Mike Hartman Story
By Mike Hartman Written
with Gabrielle Hartman
Throughout my career as a professional hockey player, I benefited from having great coaches and mentors. Combined with my strong drive to improve my game no matter what it took, these coaches and mentors were able to make me a better hockey player and a better man. In the following pages I tell my story and how I distilled those years of coaching and mentoring down to an essential list called Mike Hartman’s Imotivators Playbook.
Once I retired from hockey, I started looking around for a fulfilling career to take the place of professional sports. That’s when I realized I had a real obligation to pay forward the incredible guidance I received when I was growing up and during my career. Combining lessons learned from mentors, coaches and players, along with observations and insight gained through just talking with folks through the years, I developed a fantastic step-by-step guide to becoming your personal best called Imotivators Playbook.
I established Imotivators Academy to work with athletes, coaches and anyone who wants to get better at what they do. I realized quickly that people who were not involved in sports still could benefit from the lessons I’d already learned in hockey and in life.
Use this program to learn and create your own Playbook. Using the methods I describe, I made myself into a successful professional hockey player. Just imagine what you can achieve using the same methods.
Let me help you to become your personal best!
Echo Net Media, Inc.
Written with Gabrielle Hartman
From the Oak Park (MI) Rangers (L) to the New York Rangers (R) in the National Hockey League, Mike Hartman made his dreams come true through hard work, learning from the best and having a plan.
I’d like to dedicate this book, as well as a lot of the passion that enabled me to achieve my goals, to my parents. They supported and encouraged me through this long journey and made me who I am today.
This book also is dedicated to my children, so they can understand that life is full of ups and downs. Hard work and making the hard decisions help you live your lives to the fullest.
I hope my story can serve as a blueprint for young people interested in finding and becoming their Personal Best. This book is for you.
I was never supposed to make it.
I was too short and too small, and made up for it by being too slow. Everyone agreed: there was absolutely no way I would ever become a professional hockey player.
Everyone agreed, that is, except for me. I believed and because I believed, I made believers out of my family, my friends, my coaches and my eventual teammates.
I believed and I worked. I believed and I sweated. I believed and I learned. I believed and I planned. I believed and worked, sweated, learned and planned even more.
Because I would not give up, because I worked hard and because I made the most out of what talent I did have, I achieved my Personal Best. I became a professional hockey player in the National Hockey League.
I made it. And so can you.
Achieving your Personal Best isn’t something you can do over the course of an hour or a week or even a month. It takes long hours, a great plan and the dedication to see it through.
Growing up in Oak Park, a small suburb of Detroit, Michigan, I knew from an early age that I loved one activity over any other. From the first time I watched one of the older neighbor boys strap on his skates and pick up his well-worn wooden hockey stick, I knew hockey would be a driving force in my life.
Fortunately for me, I came from an athletic family. My dad, who owned a wallpaper store, had played sports for most of his youth growing up and was a photographer for the Detroit Red Wings hockey team. My mom, who didn’t work outside the house, was a fantastic athlete. Growing up, she had been an excellent sprinter and baseball player.
Although I didn’t know it then, I was fortunate. Because my parents knew what it was like to fall in love with and excel in a sport, they were more accommodating of my desire to play hockey than they might have been.
When I was 9 years old, I played for the Oak Park Islanders and wore No. 9. On the New York Islanders, No. 9 was worn by Clark Gillies, who was an idol of mine. I would later get the opportunity to play on the same team as Clark in Buffalo.
My mother and grandmother ironed the Buffalo Sabres logo onto this green shirt. It was a vision of things to come since I was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres six years later.
By the age of 6, I’d seen and played enough hockey and baseball to know that my true sports love would be found on the ice, not the diamond. I quit playing baseball, a non-contact sport where my relatively small size wasn’t that much of a disadvantage, and began to concentrate all my free time on playing and getting better at hockey.
Hockey is the very definition of a contact sport. No matter what position you play, you will hit and get hit. People will try to rough you up on the ice and you are expected to rough them right back. To be a good hockey player, you need superior size, strength and speed to go with a nimble stick.
With the exception of a used hockey stick and a number of old hockey pucks, I had none of the advantages I would need to excel.
