Bob Hartley Talks About Coaching Ilya Kovalchuk

Photos: Sport Express

Igor Rabiner of Sport Express recently conducted an interview with Ilya Kovalchuk’s former coach, Bob Hartley. Hartley was the Head Coach of the Atlanta Thrashers from midway through the 2002-03 season through the beginning of the 2007-08 season.

Hartley discussed the time he scratched Kovalchuk for a game because of being late for a practice. Being late had been a bad habit of Kovalchuk’s early in his career. Hartley was asked if Kovalchuk was often late when he coached.

BH: This happened with me only once. And I had no other choice, because team rule No. 1 was violated. It was both a very complicated and very simple solution. Because we were a young team that was learning to win. And you cannot win if you are not responsible for your actions. You cannot win if there are no rules on how to live.

The team’s best player violated the rules. As a coach, you always want the worst hockey player to do it, because than it’s not difficult to remove him from the game. But when punishing the worst player, there is no message for the team. When you scratch the strongest player for being late – this is a completely different matter.  I said to him, “Before the season, we gave you a list of team rules. You are late, and this is very bad. I’m sorry, but do you really think I’m going to use you today?”

I had already called the boss [Thrashers GM] and told him what had happened, adding that we had no choice. Because if we say this is okay for Kovy, then it’s okay for all. There are twenty hockey players who know that Kovy broke the rules. And the next time, let’s say you are late, and I then scratch you for the game, what will you answer?

Interviewer IR: How did Kovalchuk react?

BH: I told him, “You are not playing.” He then talked about being delayed due to slow taxi service. I replied, “Kovy, you are late. Everyone else came on time. We’ll talk tomorrow”. It was in New Jersey, and we had won by having one of our best games. The next morning, we sat down with him. I was very angry with his agent, who had contacted the New York press and told them that the coach should have taken into account that the taxi driver was lost.

I said, “Kovy, I am very disappointed in your agent… If you think that the success of your career may depend on a taxi driver, you will not achieve anything. Kovy, never blame taxi drivers or anyone else around you. You are a professional and you are paid to be a professional.”

“Take it as a lesson. For me, the matter is closed, but you must remember that you can never shift responsibility to others. It’s not news to anyone that traffic jams exist throughout the United States. You did not call, did not warn anyone about anything. So, firstly, I do not “buy” your story about a taxi driver, and secondly, even if this is true, then this is bad, because you just had to check out earlier. Never trust taxi drivers, especially in the New York area!”

He was never late again.

Interviewer IR: In the first half of his career, Kovalchuk had clashed with the authoritarian coaches of the old Soviet school. For example, with Zinetula Bilyaletdinov at Ak Bars during the 2003-04 lockout, with Viktor Tikhonov and Vladimir Krikunov at world championships. Did you know about this?

BH: Kovy was a stubborn guy! Very stubborn! But great athletes are always stubborn because they believe in their own way. You can ask Kozzie [Vyacheslav Kozlov]. I don’t remember how many times on trips we stopped at the hotel and I told both of them, “Come into my hotel room.” And we’d talk for an hour. “Kovy, why did you do this? But look at the moment when you did the right thing – and you always have to.”

This happened without any pressure. And specifically, not in my coaching room, but on neutral territory. Many young players see in the head coach only bosses, power. “You have to do this,” “you must do so.”  And he is a young player, stubborn, and his sense of contradiction says, “No, I will not do that.” And that creates a conflict.

“I emphasized, “Kovy, I came here because of you. We must find solutions, and these are not conflicts. Sometimes, a conflict can happen because you believe in your way, and I do not always think that it is the best. Therefore, we must negotiate and compromise somehow.” There is enough time for this during the regular season. And returning to your question, at the world championships, there is no such time at all. Seven to eight games, almost without any break between games. See what happened in Los Angeles earlier this season. I don’t know if there was a conflict.”

Interviewer IR: If there was [a conflict], if not with Todd McLellan this season, but in the past with Willy Desjardins. In general, Ilya has not been easy for coaches, and I only know four in his entire professional career who knew how to handle him. In the NHL – you and Peter DeBoer with the Devils and in Russia, Vyacheslav Bykov and Oleg Znarok.

BH: Do you know what was my best tactic for negotiating with Kovy? He was usually on the power play which he loved. I told him, “Kovy, let’s make a deal.” Option one. You give yourself one hundred percent to the game at “5-on-5”; i.e. you play defense, you don’t lose the puck, in general, you play to give us the opportunity to win. In this case, in every power play, I’ll give you the opportunity to play all two minutes. If, after the first minute, I replace you, it is a signal to think that the coach is dissatisfied. If you spend all two minutes of the power play on the bench, then it’s time to think that the coach is totally dissatisfied with your game.

He agreed. I think this is where our “chemistry” was born in many ways. This is the best we could come up with for him. It makes no sense to meet every day – you know what I want, I know what you want.

Interviewer IR: Was it your first season in Atlanta?

