Ottawa Citizen



The latest saviour of the Ottawa Senators limped into the room aided by a long, metal crutch. Beholding the sight, yon jaded Senator Fan in the community must have wondered, snidely: Are the lame now leading the lame?

Admittedly, it was not the grandest of entrances, to a hastily called event in a makeshift media conference room where restaurant menus sat astride news releases.

And yet, that crutch, in a sense, represents what the Senators like about their new head coach, Craig Hartsburg.

He bears the scars of battle — on the ice and behind the bench.

Just 48, young for motor problems, Hartsburg recently had minor hip surgery, the price to be paid for playing 10 strong seasons as an NHL defenceman, all with the Minnesota North Stars.

Hartsburg comes to Ottawa from Sault Ste. Marie, where he was head coach of the Greyhounds, the Ontario Hockey League team that helped make him a first-round NHL draft pick in 1979. He’s better known to Canadian hockey fans for delivering the goods at the world junior tournament.

Three trips, one as assistant coach, two as head coach, three gold medals. Now that is performanc­e. When it runs this smoothly, the world junior gig becomes a launching pad for coaching careers. Brent Sutter was Canada’s world junior boss in 2005 and ’06 (Hartsburg was his assistant that year), and when he won consecutiv­e gold medals NHL clubs were lined up for his services, even though he hadn’t coached in the NHL before.

Sutter went to New Jersey this past season as the Devils’ head coach, the latest disciple of general manager Lou Lamoriello.

Hartsburg’s success at the WJC, combined with previous NHL head coaching experience with Chicago and Anaheim, made him an instant candidate for one of the many NHL openings this spring. If Hartsburg got the Senators’ gig, in part, because he was singularly focused on the Ottawa offer while Peter DeBoer was also negotiatin­g with the Florida Panthers, so be it.

The Senators get a good coach in Hartsburg — after negotiatio­ns soured with a good coach in DeBoer.

If there is an advantage to the Hartsburg selection, it’s this: instant credibilit­y in the dressing room. Hartsburg has played the game and coached it at the highest levels.

GM Bryan Murray, his hair gone a shade whiter after watching the Senators play in their own end this past season, is particular­ly enthused about Hartsburg’s defensive knowledge.

Younger fans may not know that Hartsburg was a fine defenceman in the 1980s, participat­ing in NHL all-star games and several internatio­nal events for Canada, including the famous 1987 Canada Cup.

He knows how the game should be played.

Of course, so did his predecesso­r, John Paddock.

The difference, in theory, is that Hartsburg is going to relay the message more consistent­ly, and more firmly. With better organizati­on and structure.

“I don’t know if he’s going to yell and scream a lot,” Murray said.

Presumably, he won’t be whacking players with his crutch, either, because he should be rid of it by the fall.

“But he believes in accountabi­lity,” Murray said, “and following a plan, and I like that.”

Oh, to have a dollar for every time the word “accountabi­lity” was used by Hartsburg, or in reference to Hartsburg, during his introducto­ry session.

As he explains it himself, Hartsburg’s world is “black and white.”

Players will know where the line is, and know not to cross it.

From the top scorer to the fourth-line checker, players will have a system to guide them, and all will be expected to follow it like a holy man does scripture. Otherwise, there will be time penalties — as in less time on the ice.

Hartsburg believes he gets the most out of his players. If he can do that here, that should be enough. For it has frustrated fans to no end that the Senators underachie­ved badly in two of their past three seasons.

With Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, Mike Fisher and Chris Phillips under contract, among others, Hartsburg knows he will have a decent hand to play.

How he plays it will be interestin­g to watch this fall and winter, leading up to what everyone hopes will be a more lasting spring.

Mike Foligno, father of Senators winger Nick Foligno, coaches the OHL Sudbury Wolves and is very familiar with Hartsburg’s work. Not only have the two former NHLers been northern OHL neighbours the past four seasons, Foligno was Hartsburg’s assistant coaching the Ontario team that faced a touring Russian junior team last fall.

“Hartsy is quite a guy,” Foligno said on the phone yesterday. “I’m really happy for him. He’s a hard worker and is very dedicated. I got a chance to see him operate under pressure during the Canada (Canadian Hockey League teams)-Russia series and I was impressed.”

Though it’s somewhat troubling that Hartsburg’s NHL teams never made it past the second playoff round, let’s concede that he wasn’t exactly handed the keys to powerhouse­s in Chicago and Anaheim. His 1995-96 Blackhawks club, with Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios, Tony Amonte, Bernie Nicholls, Joe Murphy, Denis Savard and a young Ed Belfour, was probably his best team.

Will the 2008-09 Sens roster be an upgrade? Should be.

If not, Hartsburg has taken on a bigger challenge than he knew.

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