My mom and dad, being parents who loved their children and didn’t want to see them become fixtures in the local hospital’s emergency room, were understandably hesitant to let me play organized hockey. They knew hockey was a rough sport and they worried about their little boy.
“Please,” I asked.
“No,” Mom said.
I wanted to join the Oak Park Rangers, the local house league team. The house league basically was community league hockey, full of local kids from the neighborhood, coached by parents and featuring what could only barely be called hockey and that because it was played on ice and with sticks.
The Oak Park house league was about as far away from the National Hockey League as it was possible to get, but it was where I could start. And so I battered my parents again and again. I knew I could play, just as surely as they knew I had a good chance of getting hurt.
“Please,” I asked.
“No,” Dad said.
I started to make sure my room was always clean and the trash got taken out on time without anyone asking for it to be done.
“Please,” I asked.
“No,” they said.
I thought about running into the brick walls on the outside of our house, just to show them I could get rough and not get hurt, but reason prevailed.
“Michael, please understand,” Mom said. “We know you love hockey and you want to play in the house league. We do know that, but we’re worried. Those other boys are just so big. You might get hurt.”
“But hockey isn’t only about size,” Dad said. “It’s also about finesse, skill and speed on the ice. You can’t do much about your size, but you can work on those other things. We know you, Mike. We think you can do it.”
I don’t really remember what they said next. All I remember was yelling and laughing a lot. I was going to play hockey. All the time!
“Remember, Mike, you only get to play hockey if it doesn’t interfere with the rest of your life,” Mom told me. “Your school work comes first. If you want to play hockey, you have to make sure you do your homework first, do it well and then, and only then, can you go play hockey.”
I really was a fortunate kid. My parents knew how important school was and they wanted me to learn that as well. I didn’t know it then, but with that commitment to learning, I was already taking steps toward my goal of being a professional hockey player.
I didn’t like homework, just like every other kid I knew. But I understood that I had to do it if I wanted to play hockey. With that in mind, I approached homework as a discipline, learning when was the best time to work, how to work harder in a shorter amount of time, how to plan for the best study times.
I was determined to do well in school so I could do well in hockey. That determination I displayed toward my school work was the same determination I would need to play hockey.
At the age of seven, I was playing for the Oak Park house league hockey team.
My parents were very strict about school and homework, insisting that hockey would wait until I had finished all the homework and schoolwork that had been assigned.
I didn’t like it then, but now I’m glad they helped me to work hard in areas other than in sport. Their insistence helped make me the man I am today.
Once I joined the house league, I quickly found out my parents knew what they were talking about when they worried about my size. I was nowhere near being the biggest, fastest or tallest kid on the team, much less the rest of the league.
Over the years I played in the house league, I can’t count the number of times I got knocked down or run over. But each time I got knocked down, I got right back up, determined that it wasn’t going to happen again. My coaches worried my small size would make it impossible for me to play effectively, but I saw it as a plus.
Because I didn’t have the size and strength a lot of the other kids did, I found myself burning with a fire to prove myself every time I strapped on my skates. I made myself skate harder, skate faster and play harder every day. I made the willpower I would need to get better.
Some people would see my situation and give up. I lived my situation and used the inadequacies people saw as fuel to make myself better. I’d prove to them I had what it took.
Once again, I knew I’d been fortunate to be born to the parents I was. My mom and dad spent years driving me to games around the city, sitting and freezing in the stands, shelling out for equipment and fees, basically supporting my passion with their time, money and devotion. I was and still am a very fortunate son.
Eventually, after five years of playing in the house league, I thought I’d had enough of the minors. I figured I was ready for the big time and was ready to try out for the local traveling team.
A travel hockey team is one made up of kids from a wider area, playing at a higher level and, as the name suggests, traveling outside the city and sometimes to other states, to play other travel teams.
Once again, I had to persuade my parents that I was ready. This time, though, it was a bit easier because they could see how much hard work I’d put in to my time in the house league and on keeping up with my school work. They knew I wouldn’t shy away from hard work.
Because the travel teams are made up of the best players in the area, you had to try out and pass if you wanted to make the team. I knew I was ready. That didn’t mean I wasn’t nervous.
The night before the tryouts I was more nervous than I’d have thought possible. Every time my mind drifted away from what I was doing, I imagined myself out on the ice, fighting for my place on the travel team, and my heart would start pounding and I’d start breathing harder. I only fell asleep that night when I finally collapsed into the bed, nearly exhausted.
