How the Flyers winger got his groove back
The game had been a painful piece of déjà vu, the booing inside Wells Fargo Center incessant. Now, Scott Hartnell just wanted to forget about it for a while, forget about another tough start to what was shaping up to be another tough season in Philadelphia.
He hit the bar near his Old City crib for a few pops with some teammates. A couple of men, 20-somethings, eyed him up, stored up a sufficient quantity of liquid bravery, and started in on him. "Giving it to me pretty good," he says. "Stuff like, 'We wish we could trade you for a bag of pucks.' Something stupid, right? So I just said, 'Don't come to Broad Street this summer if we win.' I called them out a little maybe, too. And then I left.
"So we'll see what happens."
This was in early October, when Hartnell - the Flyers' flopping, floppy-haired 29-year-old winger - found himself buried on a fourth line, subject once again to the daily, multination trade rumors that have pockmarked his five seasons in Philadelphia. That first season as a Flyer - after signing a 6-year, $25.2 million deal - Hartnell did not score until his 16th game, and that was an empty-netter. The next year, he set career highs in goals and assists. But then, the year after, his very public and very ugly divorce reduced him to a zombie on blades, and his goal total hovered in single digits for much of the season.
This has been Scott Hartnell's NHL life. Celebrated one season, scorned the next. Coveted as a premier power forward one season, called a waste of cap space the next. This year is no different: Considered trade bait at the start of this year's campaign, he's now having the best season of his career. In fact, there may not be any athlete in this town's rich sports history - not Andre Iguodala, not even Donovan McNabb - who has slid up and down the scale of fan passion with the volatility Hartnell has, his free-spirited personality celebrated or scoffed at in equal measure.
Fan favorite. Fan target.
A loving soul. A lost one.
"I don't know if it's Philly but it seems people panic a little quicker here," he says. "They're willing to cut you loose quicker here. You have one bad game and it's, 'Get out of here.' Whereas in some markets they'll stay with you a little longer. So it's a little frustrating. But I know the way I can play."
Elevated to play on the first line with Claude Giroux and Jaromir Jagr shortly after that Old City encounter, Hartnell has responded with 25 goals and 19 assists, a pace that will greatly exceed his previous season bests (30 goals and 30 assists). An all-star this year for the first time in his 11-season NHL career, his 6-2 220-pound frame and aggressive style has drawn comparisons to John LeClair and Clark Gillies, large puck-loosening wingers with good hands and quick releases.
Some have discounted Hartnell's numbers because he plays with Giroux, also an all-star, and Jagr, a future Hall of Famer. But with Jagr out of the lineup over the weekend before the all-star break and Giroux amid a pronounced scoring slump, Hartnell scored a total of five goals in consecutive games against the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins.
"He's the one who worked on what he really needed to work on," says coach Peter Laviolette. "He put himself in the position to be the player he is right now. I think Scott really deserves the credit for what he's done."
It's something right out of a Dr. Seuss book, Scott Hartnell's hometown. Straddling the Saskatchewan and Alberta border, Lloydminster is claimed by both Canadian provinces, yet falls under one municipal government. For a while, you could smoke on one side of town but not the other. The legal drinking age on the Alberta side is 18. On the Saskatchewan side, it's 19. Things like property tax and auto insurance cost less on the Saskatchewan side. The dividing line is 50th Street, a main drag in town. Thus, a 50th Street resident on the Alberta side who backs into his buddy's car across the street pays almost 2 1/2 times more than his neighbor would for the same transgression. Even time follows its own rules here. On the Saskatchewan side, they're on Mountain Time and observe daylight savings time - even though the rest of the province does not.
Confused? Understandable. Live there long enough, your hair might begin to look like Hartnell's, too.
Truth is, there was no wild Hartnell coif growing up. Joy Hartnell, a teacher's aide who worked with disabled children, mandated buzz cuts for all three of her boys. No exceptions. "I think that's the reason he got out of there," says Scott's brother Devin. "So he could grow it out."
Truth is, Hartnell loved where he lived. Might not have ever left if not for hockey. The youngest of Bill and Joy's four children, he was, even then, an oversized teddy bear, at least among family and friends. Five years younger than Devin, his closest sibling, 9 years behind his eldest, Kyra - the only sister - he was always bigger than his peers.
Even as a kid, the unbridled exuberance that has made him both a fan favorite and fan target in Philly was part of his DNA. He was the family's kitchen-table clown, a dynamic that still exists when they all get together, as they did for his first-ever NHL All-Star Game last week in Ottawa. "The rest of them always cut him up," Bill Hartnell says of his siblings. "He tries to do it, tries to get back. But it always seems to backfire on him."