BH: I don’t think so. I came in January. Despite the fact that before I came, they were a bad team [12-25-2-4 record. I had to recognize each player at the same time, but, of course, I concentrated on Heatley and Kovalchuk, who were very close friends. Kari Lehtonen was not yet in Atlanta, either in Finland or the AHL.

When you joined a team without a training camp…, it’s impossible to understand all the details right away. The day after my first practice, there was a game with Montreal, and things seemed chaotic. Perhaps, such details are more obvious at the the next training camp, when we have more time to talk and bond when eating in restaurants and going to baseball games.

I did many different things in life before working in hockey – and those helped me better understand people. The coach needs to relate to any player on the team, and even more so, the main player, which Kovy certainly was. This player was known mostly for his offense. It’s easiest to know by what he what he does on the ice. It is more difficult, but no less necessary, to understand him as a person.

Kovalchuk is a world-class hockey player. But he is even better, I don’t know what term can be used here, than a world-class man. And this is what I managed to find in him, and my respect for him every day only grew. As a hockey player he had to learn many more things. But I was dealing with a man who respects people, and he really cares what will happen to the team. He has the right values, he was well brought up by his parents.

I understand that I have a chance to succeed in dealing with someone when I see that everything I speak about touches him as a person. Know the player – yes, it is necessary, but this is not the main thing. Without knowing the person, you will not be able to motivate the player.

Interviewer IR:  What are the main things that Ilya learned from Vyacheslav Kozlov?

BH: Today I understand Russian a little [Hartley said the last three words in Russian in the interview]. And then they sometimes discussed something in their own language on the bench with each other! They did not play on the same line and only played together on the power play. But this did not stop Kozzie from yelling at Kovy, or vice versa. By that time, I did not even know the word “thank you,” so I had no idea what they were talking about. It was the relationship of an older and younger brother, and I never climbed into it. Because I knew that they mutually respected each other.

Kozzie was a product of the old Soviet system, where everything is planned to the smallest detail. And Kovy is the product of his more modern [hockey] school, where freedom dominated, and he went above it – even greater freedom. They were two extremes. Kazzi – he was like a Swiss watch. I could sit in my office, look at my watch and say to myself, “So, it’s 11 a.m. Kozlov – in the gym. 11.05. He rolls his hockey sticks. 11.10. Kozzie for a massage. 11.15. Changing clothes.”  And he would not vary his routine!

Kovy, he was a little tornado. With him, except for any rules spelled out that he had to follow, nothing could be predicted. This is also normal. And, despite such a difference in habits, they always respected one another. Kozzie really wanted to help this young man so that his enormous talent bloomed in all facets. Kovy understood that. He was stubborn, but inside himself he always understood why Kazzy was busy with him and taught him.

Interviewer IR: That is, Kovalchuk can be considered the heir to the Russian Five of Detroit, in the sense that he was raised in many ways by one of its members?

BH: Definitely yes! The way Kozlov presented things was combined with my vision. Yes, there must be some freedom, but most follow organization rules. A hockey team cannot be a country club. And, looking at how Kovy progressed both in his career and in life, we can say that he took it. And he became a very successful athlete and personality.

Interviewer IR: In one of our interviews, Kovalchuk quoted you as saying, “You will never be traded while I work with team.” Were there any attempts on the part of Don Waddell to make such a trade?

BH: No. Kovy would be my next captain. I attached the letter A to his sweater to groom him for that role. Was he ready to be alternate captain when I gave him this letter? No.  I did the same with Denis Zernov this season at Vanguard. This makes them more responsible, gives them more feelings of pride and power. Then I said to him, “I came here because I wanted to work with you. And I promise you that I will leave here before you.” And, so it happened. And this happens most often (laughs).

Interviewer IR:  With each season, Atlanta improved and in your fourth year of coaching, you entered the playoffs for the first time – and it seemed that things would only get better next. But getting six losses in the first six games of the 2007-08 season lead to you being fired.

BH: I never told the press that Atlanta called me back in January the following season. I had only a few months left until the end of my coaching contract, and I replied to Don [Don Waddell, then GM of the Thrashers], “If I return now, we will start not from where we were at the time of my departure, but from where we were when I came to Atlanta. The team kept losing and we have to basically start over. My contract ends in June. So why should I come for two months of hockey? Tell the owners that I am ready to come if my contract is immediately renewed.” In the evening, he called back with the words that the owners were not ready yet.  So, I did not come back.

Interviewer IR: Do you keep in touch with Waddell?”

BH: Oh yeah. Very good person. And he was an excellent leader.

Hartley went on to talk about other topics. He emphasized Kovalchuk was not the reason the Thrashers had never won a playoff series while either of them were there. They had only made the playoffs once while Hartley coached, and the Thrashers met a better, more experienced team in the Rangers with a superior goalie.  He had no doubt that Kovalchuk wanted to win.