All that was forgotten, though, when I woke up the next morning. My confidence was at an all-time high. I was big. Well, bigger than I had been, and I was impressed. I understood hockey and I knew I was ready to take the next step. I was going to knock their green-and-yellow socks off, blowing past them in a blazing display of speed, skill and power.
Just seeing the rink set my heart racing. My dad noticed and gently squeezed my shoulder to help me calm down. I appreciated it, but it didn’t help all that much. I was more nervous and excited than I’d ever been – right up until I finished tying up my skates and hit the ice.
My nerves vanished and I felt calm, ready and in control. I made it through the try outs with what I thought was only a few flubs. I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I felt really good about my progress.
I felt really good right up until the coach delivered his post-try out evaluation.
The coach called me over and hunkered down on the ice to look me in the eye.
“Mike,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of heart, anyone can see that. But it’s not going to work out for you on the travel team.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Excuses and protests screamed through my brain, but I was too shocked to say anything.
“You’re just a little too small for the team, Mike,” the coach said. “By itself, that wouldn’t be enough to keep you off the team. The problem is you still need to improve on your skating, play making and stick handling. Right now, you’re just not ready for the travel team.”
He smiled kindly at me and said, “There’ll be other try outs. Keep working and come back and see me again.”
I skated off the ice, nearly tripping as I reached the gate. I felt terrible, barely enough energy to lift my head to see where I was going. My dad knew right away what had happened, but he knew the best thing to do was to wait quietly and let me come to him and speak first. He didn’t say anything as I took off my skates and the rest of my equipment.
As I was putting my stick inside my gear bag, my dad sat down on the bench with me.
"Dad, I just don't know. . . "
“I understand, Mike," Dad said. I'm sorry it didn't turn out how you wanted it.”
I nodded. I didn’t trust myself to speak, I was so angry and sad and depressed and frustrated.
“Mike, I’d like to ask you a question: Did you do your best out there?”
Of course I had. I told him so.
“Then that’s that,” he said. “What’s important is that you didn’t quit. Quitters never win. Keep working hard and good things will happen. You did your best and gave it your all. That’s what’s important. We can’t ask for anything more than that. “
I wasn’t good enough. But then my dad said something that changed my life.
“When you try out the next time, you’ll just need to make sure your best is even better than it was today. That’s all.”
It was a difficult time for me. I thought I was good enough, but apparently no one else did. There was hope, although I didn’t realize it just then. What my dad had said was enough to light a competitive spark inside me that still hasn’t gone out.
He was right. I had to make my best even better.
I know some people might have taken the failed tryout as a sign that they should give up hockey (or baseball, or basketball, or football, or making the quiz team in school), but I couldn’t. I love hockey. I wasn’t going to give it up. I wasn’t going to give up my dream of becoming a player in the National Hockey League.
I had to get better. By the time my dad and I got home, I was more determined than ever to achieve my goal. I would dedicate myself to improving my game.
The thing was, though, before I could improve, I needed to know what to improve. For that, I looked to the coach’s evaluation. He had some specific issues with my game. Even though it hurt to remember what he said when he cut me from the travel team, the coach knew what he was talking about. He certainly knew more than I did, so I needed to take his advice and apply it to my life. His words formed the basis for my hockey-improvement plan.
That was one of the hardest lessons I had to learn. Even when I didn’t want to hear someone tell me I wasn’t good enough, I had to be strong enough, mature enough, to listen to what was said and use that advice to improve my performance.
Even though I’d already given up hope of playing baseball past the rec leagues so I could exclusively play hockey, I truly began to concentrate on hockey following that tryout. The coach told me to improve my stick handling, so – weather permitting and sometimes in bad weather when I could talk my mom into it – I was out in the yard and in the street playing ball hockey. To improve my puck-handling skills, I ran up and down the street, controlling tennis balls and small plastic balls with my hockey stick.
I did every sport I could, even golf. I ran sprints and raced on the ice whenever possible to help increase my speed. I worked harder than I ever had before. I felt like an architect, only instead of putting up a building, I was building a new Mike, a Mike who would not only make the travel team, but would be an important player on the team.
