April 2001





HAWKESBURY, Ontario - Rue Main/Main Street -- and both are official names in French-leaning, yet bilingual Hawkesbury -- runs parallel to the Ottawa River. The long, gray, arching bridge at the edge of downtown leads to Quebec. The town of 10,300 residents is halfway between Ottawa and Montreal, and it has seven churches, two Tim Horton's donut shops and a two-rink hockey complex, all central to Canadian spirituality and culture.



The hockey facilities -- along with a swimming pool, a community hall and tennis courts -- are part of the town's recreational complex, two blocks south of Main Street. Since the municipal facilities were renamed in 1998, the sign on the outside of the building has proclaimed:












The Colorado Avalanche coach with his name on the wall was born and raised in Hawkesbury, and he began coaching as a nervous 27-year-old windshield factory worker drafted to stand behind the bench of the local Junior A team, the Hawkesbury Hawks.


If Hartley gets to take the Stanley Cup to Hawkesbury this summer for his charity golf tournament, a Main Street parade wouldn't take long. And even if the Avs don't reach the summit in the upcoming playoffs, their coach's climb to the verge of the sport's pinnacle will remain remarkable.



In some ways, it began on the day a 17-year-old suddenly became an adult.



Growing up fast



Today, to the west of downtown, a chain link fence and warning signs cordon off the former site of the Canadian International Paper mill, the town's smoky and pungent economic foundation for several generations. Young trees have sprouted where buildings once sat, and a pond on the property is reputed to be so toxic, it wouldn't shock anyone to hear of a surviving mutant clan of 14-legged octopi.



For decades, members of the Hartley clan worked at CPI. By the late 1970s, Royal Hartley - better known as Ti-Noir, or Little Black - was a supervisor. He could have walked to work from his family's nearby home, and he and his wife were raising a son and a younger daughter. It was a good life in the Hawkesbury tradition; but Ti-Noir's son, Robert, wanted something different by the time he graduated from high school.



Bob wanted to be a special education teacher. He was one of the town's star athletes, first as a hockey forward and then, beginning at age 14 at the bantam level, as a goalie. He was the rare local kid good enough to be playing for the Central Junior Hockey League's Hawks and was their backup goalie, chafing as he played for a coach he neither liked nor respected.


Hartley had no illusions about a professional future in the game. In the summer after his high school graduation, he and three friends were running a sports and activities program for mentally handicapped kids at a Hawkesbury school. Bob planned to go to Ottawa University the next fall, joining his Hawkesbury girlfriend, Micheline.



On an August 1978 morning, as he worked with his kids, he noticed Micheline's sister pull up to the school. Bob, she said, it's terrible news. Ti-Noir got up from the table after having breakfast and died of a heart attack. He was 54. Bob later was told Ti-Noir had been dying of colon cancer and hadn't let anyone know, except his wife.



Bob was 17.



"My dad was my best friend," Hartley recalls. "He taught me everything. He gave me every tool I needed. And when he died, everything had crumbled."



Marcel Fredette was Hartley's other mentor. A young teacher on the Quebec side of the bridge, Fredette had coached an eagerHartley in softball and in various sports. All along, as Fredette watched Bob working with younger kids, he had been telling Hartley he had the aptitude to teach.


"He could take something hard and cut it into small pieces so that young guys knew what he was trying to teach them," says Fredette, still a teacher in Grenville, Quebec. "I told him, 'You should be a teacher.' It didn't happen that way. I guess it did happen in other ways, though, did it not? When his dad died, it was a terrible thing."



The head of the CIP plant came to the grieving Hartleys' house. He said that if Bob wanted a job to help support the family, Bob could work at the plant as soon as he turned 18.


Bob consulted with Fredette.



"I couldn't tell him not to quit school," Fredette says. "When you lose your father, you think differently. You have to forget some of the things you'd like to do at that age and think like a man."



On Sept. 7, 1978, his 18th birthday, instead of walking through an Ottawa University classroom door, Hartley started working at the paper mill. There, he was "Ti-Noir's boy." That was a badge of honor. His abandonment of college plans meant he still could play for the Hawks in the Central Junior Hockey League. After road games, the team bus often dropped him off at the plant for his shift.



"The Pepsi Kid'



Within a year, he had moved down competitively in hockey - to be a star goalie in the area at the Junior B level, which had fewer games, less travel and coaches he liked - and was planning to get married to Micheline. He was putting in as much overtime as possible at the plant, because he wanted to buy a house in the new development to the south of downtown, just past the hockey rink.


