Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Bonne nuit, Bob Hartley

Five years ago, in December 2002, Bob Hartley was fired as coach of the Colorado Avalanche when his intense methods were no longer working with Avalanche players.

History repeated itself in Atlanta today, as Hartley was again shown the door by the Atlanta Thrashers, and the reasons he wore out his welcome were fundamentally the same.

"Uncle Bob's" hard-nosed, structured methods can be off-putting. His touch -- not very light. He about X's and O's, more X's and O's, and if that's not working, even more X's and O's. He over-coached players on small details, which probably made them think too much during games.

Some players were harshly criticized, while others probably more deserving, were not. A workable goaltender rotation, something he didn't have to worry much about in Colorado, was never something he figured out in Atlanta.

(Note: Scott Burnside's 2003 article on Hartley goes over some of this terrain, with very telling quotes from players.)

Hartley entered the 2007-08 season on a short leash, after the Thrashers were swept in the playoffs last April.

The 0-6 start was ugly. The energy level of the team was low. Special teams, which most agree are almost purely a function of coaching strategy, were very bad. Other team strategies didn't seem to fit the make up of the team, like dumping and chasing the puck by small and skilled forwards.

Worse, Hartley couldn't get along with the team's star players.

Overall, he didn't make the team want to follow him into battle. Demonstration: The team had a winning record during preseason, as player jockeyed for roster spots. But after their internal motivation subsided, they flattened out.

In light of all this, Hartley's firing was certainly the right move, and in fact probably overdue. The change should make a huge difference in the mood of the team, and give them the lift to succeed.

But like at a funeral, you feel obligated to say something nice about the departing. I have three nice things I'll say about Hartley from my dealings with him. One, he was always extremely professional. He understood that the media had a job to do, would give you his full attention and would explain things until questions were satisfied. (Well, sometimes he would avoid questions he didn't want to answer by talking about something unrelated, but that's his prerogative and it's our job to catch it and get him back on topic.) Two, in the aftermath of Dan Snyder's death, Hartley held the locker room together in a time of grief. He played the role of healer on a broader scale for the community as well. He could have easily shrunk into the background, being relatively new to the organization, but he stepped up and said all the right things to help people at all levels get through it. Three, he was fun to talk to. He liked to insert jokes into his responses, which made for a good quote. I'll miss those aspects of Uncle Bob.

The best choice for new coach right now would be someone who is more of a players' coach, like when his assistant coach, Tony Granato, followed Hartley's tenure in Colorado. A players' coach usually appeals more to emotions, a rah-rah guy. It sounds like an easy thing, but getting the formula just right is tough.

There are 76 more games to play -- but finding the right new leader should take as much time as it takes.

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