- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

Bob Hartley coached the Colorado Avalanche to a Stanley Cup title and three Game7 losses in the Western Conference finals from 1999 to 2002.
Hartley was the second coach in NHL history to reach the conference finals in each of his first four seasons. But when the talent-laden Avalanche started this season 10-17-9, Hartley's record wasn't good enough for general manager Pierre Lacroix, who fired him Dec.28.
Instead of hunkering down to wait an offer sure to come from a contender in search of a new leader, Hartley waited just 17 days and took over the woebegone Atlanta Thrashers a franchise whose NHL history was one year shorter than his and one that had missed the playoffs by an average of 36 points during its first three seasons.
It seemed a hasty move for a coach used to working with future Hall of Famers like Patrick Roy, Joe Sakic and Ray Bourque. But as the Thrashers left the ice following their pregame skate yesterday at MCI Center, Hartley, 42, was smiling. And with good reason.
The Thrashers are out of contention after going 12-25-2-4 under coach Curt Fraser and general manager Don Waddell, his interim replacement, but they're 10-8-4 under Hartley, a pace that would have them in the playoffs if sustained for a full season.
With eight of 20 players 25 or under, Atlanta's lineup still has more questions than answers. But even the Avalanche would love to have 22-year-old right wing Dany Heatley, the 2002 rookie of the year who scored a record-tying four goals in last month's All-Star Game, or 19-year-old left wing Ilya Kovalchuk, whose 60 career goals (31 this season) put him on target for the fifth most by a teenager in NHL history. And 19-year-old goalie Kari Lehtonen, the second pick in the 2002 draft, should be in Atlanta before long.
"I went from production to patience," Hartley said. "It's a change of expectations. In Colorado, you had to win every year. I knew when I took this job that it would be a long process, that I would need patience with these young players. It's the challenge that I was looking for. I'm trying to make sure that everyone is accountable, that they understand the system that we want to play and that they're having fun.
"I want them to learn not my way, not their way, but the right way. That's the most important thing. You can't teach everything you want [so quickly], but the kids are paying attention to the little details. I like what I see. I like the results that we're getting. There are a lot of signs that we're moving in the right direction."
Not only are the Thrashers winning under Hartley, their goals-against average had dropped from an NHL-worst 3.79 to 3.10. On the long road trip that ended with last night's 4-4 tie with Washington, Atlanta was 2-3-2, including an emotional 4-3 overtime victory last Thursday at Colorado and a 4-1 thrashing of Anaheim, another playoff-bound team.
"Bob has emphasized defensive play," said left wing Tony Hrkac, who has played for 14 coaches during 12 NHL seasons. "And he demands accountability. You have to play to a certain level. He won't tolerate anything less. This team has proven that we can compete in this league on a day-to-day basis. Bob has guys believing that we can win."
Twelfth-year right wing Jeff Odgers, the only Thrasher to have skated previously for Hartley, called Fraser's firing "a wakeup call" but is thrilled about being reunited with his former Avalanche coach.
"Bob is a great teacher, and he's very demanding," Odgers said. "He expects the best out of you every night. He's probably even more demanding of a younger team because he wants younger guys to start out the right way."

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