When he wasn't yet 20, he picked out a white brick ranch at 779 Rue Ghislain, and he made a 2 p.m. appointment with the realtor as "Mr. Hartley" to see it. He and his fiance, Micheline, who was working in a doctor's office, rode their bikes to the house and were sitting on the porch when the realtor drove up - and stayed in his car.



Hartley had ordered his first car, but it hadn't yet arrived. The realtor thought Bob and Micheline were neighborhood kids. So when Bob walked up to the car and said, in effect, let's go look at the house, the realtor asked when Hartley's parents were showing up.



My father is dead, Hartley said.



He added he needed to look at the house quickly, because he had to be at work at 4.



"If his eyes were guns, I wouldn't be sitting here," Hartley says. "He thought I was wasting his time. Then he said, "Wait, are you the hockey player?' I said, "Yes,' and he asked why I was working. I said I was at CIP, and in that town, those were the magic words."



Hartley's offer was ludicrously low, and the owner rejected it. But that night, the owner - who had several properties - suffered a heart attack. The next morning, he decided, what the heck, sell the hockey player the house - if the kid can pull it off.


Hartley was approved as a buyer. The next year, he and Micheline were married. Hartley still was a well-known local athlete playing in all sorts of leagues. He had a job envied in the hard-working town and soon, he became a father when Micheline gave birth to a daughter, Kristine.



But the CPI plant was ancient and obsolete. Layoffs started to come intermittently. And when they did, Hartley survived financially by working as a landscaper and painter.


On Sept. 7, 1982, CPI sent out letters saying the plant would close at the end of the year.



"There were guys with 40 years of seniority," Hartley says, "and in the last week, they would leave the plant crying."


For the first nine months of 1983, Hartley worked in hockey camps and in the Main Street sporting good store of his summer softball and senior hockey teammate, Francois Marcotte. As he waited and hoped, nothing could dampen his competitiveness, not even professional insecurity.



"We played softball four times a week and then in tournaments on the weekend," says Marcotte, 46, who still owns the store, Chrono, where an Avalanche team photo poster hangs behind the counter. "Hockey, same thing. Oh, he was such a warrior. We would be ahead 10-1, and he would be the goalie and somebody would not backcheck or something, and it would be 10-2, and he would be sooo mad. The funny thing, if we lost 4-2, that would be OK if we played well and stuck to the plan.



"Then we would be out after the games, and everybody would be drinking this" - Marcotte holds up his beer - "and smoking. Bob, never. We would tease him. He was too serious about sports for any of that."



His nickname was "The Pepsi Kid."



Moonlighting at the rink



On Sept. 7, 1983, his 23rd birthday, Hartley caught on at the local windshield factory, PPG of Canada. The plant still is open today, and it is behind the small mall anchored by the A&P Grocery store on the south end of town.



While at PPG, Hartley continued to play goal in senior hockey traveling leagues, and forward in recreational leagues. Guy Larocque, who was six years older, was Hartley's closest friend at the plant. He and Hartley virtually were inseparable during working hours and they could be anywhere - paint room, cutting rooms, vinyl prep, die cut, vinyl trimming, firing oven, drying oven, finishing line, inspection.



"We learned everything from the beginning of the windshield, until it was finished," says Larocque, who still works at PPG. "He was always in a good mood, cheering everybody up. And he'd do things like grease the door handles, and so we started calling him "Greaser.' Nobody ever fell asleep on the job because they were scared of what Bob would pull on them when they were asleep."


Hartley says he could have been a windshield lifer. "It was a great job," he says.



In 1987, one of his old softball coaches, Jacques Tranchemontagne, became president of the Hawks. The team was horrible and $40,000 in debt. Tranchemontagne hired a new coach who bragged that team officials should clear space in the trophy case for the league's Centennial Cup.



Tranchemontagne askedHartley, who was 27, to help out as his former team's volunteer goalie coach. Hartley thought about it. The couple's second child, Steve, was an infant. Hartley decided to quit playing senior hockey in the region and try coaching, but said he couldn't go to the road games.



In the first three weeks of the season, the bombastic head coach was arguing with parents, with players and with Tranchemontagne.



