Thrashers better under 'Uncle Bob'

ATLANTA -- Booby-trapped sticks, sabotaged hotel rooms, elaborate hoaxes involving calls from NHL "officials," they are as much a part of Bob Hartley's coaching repertoire as his punishing skates or his equally punishing expectations.

"I do everything on instinct," said the coach of the Atlanta Thrashers. "Sometimes, I surprise myself."

Equal parts Tony Robbins and Red Skelton, Hartley's coaching record is as consistent as his methods, always marked by success. But what he has achieved in the four weeks following the tragic death of Dan Snyder in a car accident, which also left team star Dany Heatley badly injured and facing vehicular homicide charges, has been nothing short of inspiring.

The Thrashers have 11 points. They are second in the Southeast Division and tied for third in the Eastern Conference. Heading into tonight's game with the Toronto Maple Leafs, they have lost only once in regulation, twice coming back from two-goal deficits to win and another time erasing a two-goal shortfall to steal a point on the road.

Which highlights the question: Is there a better coach in the game at this moment?

You'd have trouble finding anyone in the Thrashers dressing room -- or beyond -- who would argue the point

"If anybody thinks that team is not for real, they're mistaken. That team is not going away," Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Jay Feaster said.

A year ago the Thrashers began the season without a win in their first 10 games and were outscored, 42-27.

This season, they're outscoring opponents, 23-16, through eight games. They have done so while trying to reconcile their grief over the death of a teammate and trying to help another recover from the emotional and physical pain of having caused it.

They have done so, in short, because Hartley has allowed them to do so.

"At the time it was tough to play," said defenseman Chris Tamer. "He's held the team together pretty good."

"He's been a huge part," of the team's start, added Jeff Cowan.

Asked if he's surprised at the team's start, Cowan considered the question.

"Not surprised," he said, "but proud."

Hartley told his players that other teams would be sympathetic to their plight but at the same time would be expecting to take advantage of their pain when the puck was dropped.

"Everybody could give us their pity, except on the ice," Hartley says.

But instead of a dispirited group, opponents have found the opposite: a group of players who play committed defense, swarming offense and who never go away. They get stronger as games go on, a testament to Hartley's obsession with team fitness and endurance.

As he did in Colorado where he won a Stanley Cup and took the Avalanche to the Western Conference final four straight years, Hartley rides his favorite players like there's no tomorrow. And, in some ways, for a team facing the kinds of challenges the Thrashers continue to face, there is no tomorrow, only a series of todays.

Marc Savard, reborn in Atlanta after a disastrous tenure in Calgary, has seen his minutes rise into the high 20s, playing on Hartley's top line and taking key faceoffs. Slava Kozlov appeared dazed when told he'd topped the 30-minute mark against the Rangers.

Ilya Kovalchuk, the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft and the poster boy for one-dimensional play during his first two seasons, now kills penalties, plays with a host of linemates and leads the NHL in goals. If he played any more, he'd be playing net, Hartley quipped after Kovalchuk's second hat trick of the season on Oct. 23 against Nashville.

As for a goaltending controversy, there isn't one.

Pasi Nurminen is Hartley's goalie -- and that's it. The good-natured Finn has played every minute of every game and boasts a sparkling 1.96 GAA and .926 save percentage. Meanwhile, the team's highest-paid player, Byron Dafoe, cools his heels at the end of the bench.

"I didn't come here to listen to goalies whining in my ear," Hartley said at the start of training camp. "I came here to win hockey games."

Hartley also has coaxed timely contributions from unlikely sources. He expressed his displeasure with Randy Robitaille's play during training camp yet the journeyman has responded with four points and is now playing with Kovalchuk. He asked general manager Don Waddell to pick up former Avalanche forward Serge Aubin and Ronald Petrovicky in the waiver draft, and both have been positive additions.

"If you're willing to learn, you'll do well with Bob," says Aubin. "Bob's a winner. He's won everywhere he's been and what do they say? Good guys never finish first. Sometimes he gets a little cranky."

The first day Hartley addressed his new team, Cowan turned to defenseman Andy Sutton and said, "THIS guy's going to make me a better player."

"He wants to win so badly," Cowan said. " He knows how to push guys buttons, when to call a guy into the room and fry him. He also knows when to sit back and let a player play."

Hartley makes no apologies for his abruptness.

It is the way families must be, he said.

"They're allowed to be mad at me. I'm allowed to be mad at them.

"When I see someone is weak, I'll get in his face. Because if I don't, he won't be able to survive."

But just when players expect the worse, Hartley said he likes to give them the best, a surprise day off during a losing streak, praise in the midst of a slump.

So it was during the days after the accident and Snyder's death. Hartley insisted that the games meant nothing, that the healing was everything. By taking a step back, it allowed the Thrashers to heal on the ice, to heal through winning.

"I'd always heard he was tough. And then he got here and I realized he was tough," Tamer added. "But that's a positive thing. As a player you know what to expect. He doesn't throw curve balls; he's a fastball shooter. No player likes to be played or played with."

When it comes to hockey, at least. At other times, everyone is fair game.

Savard recalls pulling his shin guards from the shelf in his locker room stall one day this fall only to discover Hartley had set a cup of water inside.

"I guess he thought it was funny," said Savard who later cut the knob off Hartley's stick as retribution.

Ville Nieminen, who played for Hartley first in Hershey of the American Hockey League and then in Colorado during the Cup run, used an oft-repeated phrase in describing his relationship with his coach: "love-hate."

"He's an interesting character," said Nieminen, now with the Chicago Blackhawks. "I basically grew up under his wing. I don't know where I would be if Bob had not been there for me."

"He calls himself Uncle Bob. Uncle Bob knows everything. That's his line."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.