He could hang with both Devin and older brother Chad athletically. He could also take his beatings. Sometimes it seemed he even liked to take his beatings, the survival strategy for any baby brother in a big family (just ask Eli Manning). Get up when knocked down, take your shots when you can, never let them see your hurt. When the teasing and torment comes, as it inevitably does within big families, laugh about it and bask in the attention.
"Scott grew up rough and tumble," says his father. "We didn't need to protect him."
Hartnell was 16 when he left home for good to play for Prince Albert of the Western Hockey League. By then, both brothers had gone off to play hockey at Division I schools: Chad at Colorado College, Devin at Michigan Tech. With good wheels and good hands, Chad was the flashier of the two. Devin was more of a banger, and, his father says with a smile, "Always willing to oblige," when it came to fighting. Scott was a combination of both.
At 17, he captained the Prince Albert team his way to an 82-point season and was named its MVP. The Nashville Predators made him the sixth pick overall of the 2000 NHL draft. His first game with the team took place in Japan. He was 18, the youngest player in the NHL. With expectations high and his willingness to please, he flopped spectacularly, scoring just two goals that first season. Over the next three, as his body matured and his mind was dragged along, he averaged just over 15 goals and 100 penalty minutes. Not bad, but not the elite power forward Nashville imagined when it picked him so high.
"He was so young," says Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen, then a Nashville teammate. "He was still getting used to the league."
Timonen, who is 7 years older, asked Hartnell to room with him on the road that first year. Not because he felt the kid needed guidance or an older brother, just because he liked him.
"He's one of those guys who is just so easy to be around," says Timonen. "Everyone likes him. That's one of the reasons we really connected in Nashville. I came from Europe, didn't speak much English at the time and he made it so much more fun. Sometimes he goes a little overboard and I have to tell him to tone it down, but really, not too often."
After spending the lockout season of 2004-05 in Norway and winning a championship, Hartnell scored 47 goals and tallied 87 points with the Predators over the next two seasons. But the NHL's hard salary cap forced a fire sale in Nashville. He and Timonen were shipped to Philadelphia in June 2007 for a first-round pick.
The deal was all about Timonen, a levelheaded defenseman, team leader, son of a hockey coach. If Hartnell still seemed trapped emotionally at the end of that kitchen table in Lloydminster, Timonen seemed wiser than his 32 years. "There are actually two Kimmos," says Timonen. "There's a media Kimmo and then there is the other one." The other Kimmo had developed into Hartnell's best friend. A man to whom he could pour out his soul.
Both men were signed to big contracts upon their arrivals. Timonen at 6 years for $37.8 million, and Hartnell at 6 years, $25.2 million. Since then, Timonen has been a fan favorite, playing smart, playing in pain, a calming presence on and off the ice. "The ultimate professional," general manager Paul Holmgren has called him.
Hartnell? "He's the class clown," says Holmgren. "I think every team has one. He has fun. He enjoys life. For the most part, when he comes to the rink, he plays hard. But I think there's always been that little bit more you'd like to get out of him."
"He's the ultimate power forward," says Danny Briere, who centered Hartnell's line when Hartnell scored 24 goals last season. "What's funny about those guys, though, is that one year they can score 20 and the next year they can score 35 depending on which line they're on, the chemistry they do or don't build with certain players, and how well the other lines are playing."
After signing that big contract in 2007, he tried too hard to justify the money. The oddity - and this has plagued him his entire career - is that the harder he tries, the more he seems detached and disinterested. Hartnell rallied the second half of the '07-08 season and finished with 24 goals and 19 assists. In '08-09, his best season until this one, he amassed 30 goals and 30 assists and was so popular that Hartnell wigs were part of a Flyers giveaway in March. When a taunting fan in Pittsburgh wore one of those wigs and a replica Flyers jersey with "Fartsmell" across the back, Hartnell autographed it, "To my biggest fan!! Your bud Scott Fartsmell 19."
But a month later, after the Flyers were eliminated in the first round by Pittsburgh, Hartnell was fingered as a culprit. After a 60-point regular season, he had just two points in the six playoff games. Turns out, the roller coaster wasn't confined to life on the ice. He was at the onset of a very messy divorce.
Scott Hartnell met Lisa Renneke in 2005. A native of Brainerd, Minn. - the town that gave the world Police Chief
Marge Gunderson in the movie "Fargo" - Renneke was a senior at David Lipscomb University in Nashville when the two met. She was 5-10 with blond, wavy hair, and played basketball and volleyball, and golfed. They married a couple of years later. And when Hartnell was traded to the Flyers, the couple settled into an Old City loft. Life was good.