The Hawks were 0-4 when Tranchemontagne first asked Hartley about taking over. Hartley says he was horrified. He had worked hockey camps, he had played for years, but he never had coached. After the record hit 0-8, Tranchemontagne fired the head coach and made an offer to Hartley. He was offered $500 for the rest of the season - and a new suit.



No thanks, Hartley said. "For me, being the goaltending coach at a rink five blocks from my house and working with my friends at the plant was perfect," he says.



Tranchemontagne called the PPG plant manager and asked for help. During his next shift, Hartley heard himself paged to the plant office. The manager told him of Tranchemontagne's request, and said the company would giveHartley a flexible schedule and time off when he needed it for the rest of the season. That night, Hartley opened the door at home, and 10 players were standing there.


"They were like the Bad New Bears of hockey," Hartley says. "And one kid said, "Bob, you can't let us down.' That was what really got to me. And my wife said, "Bob, take it.'"


The Bad News Bears went 9-39 the rest of the season, but everyone marveled at how they went from being jokes to being competitive.



"He would finish at PPG at 3:30 and be in his office at 20 minutes to 4," Tranchemontagne says. "He would be there until 11 at night. And right away, even though he had told me he didn't know if he could coach, he put in a system and had the kids believing in it. Even if you didn't have the best talent, but you gave 100 percent, you had a place on the roster."


Hartley decided to give an always-scratched left wing, the rugged Gino Odjick, a try. Odjick played every game the rest of the season. He now plays for the Montreal Canadiens. The Hawks even managed to win a playoff game against the league's best team, Pembroke, and avoid a sweep.



"That win is probably the best win of my career," Hartley says. "That gave me a taste that if I worked hard in the summer scouting and drafting players, I could coach in that league."


Car salesman, radio man



Hartley had been insisting that because of his job and family, he couldn't be more than an interim coach for that season.


But after the playoffs, he told Tranchemontagne that if the offer remained open, he would be Hawkesbury's head coach the next season.



"I think if I had punched him in the face, he would not have been more surprised," Hartley said.



The Hawks agreed to pay him $300 a week. A member of the team's volunteer council, Honda dealer Claude Lalonde, said he would give Hartley a part-time sales job.



So Hartley quit PPG - where he was making about $40,000 - to coach Junior A hockey and sell cars, across the bridge in Grenville.



"Everybody at the plant thought he was crazy," Larocque says. "But when he started coaching, everybody at the plant was watching, and we felt a part of it."



Hartley recruited players to Junior A with its biggest selling point: Unlike at the next step up, Major Junior, Junior A players remain eligible for U.S. college scholarships. Hartley was more than coach. He had become the GM, head scout and head of marketing.


"He was very good at selling cars," says Andre Laliberte, aHartley friend who was the dealership's service manager. "But when he wasn't doing that, you'd look in there and he'd always be on the phone, talking to hockey people."



In his second season, the Hawks were a stunning 35-20-1. Impressed with the Hawks' marketing, the new owner of the radio station in town - CJLA - hired Hartley as his station's assistant general manager, primarily to handle promotions and public relations on a flexible schedule that allowed him to coach. His career as a car salesman was over.



The Hawks were improving because Hartley was luring ambitious French-speaking Quebec players to Hawkesbury. They went to bilingual or English schools, played for the Hawks and often attracted college recruiters. Hartley says he sent 40 players to U.S. colleges.



By Hartley's third season, 1989-90, the Hawks were the class of the CJHL. Their star was another Hawkesbury native, defenseman Dan McGillis, who would go on to Northeastern University and now is among the NHL's best with the Philadelphia Flyers.


Late in the season, the radio station's assistant general manager came up with an April Fool's stunt that had "War of the Worlds" impact in Hawkesbury. On the morning of April 1, with the Hawks on the way to a league title, the radio station announced its "scoop": Jacques Tranchemontagne was overseeing the sale of the Hawks to a group that would move the team to Rockland, Ontario, the next season. Hartley was being fired, the station reported. Two team stars went on the radio, talking about Tranchemontagne - "the big, fat guy" - selling the team.


Tranchemontagne got death threats. The radio station's assistant GM had to line up police protection for the Hawks' president. The joke was supposed to go on until evening, but the station confessed to the joke on the air in late afternoon. CJLA's assistant GM, Bob Hartley, begged Tranchemontagne for forgiveness, and he got it when the Hawks won the first of their two consecutive playoff championships.



Hartley was having a blast.



"I had left the windshield factory with no vision of going to the NHL," he says. "All I wanted to do was coach in my hometown."


