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MIGHTY DUCKS '99-'00

Rink Rat

Craig Hartsburg's Cool Exterior Belies a Love for the Game and an Understanding of the Road to Success That Has Earned Him the Respect of His Players

October 08, 1999|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There stands Craig Hartsburg, arms folded, sour look on his face. At first glance, he might simply be a well-dressed commuter waiting for his train downtown. He looks as if he would rather be somewhere else, distracted, ill-at-ease.

This is the view most fans of the Mighty Ducks have of the franchise's third coach in its seven-season history.

He never smiles, never laughs, never speaks, never gets emotional. Up six goals, down six goals, he's always the same rigid figure behind the Duck bench.

He was on the job for six weeks last season before anyone could claim to have seen him smile.

These are merely perceptions, however. They are faulty, some 180-degrees off target.

Hartsburg is not the stoic he appears to be. He can be every bit as emotional and high-strung as Pierre Page and Ron Wilson, his predecessors.

Each passing day brings more evidence that he's a regular powder keg. Wide smiles and giddy laughter after his first victory as Duck coach last season against the Chicago Blackhawks--his former team, the team that fired him after three seasons--should have been the first clue.

The shouting match with King Coach Andy Murray that threatened to develop into something more in an exhibition game last month at the Forum should have changed his reputation for good.

He seems sheepish now talking about the incident, which came during a series of brawls in the Kings' 8-1 victory. Perhaps that's the true essence of the man.

He's neither firebrand nor milquetoast.

Like most men, Hartsburg's nature lies somewhere between the two. More than anything else, he can best be described as a rink rat--a man who simply can't leave the game behind.

"When I see how he coaches, I see how much he loves this game," right wing Teemu Selanne said. "You can see he would still love to play the game. He's just so intense."

Hartsburg, 40, might still be playing if not for injuries that cut his career short after 10 seasons as a defenseman for the Minnesota North Stars. He wasn't yet 30 in 1988-89 when he was forced to quit.

Duck vice president Jack Ferreira, who was then the general manager of the North Stars, asked Hartsburg to stick around as an assistant coach.

"He was our captain," Ferreira said. "He had hip problems and around January he had to retire. I could tell it was really hard on him. He came to me and told me he just couldn't go anymore. You could just see the emotion pour out of him. It wasn't like he lost his skills.

"Craig could still be playing."

Instead, he became a coach.

"I learned and observed," Hartsburg said of being the third assistant coach in Minnesota. "Then I went to Philly as a full-time assistant coach the next year."

Except for summers spent at his cottage in Canada with his wife, Peggy, and their two children, he hasn't been able to get away from the game. Retirement? Hartsburg never retired. His job description merely changed.

"Growing up, my dad coached Junior B hockey," Hartsburg said, referring to the highly competitive age-group hockey played in Canada. "When I started playing, I was always intrigued by the preparation part of the game."

Perhaps that's why he stresses preparation in his own players. Win, lose or draw, Hartsburg insists the Ducks be ready to play. Nothing angers him as much as flat, listless performances.

"As a player I always took pride in the preparation part," he said. "I didn't always play good. That's impossible, to play good every night. When a player's career is over, he's judged most on how hard he played and how ready he was to play."

Hartsburg's approach as a coach has not changed.

"To a certain extent you give the players all the information they need, but once the puck drops it's out of your hands," he said. "The players are the ones who get it done for you."

In Chicago, Hartsburg inherited a seasoned roster of veterans capable of winning the Stanley Cup in 1995-96. The Blackhawks won 40 games during the regular season, but were knocked out of the playoffs by the eventual champion Colorado Avalanche.

The next two seasons weren't nearly as successful and Hartsburg was fired after the Blackhawks missed the playoffs for the first time in 29 years in 1997-98.

The Ducks hired him on the rebound in the summer of '98.

"The first thing you have to do is believe in yourself," he said of getting fired. "It was a tough time. It was the worst thing I had to go through in my life. You feel you let everybody down, which really isn't true. Then you get mad and angry at the people involved. Then you reevaluate things.

"You learn a lot about yourself. You learn who your friends are."

Hartsburg and the Ducks became new friends, although things weren't always so rosy.

Remember, former Chicago defenseman Gary Suter's cross check knocked Paul Kariya out for the final 28 games of the 1997-98 season because of a concussion. Remember, too, that Hartsburg defended Suter's actions and was angry that his standout defenseman received a four-game suspension.

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