I figured that one thing I should be doing was learning from the professionals. I began to watch NHL games, not only for fun, but to try and learn how they moved, what they did as well as what worked and what didn’t. I’d pick up new moves from watching televised NHL games and then immediately try them out when I was in the street playing ball hockey.
Of course, I wasn’t alone in my drive to become better. My Uncle Sherman, my mother’s brother, was instrumental in helping me to improve my skills. Uncle Sherman and I would wait in lines for hours after NHL games, just so I could get a certain player’s autograph. He took me to NHL games, not only for fun, but so I could learn up close.
One time when I was frustrated over my lack of progress, Uncle Sherman gave me just the advice I needed to move on. He advised me to not tackle one huge problem. What he suggested was that I look at the problem and then break it down into many smaller, separate steps. That way, I could work on, solve and improve one small step at a time. Then, when I’d mastered each of the small steps, I’d be able to put it all together at the end.
That’s advice I still live by today.
Both my parents and my Uncle Sherman kept encouraging me, helping me to keep my spirits up when I started to feel overwhelmed. Wanting to get better isn’t enough, they said. You have to actually work at getting better; pouring every ounce of determination you’ve got into your work.
Uncle Sherman and I holding the storied and justly overwhelming Stanley Cup. Uncle Sherman was a wonderful influence on me at a young age. He treated my dreams of playing professional hockey as completely achievable. His matter-of-fact acceptance of my dream gave me more support than he probably was ever aware.
I also was fortunate in that my grandmother, Yetta, understood my need to get better. She had an actual built-in hockey goal in the basement of her house. She let me come over to her house whenever I wanted to and shoot pucks into the goal. My uncle Sherman and I would go over to Yetta’s house all time and just keep shooting until we couldn’t pick up our sticks. I used to shoot between 100 and 200 hockey pucks a day. Even outside, my buddy, Marty Quarters, and I would shoot pucks and play hockey in the street.
I cringe whenever I think back to it now. I can’t help it when I remember how many pucks I holed into Yetta’s basement walls when I missed the goal. Even with all accidental renovations I was making to her basement, she kept encouraging me to come back again and again.
Fortunately for me she lived close by our house. Every day, after I’d finished my homework and checked it over, making sure it was done to both Mom’s and my satisfaction, I headed to Yetta’s house for four to five hours of shooting practice.
Some people might have seen what I was doing as being to hard, too much work, but not to me. I enjoyed it. I couldn’t wait to get up the next day and get started again. I didn’t have to force myself to do the work. I loved it.
My determination finally paid off the next year. When I was nine, I tried out for the travel team again and finally made it. The thing is, though, I knew I couldn’t relax. My best had gotten better, but it wasn’t near good enough for me to achieve my dreams.
I worked with my coach and began developing specific targets to improve my puck handling, shooting and passing. Just like before, I remembered Uncle Sherman’s advice and talked with the coach to help me break these complicated skills down to smaller actions and began working on them before and after practices. As I progressed, I began to put these revamped skills to use on the ice as a member of the team.
I’d achieved my first goal and was a member of our local travel hockey team, but that wasn’t the end. I knew I had a lot of years and a lot of work ahead of me if I wanted to reach my ultimate goal of the NHL.
What Mom and Dad must have thought of that. Whenever I would talk to them about my ultimate goal, Mom would listen and smile indulgently while Dad would quickly fold away his newspaper and give me all his attention. In their eyes, I saw warmth, love and support for me and for my dream.
They also continued to support me in more physical ways as well. Being on the travel team took a large commitment of time and money, not to mention patience. Mom and Dad never grumbled about it, at least not where I could hear. They wanted me to excel and they wanted me to be happy. They loved that I had a goal, even one that seem a bit unrealistic.
Not everyone was as supportive as Mom and Dad were. I was often told by friends and by teachers that I was a dreamer, that there was no way I would ever be a professional hockey player. My sixth-grade music teacher one day even growled at me to stop dreaming, saying I’d never be a part of the NHL.
I wasn’t stupid. I knew the odds were against me; that barely one in hundreds of thousands of people can rise to the top of the hockey profession and play in the NHL. That sort of doubt, combined with the love and support I got from my family, was like gasoline to the engine of my determination. It fueled me to work even harder, to prove them wrong.