By the start of the 2009 season, life was not good. Rumors of Renneke's trysts, including one with Flyer Jeff Carter, hit the Internet, and it worked like kryptonite on the player and his team. Hartnell's goal total was still in single digits in December when he and Carter were forced to publicly deny the rumor. It was first reported in a blog post by a Temple University senior, who claimed he had gotten it from a Flyers employee. Hartnell did admit then that he was dealing with some "personal issues." Later, he confirmed that they were about his marriage.
"It was pretty tough," he says now. "Somebody you love absolutely turns the switch and calls you every bad name under the sun. Calls your family things, too. And making the money I do, I lost a lot of money in the mix as well. People can blame me, whatever. But it was a really tough year."
Tough on him. Tough on his friends. Tough on his family.
"When you have kids," says Joy Hartnell, "their pain is our pain, too. No matter how old they are, or how young they are."
Says brother Devin: "It's funny how it affects all parts of your life when your home life isn't in order with the way you would like it. It spills over into your relationships with your family. It spills over into the way you play hockey. How good of a teammate you are. And a friend. Everything you are."
The Flyers tanked early - they were 10th in the conference standings by the second week in December - and it cost John Stevens, a popular coach with the players, his job. Those who liked Stevens held Hartnell responsible, and filled the radio with talk of dealing him or simply cutting him. Stevens was replaced by Laviolette, a Stanley Cup-winning coach with a reputation as a taskmaster who quickly ran out of patience with Hartnell.
"It was a tough go there with Lavvy for a while," Hartnell says. "He challenged me. He called me out pretty good a few times."
It came to a head in 2009-10,
after the Flyers advanced past the Devils in the first round of the playoffs without much help from Hartnell. His moribund regular season, in which he scored only 14 goals, had carried into the postseason. The Flyers coach called Hartnell into his office again. It was, says Hartnell, "Probably the worst meeting I ever had. He wondered out loud if I even wanted to play anymore. He challenged my character."
"Obviously we're really close friends," said Timonen. "And you share the painful moments with your really close friends. We talked a lot. He was having a tough time. Everybody around him was having a tough time. And the fans were really giving it to him. Sometimes you see that and you'd like to tell the people what's going on but . . . you can't. It's personal stuff. And when you're going through it and you have to play at the same time, it's so hard. It was really tough to see that."
Says Hartnell: "One thing I've told my family is that I kind of forgot who I was in that marriage. I lost myself for a couple of years there. And I'll be the first to admit it was my fault. My priorities got a little messed up. My family kind of got put down. But you come through it. And now, every time I see any of them it's an extra hug.
"I remember when it was over, my mom said to me that now she had her son back. I felt that way, too. Like a big burden was off my chest. And obviously I could get back to my job and playing the way I do."
Hartnell was one of the triggers in the Flyers' remarkable rally from a three-games-to-none hole in the second round against Boston.Their 23-game playoff run finally ended in a 4-3 overtime loss to Chicago in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, but Hartnell had accumulated 17 postseason points, including eight goals - more than half his regular-season total. His eighth goal, inside the last 4 minutes of Game 6, had forced overtime.
When it was over, Laviolette had one last meeting with Hartnell.
"He said, 'I just want to apologize for what I said to you,'" Hartnell said, '"You do want to win. You were a big part of our success. And you can be a player in this league. I can put you in a lot of different positions.'
"I think he gets me now," Hartnell added. "I think he knows I help bring a team together."
As for the fans and the ebbs and flows of our civic mercury? Maybe the best way to monitor that is through a Twitter trend that has, pun intended, gained legs over the last year.
"Hartnell Down" was a hashtag created by Seth Hastings during the playoff run two seasons ago to poke fun at the winger's messy style. It counts the number of times Hartnell falls each game. This year, it helped to create an endearing relationship between Hartnell and Flyers fans (and has spawned a blog, a Tumblr and website, complete with a "down-o-meter" and online store). In November, Hartnell joined in the count, and during his all-star appearance last weekend, he pledged $1,000 to a charity for each time he hit the ice.
The charity collected $4,000.
"I love the fans here, I really do," he says. "They're intense. They want a championship here so bad. And we feel the pressure, obviously. But it would be just the best feeling ever to bring a championship here and have a parade down Broad Street, see them all out there in their orange and black."
Even the guys from the bar that night?
"Yeah, they can come," Scott Hartnell says. "Life's too short, right?"