Spreading his wings



Late in the summer of 1990, after his third season, J.C. Morrisette, the owner of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Laval Titan, asked Hartley if he would be interested in moving up to junior hockey's top level - still the primary feeder of talent to the NHL. Hartley said no, both because he liked what he was doing and because he had promised parents during the recruiting process that he would be with the Hawks the next season.


But it got him thinking. Two of his former Hawkesbury players, Odjick and Sandy McCarthy, now with the New York Rangers, had moved up to the Titan and recommended him to ownership.


"The first push for me in coaching was that win over Pembroke," Hartley says. "The second was the call from Mr. Morrisette. I thought if the players had gone up, and someone wanted me, why couldn't I do it? From that day on, I wanted to be an NHL coach."



The next season, 1990-91, the Hawks didn't lose a playoff game and repeated as CJHL champions. Morrisette called again. The Titan, which played in a Montreal suburb, was inept. But Hartley could stay in his Hawkesbury home and commute to Laval, about an hour away. He approached Tranchemontagne sheepishly to talk about the Laval offer.



"I told him it was time for the bird to leave the nest," Tranchemontagne says.



The Titan, with Martin Lapointe starring, won the QMJHL title in Hartley's second season. Mindful of his own past, Hartley hired a phone company worker, Michel Therrien, as his part-time assistant. Sometimes, Therrien would call Hartley from the top of a telephone pole to go over practice plans. Today, Lapointe is with the Detroit Red Wings and Therrien is the Canadiens' first-year head coach.



In 1993, Hartley moved to the pro game as the assistant coach of the Quebec Nordiques' American Hockey League affiliate at Cornwall, Ontario. Again, he still could live in Hawkesbury with his family and make the hour drive to Cornwall. After a season as an assistant under Jacques Martin, Hartley took over as head coach in 1994-95 when Martin moved to become an assistant with the Nordiques.



The crisis came in 1996, the summer when the Avalanche was celebrating the Stanley Cup. The Avs' AHL affiliate was moving to Hershey, Pa. If Hartley wanted to stay in that job, it wouldn't be a commute.



Bob and Micheline decided they would sell their house and move to Hershey full-time, as a family.



After two seasons in Hershey, including an AHL playoff championship, Hartley succeeded Marc Crawford as the Avalanche's head coach in 1998. He was behind the bench as Colorado got to within the crushingly disappointing Game 7 losses to the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference finals his first two years.


Yes, the pressure is on the Avs and their 40-year-old coach in the Stanley Cup playoffs this season. Again. But measured against how far Hartley has come, from the day he heard of his father's death through his days in the paper mill and the windshield factory, and even including his first days as a green and reluctant head coach, this is pressure?



Hartley hasn't forgotten Hawkesbury, either. His friends often visit Denver - Marcotte talks of a trip to Denver two seasons ago, when Hartley treated him "like a king" - and he still works the phone. One of his best friends remains his longtime Hawkesbury neighbor, retired banker Jacques Dumont. Dumont used to take scouting trips with Hartley, the junior coach, and he never pretended to know much about the game. Now, they talk weekly.


"We do not talk about hockey," Dumont says. "We talk of other things."


 Dumont smiles, remembering Hartley's insistence on mowing the grass three times a week and even Hartley's offered opinion as a one-time professional landscaper.



"He told me my big cedar bush had a disease and was going to die if I didn't cut it back to save it," Dumont says. "Soon, I realized what he was up to. He wanted to expand his backyard rink into my yard. But that was fine. I did it."



Dumont also didn't get mad when Hartley left the hose running too long when trying to flood the rink and flooded both basements.


"Holy geez, was I embarrassed," Hartley says. Responds Dumont, shrugging: "Insurance covered it."



Hartley comes back to Hawkesbury for his August charity golf tournament - it raises money for college scholarships - and for summer fishing trips. Workers from PPG, including Larocque, take group junkets to visit him at Avalanche games in Montreal and Ottawa.



"I went to the game in Montreal, too," says Hawkesbury attorney Marc D'Amours, who helps run the Hartley charity golf tournament and was among a group who visited Hartley in Denver last month. "His fishing buddies were there and his PPG friends were there. And by the way they talked, I could tell it was like they had just talked minutes before. You know how you can tell someone has stayed in touch and he considers people important to him?"


Hartley has left the nest, but he hasn't forgotten the feeling of being in it.