By the time I was 13, I had worked hard enough and become good enough that I was able to make the jump from the travel team to the AAA hockey league. The AAA league is the highest youth hockey level in Michigan. I’d been one of the better players on my travel team, but it was a different league (literally) in AAA. Even though I made the team, I was by no means one of the best players there.
In youth hockey, we played the game with three lines of three players each. The first line is filled out with the best players. The second line is made of those who aren’t good enough to be considered the best. The third line is where I played. I was on the bottom, looking up, but at least I was there and I knew I could improve. I’d done it before. I’d just have to keep working.
Once again, I dove into a whirlwind schedule of school, homework and hockey. I don’t think anyone, not even my parents, really understood back then just how much importance I placed on playing hockey. It fueled my entire life. Hockey was the main focus of my life, into which I poured all my purpose and intent. School might have suffered, but my mom wouldn’t allow it. Just as before, schoolwork came first. I knew if I didn’t do well in school, I wouldn’t be allowed to play hockey, so I made sure to devote time and attention to learning in school.
Once again my hard work helped me get better. When I was 14 years old, I was the team’s leading scorer with 143 points and was named the most improved player, mostly because of the great play by Doug Stromback and the other forward who played on my line. I was ecstatic. Being honored for my hockey skills was, to me, a validation of my hard work and determination. It showed me I could set goals, work hard and smart to improve myself, and then achieve those goals.
Winning this sort of recognition was an amazing confidence builder for me. I felt like I was on top of the world and wanted the world to know it. With that in mind, I decided it was time to try out for the U.S. Olympic hockey team.
Here I’m facing off in Kamloops, BC, with Kenny Priestlay, who ended up being my roommate during my first year with the Buffalo Sabres. I was playing for Bantam Compuware Triple A hockey team. A special thanks to Mike Ilitch and Pete Karmanos, two of the most inspirational youth hockey supporters in the United States. If it weren’t for them, hockey in the United States wouldn’t be nearly as popular as it is now.
As a 15-year-old, I faced one immediate problem: You had to be 18 to try out. My dad – probably figuring it would be a good learning experience for me – fudged the consent form, saying I was 18 and could try out.
I went to the tryouts with my friend, Jimmy Carson, who would end up being picked up second overall by the Los Angeles Kings in the NHL Entry Draft. He and I were the youngest of the more than 100 players in attendance. The rest of the players were between 18 and 25 years of age. Yes, I was playing against players, some of whom were a decade older than I was.
Although I didn’t really expect to make the Olympic team, I thought I had a chance, so I had to give it my best effort. Both Jimmy and I were named to the final forty, but we ultimately fell short and were not added to the Olympic hockey team. Not that being left off the Olympic team did any harm to Jimmy’s career. He ended up playing in the NHL for 10 years, having at least one fifty-goal season. So he did all right.
For me, though, the Olympic tryouts marked the time for another huge change in my life. I was 16 and felt I’d gone as high as I could go playing hockey in Michigan as a member of the AAA league. I knew it was time for a new challenge. I decided the best thing for me to do was to move to Canada and play in the Tier 2 junior league.
I had a choice: finish high school and go to college or move to Canada and play hockey. It was a harder choice than I thought it would be. I didn’t want to leave home, to leave Mom and Dad and go stay with a family I didn’t know in Canada. But I also knew moving to Canada was my best choice if I still wanted to play in the NHL, which, of course, I did.
After much arguing and strife and long, long talks, Mom and Dad eventually agreed that I could move to Canada. The Tier 2 league placed me with a very nice Canadian family where I continued in high school and played for the (North) York Rangers of Toronto.
After a year spent in school and on the ice improving my game, I moved to Belleville, Ontario, where I finished high school while playing hockey for the Belleville Bulls.
Belleville Bulls, Ontario Hockey League, age 17. Things were getting more than a little real for me here. I was sporting two black eyes and a broken nose after my first OHL fight. It would not be the last time I had to fight another player as part of the game.
All throughout my junior year, I lived under a feeling of impending decision. I knew I would have to make a decision even more important and difficult than moving to Canada. As I grew in high school, I’d become a pretty large kid. Coupled with my hard work ethic and slowly improving hockey skills, I knew I was a pretty good player. I felt my dream of playing in the NHL moving ever closer.