BH: Ilya was a very popular player in Atlanta. And at the same time, he was a very good club ambassador outside of the ice arena. I don’t know how they treat him in this city [Atlanta] now, where there has not been an NHL team for a long time. I had never returned to Atlanta after my dismissal. But I am sure that they remember and remember well. Because even in Montreal, I saw people in Atlanta sweaters with the name Kovalchuk on their backs.

Interviewer IR:  Having worked in Russia for two seasons, do you now have a better understanding of Kovalchuk’s game and everyday habits?

BH: Of course. I went to work in Zurich [Swiss League] and the Latvian national team… and now am in Omsk. Our two children are already adults and do not live with us. And I wanted to look at hockey and life from a different angle. I arrived in Omsk – and a month later our home arena began to fall apart, and it was forbidden to play there. How could this be? There was talk about moving to Krasnoyarsk, even Sakhalin. The team now moved to Balashikha.

Although Canada is also a big country, I still cannot believe how huge Russia is. And now I say, I should have come here years ago. But I was like Kovy – too stubborn. Maybe that’s why we became such friends.

Interviewer IR: Which of Kovalchuk’s contract decisions did you support after you worked together, and which ones did you disagree with? I mean, the refusal to sign a new multi-year extension with Atlanta, then the contract with SKA for five years, and the choice of the Los Angeles Kings.

BH: I knew that in Atlanta it was difficult. First, the car accident of Heatley and Snyder. Then, the departures of key players: Mark Savard, Marian Hossa to other teams. The team got worse and the fans stopped coming to games.  In my time, the team improved, plus the people were great.

We had many sellouts, and Kovy must be given credit here and not only for his game. We needed to develop the market. During the first few seasons we sometimes had just 6-8 thousand spectators. And, with this, it was necessary to communicate closely with the fans, to set a good example for them. We constantly made appearances in schools, shopping centers, and everywhere! Kovy, Lehtonen, Kozzie, and Dany Heatley were the faces of the team, and the fans wanted to see them everywhere. Right before the tragedy with Heatley and Snyder, we were at a charity evening with the participation of season ticket holders, which took place in our arena. Kovy always understood the importance of such things, and it was largely thanks to him that the popularity of hockey in Atlanta skyrocketed.

And then it all went downhill. There was no money, no people attending games, either. The handwriting was on the wall that Kovy would leave. I do not think that Atlanta could compete with any other serious offers for his services.

Once, when I was already working in the Latvian national team at the World Championships, I watched the KHL playoffs late at night. And it was Gagarin Cup playoffs when Ilya was removed from the [SKA] squad. Seeing this, I did not write to him, because it is not my business. But I felt very sad. I still have not asked him or anyone else what happened. And I don’t even want to know that. But I do not understand how this could happen.

Interviewer IR:  And how did you react to the breakdown of the 13-year contract with the Devils and the departure to SKA?

BH: I will say right away: we did not discuss this with him. But when a person wants for one reason or another to return home – that means there is a reason for this. And personal – because Kovy has relatives in Russia – and professional ones. Perhaps something has changed in New Jersey where he didn’t feel as welcome there – I don’t know.

Clubs such as SKA and CSKA always want to take as many of the best players as possible. But then I did not know much at all and had not studied the KHL. So, I didn’t know what Kovy’s goals were then.

As for the decision to go to Los Angeles … Last year we talked a lot with Kozzie, who then coached in the VHL [Kozlov was the head of the VHL team Khimik Voskresensk in his birthplace during 2018-19]. And when I heard from him that Kovy wants to return to the NHL to win the Cup, for me this was not a surprise. He won the Olympics, and it was time to take the next step.

But the decision to choose “Los Angeles” was a big surprise for me. I still follow the NHL – and was sure that the Kings would not win the Stanley Cup. They may be a good team, but they certainly are not good enough to win the Stanley Cup

At the same time, I knew that Kovy and Luc Robitaille had a good relationship, since Los Angeles wanted to acquire him from the Devils. I told you about Kovalchuk being loyal – and perhaps he still had positive memories of conversations with the current president of the Kings. He thought going to the Kings might be good for the family. Yes, we know that it definitely didn’t work out, but that’s the way things go in sport. Sometimes it works and other times, not.

Interviewer IR:  Were Kovalchuk and Alexander Ovechkin, now together in Washington, friends in their youth? Have you seen the manifestations of this friendship?

BH: Yes. Every time we played, Ovi would give me sticks. When we were on ice during the morning skate, he approached our bench, and we talked. Or when we went to play in Washington, Ovechkin was on the ice, and Kovy and I went up to him and chatted …

Both were the most important players on their clubs and both were Russian stars. And to see them united on one team is magical for me. This is a great hockey story. And I hope that it works. They have a great team. And maybe after this Cup the time will come to write the book “Russian Five. Part 2″?

The full interview can be found here. All photographs are from the original article in Sports Express

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Interview with Bob Hartley from Sports Express
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By Diane Doyle

About Diane Doyle

Been a Caps fan since November 1975 when attending a game with my then boyfriend and now husband.
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