VOORHEES, N.J. It happened toward the start of camp. The long lockout had just been lifted, and there were a lot of questions about the Flyers being on the ice again and their prospects for the upcoming season.
Scott Hartnell was in the locker room at the Skate Zone. He was wrapping up a rather lengthy interview when he got into a conversation with one of the local writers. The two of them gushed about their love of hockey. The scribe opined that, unlike in other sports, you cant really fake effort. Maybe he was pandering or maybe he believed it, but Hartnell certainly seemed to agree.
Its the ultimate team sport, Hartnell said. Claude Girouxs not going to win us a cup by himself. Its the supporting cast. Its the third- and fourth-line guys that do the little things well. We all come together as a team. Being great in front of Ilya Bryzgalov. Its 20 guys playing together. Its not just one line going. Youre not going to win many games or many playoff rounds if you only have one guy going.
This was well in advance of the Flyers sewing a C onto Girouxs sweater. And Hartnell wasnt putting his linemate down. He was simply offering yet another take on the team and its composition, of how things work or, at the least, should work. He was being Hartnell.
It wasnt unusual. If Giroux is a worthy captain and one of the best players in the NHL (and he is), he isnt alone in leading the Flyers. There is obvious brilliance in the way Giroux plays, an undeniable and pronounced ability that prompted TSN to recently name him the leagues third-best player. Hartnell wasnt on that list. No one expected him to be. But if TSN did a different kind of list, a list about being open and accountable, a list about being a type of adhesive that bonds a good team together, Hartnell would likely be included.
The winger had an excellent season a year ago, scoring 37 goals and totaling 67 points. Both were career bests. It was an impressive performance, though his best numbers were in a different category. Hartnell played all 82 games last season. It was the fourth time in his career that he didnt miss a game. In 11 NHL seasons, hes played 75 or more games nine times.
That is a remarkable feat given the violent nature of the sport. It also puts him in a unique position to stand up and speak out. You can do that when you show up for work and rarely miss a day.
Hartnell has never hesitated to offer an honest appraisal of his surroundings or own play. While the Flyers and Penguins were busy breaking the scoreboard during last years entertaining playoff series, Hartnell paused to say that it was time for our defense and our goalie to win us a game." After the Flyers fell to the Devils in the next round, Hartnell made a point of telling the media and everyone else that Bryzgalov wasnt the reason why the team lost that series.
And just so you understand that hes an equal opportunity critic, he spent some time last season flogging himself when needed. Before the Devils dispatched the Flyers in the postseason, Hartnell offered a brutal evaluation of his less than stellar performance in a critical 4-1 loss to New Jersey. To wit:
"I wasn't forechecking. I wasnt hitting. It seemed like my legs werent moving, and when you dont have a guy on your line going, its tough to get the other guys going as well," Hartnell said. "I have to be better. I have to get emotionally into the game. It felt like it was just too easy for them. Its part of my mold to make it hard for them.
That mold the one that makes it hard on his opponents and sometimes on himself also makes it easy for the fans to trumpet him. The lockout beard, the movie cameo, the way he antagonized the Penguins and faux Hulk Hogan the whole HartnellDown shtick that he embraced, some of the other notable off-ice activities that have been recently reported (but wont be mentioned here). Between all that and the aggressive, head-down way he plays, its obvious enough why hes been embraced by the city while becoming an integral part of the Flyers' core.
This week is going to be huge for passes and for battles, Hartnell said, when asked about the importance of training camp prior to a truncated season. Thats the one thing that I missed. Get into corners and win the battles when two guys are on you and youre getting hit and strong on your stick and things like that.
Youre not going to be in midseason form right now. Whoever works the hardest, whoever wants it more, thats whos going to come out on top.
It was a clich. It was also such a Hartnell thing to say.
E-mail John Gonzalez at firstname.lastname@example.org