But there was the matter of my education. I’d begun receiving scholarship offers from several colleges and universities, asking me to come play hockey for them. I knew my mom and dad wanted me to continue my education and get a college degree. I wanted that as well. The problem was that going to college would be a detour away from the path I was taking toward the NHL.
If I stayed with hockey in the Canadian Junior Hockey League, started to play full time, I could be an NHL player in a year or so. I could practically feel myself wearing the game jersey of some NHL team. The fulfillment of my dream was close enough to grasp. In the end, it was no choice at all.
Well, it was no choice for me. My mom, however, had a different idea of where my future should be headed. While my dad said, “Go, live your dreams,” my mother was very much opposed to the idea of me
passing on college to go pass pucks.
“I don’t think you really know how difficult it will be to play in the NHL,” she said. “You shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. What if the basket breaks? At least if you play in college, you’ll get an education.”
The problem with Mom’s idea, as far as I was concerned, was that I wasn’t all that great a student. I never had been. I’d always had to work extremely hard to grasp what other kids in my classes seemed to understand right off. When I was younger, I didn’t really take school all that seriously. I only worked hard and kept my grades – if not great – acceptable because if I didn’t, my mom would have taken me out of hockey.
It wasn’t until the 10th grade or so that I really began to take school seriously. I think I really matured a lot from 10th grade on. I knew education was important. I knew – even if I did achieve my dream of playing in the NHL – it wouldn’t last forever. The problem I saw with continuing my education by enrolling in and playing for a college was that, at the time, playing in Canada’s Major Junior League was the most direct route to the NHL.
I already faced a true uphill battle to make the NHL. At the time, there were only four hundred men playing in the league. Of those four hundred, there were a total of forty Americans. That was it. I had to take advantage of every opportunity that presented itself.
At that time, in the early 1980s, the quickest and best way to the NHL was to play Major Junior hockey. Looking back, if I had this choice presented to me today, I would go to play college hockey. College hockey today has so much more to offer than it did to someone like me back then. You can get the same opportunities through college as you could in the Major Junior Leagues.
But that’s today. Back then, I still had to not only make the choice, but make my mom understand that it was the right choice to make.
I convinced Mom only by promising that I would continue to pursue my education. While playing with the Belleville Bulls fulltime, I also enrolled in a college correspondence course. I also began taking summer college courses and started on the path to earning a degree in business.
My mom never really liked the decision I finally made, but she understood that I felt more strongly about playing hockey in the NHL than I did about anything else. She also appreciated my promise that I would get a college degree. When I made that promise, she knew I was serious. My mom and dad had raised me to always honor my promises and I’ve tried my best to live up to that all my life.
Once the decision was made and Mom was no longer actively objecting to my plans, I felt fantastic. I knew it was the right thing to do. I was going to play great, get drafted into the NHL in the first round and have a fantastic career.
Unfortunately, I was faced with an entirely different reality. My first year playing hockey full time with the Belleville Bulls was – to put it mildly – a disaster. I had a horrible year. I didn’t play nearly up to my potential. A series of nagging injuries kept me from playing well and kept me off the ice. It got so bad, I was eventually traded away to the North Bay Centennials.
By that time, I was 18 and that’s the year when almost all hockey players who make it to the NHL are drafted. I wasn’t. During the draft, my name was never called. I was devastated - it looked like my life-long dream to play in the National Hockey League was dead in the water and frozen over for good.
Just when I was about to give up, I got a call from Jimmy Devellano. Mr. Devellano, long-time scout and general manager for the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, was a friend of my dad. Jimmy Devellano called me to come down and have lunch with him after I didn’t get drafted. I thought I was going to be invited to the Detroit Red Wings training camp and I was excited. Instead, he told me what the scouts had said about me. He told me I was considered too small, too slow and that I didn’t play my role as a physical player very well. As a designated physical player, I was supposed to make contact out on the ice and they didn’t think I could do it.
But Mr. Devellano didn’t bring me down to deliver only bad news. Instead, he told me that I needed plans and goals to achieve if I was going to become a professional hockey player. He actually sat down with me and helped work out a plan for me to become a better hockey player. Mr. Devellano knew what he was talking about. He was one of the best scouts and general managers in the league and would eventually be inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame. I decided to wise up and follow Mr. Devellano’s advice to the letter. He helped me to break down my goal into smaller steps that I could more easily achieve. We had an extremely thorough plan. I felt like I was listening again to my Uncle Sherman in my grandmother’s basement.
