points by defenseman, was beautiful.

    While I have leaned more towards a Hartley fan, I still get the change; By saying we needed to block more shots (even though we were second in the league, but still had a dismal goals against ave), he really highlighted the reasons for change.

    Hartley is a good person, and a good coach, but not the coach to take the next step with his current system, and given his seeming commitment to his system, it is time for a change.

    Now please, don’t bring in a coach that traps the life out of the game and makes boring hockey a thing in Calgary.