Despite my optimism coming out of Mr. Devellano’s office, I knew I faced a tough skate to play in the NHL. Still, I went back to my team and began to work harder than I’d ever worked before. And all that work paid off. I had one of my best years ever on the hockey rink.
Even with my best year behind me, I knew my being drafted was far from a sure thing. Once you miss your 18-year-old draft, that’s almost always your last chance. Very few 19 year olds are drafted into the NHL. Although I had high hopes, I wasn’t even paying much attention on draft day.
Because I wasn’t paying attention, I didn’t know I had been drafted by the Buffalo Sabres. Notification of that fact was left to the father of my friend Jimmy Carson, who was a first-round, second overall draft choice. I couldn’t believe how classy he was, taking time from his son's big day to call and let me know I’d been drafted.
I could barely believe it. My dream was coming true. Every puck seemed to be bouncing my way - right up until it was time to report to training camp. Somehow, just before I was supposed to begin training, I sustained a severe ankle bruise and couldn’t even fit my swollen foot into my skate and I did something I couldn’t really afford to do: I missed the first two days of training camp.
I had barely made it to the professional level and I wasn’t able to show I deserved it. In fact, Sabres coach and general manager Scotty Bowman told me he considered the injury serious enough to send me back to the junior leagues.
For hours that night, I sat and thought about the decision I’d have to make. I could decide to safeguard my ankle and hope that I would be invited back to a camp when I was healed. Or I could decide to tough it out, do my best and give everything I had to make sure my dream came true.
Looking back over that night and the following day, I realized that I learned something very important. It’s not possible to give 100% all the time. Sometimes you’re just not feeling good and you’re maybe only able to give 70% of your normal effort. Well, that’s fine. You just need to give 100% of what you have 100% of the time. If all you can muster up that day is 85% because of a lingering cold, then you go out there and give all 85% that you’re capable of giving. And you do that 100% of the time.
Back in the Sabres training camp, I knew I wasn’t at 100%, but I had no choice. If I wanted to achieve my goal, I had to give it my all. On that particular morning, I learned I would be training alongside Gilbert Perreault, who was then in his 17th season. I couldn’t believe my luck. I would have the chance to learn at the skates of a veritable legend in the game. This was a chance I couldn’t pass up. I had been dreaming of this moment for more than thirteen years, working for this moment almost every waking hour since I was six years old.
I put on my Sabres practice jersey and sat down in the locker room. I gritted my teeth and forced my foot into my skate. It hurt like I couldn’t believe, but I knew something: Pain is temporary. Pride lasts.
I skated out onto the ice and played the best hockey of my life.
Everything I had learned and practiced in the previous thirteen years came back and propelled me toward my goal. That one good day lasted me throughout training camp and into the ranks of professional hockey players.
Coach Bowman changed his mind about me. The Sabres offered me a three-year contract and gave me jersey number 20.
I still have that very same jersey. I like to think of myself as only holding it for my children. One day I will give that jersey to them and tell them the story of how their father worked and planned and worked and guided himself to his dreams. I had achieved my life’s goal. That small, undersized runt from the suburbs of Detroit had grown into a six-foot-tall, 200-pound man who was going to play in the NHL.
But that isn’t the end of the story. I knew that my next goal would be to continue to play in the NHL and become a better player with each drop of the puck. To stay in the NHL, I’d have to keep working hard so I could make sure my body was tough enough and strong enough to battle against the other players.
My coaches told me I was one of the hardest workers on my team, no matter what team I was playing for. I felt like I had to work harder to bring me nearer the level of the more skilled players. Later, I would be honored as being the fittest person on my team. I would sometimes look back on my early life and be amazed to think of how far I’d come from the days when people would size me up on the basis of my height and slight stature. If I’d listen to them, I would never have made it to the NHL.
That’s an important point to remember. You can’t let others decide what your future will hold. I decided what I would do and what I would become. I challenged myself to become the best player I could and, by answering that challenge, I worked my way into the National Hockey League.
Throughout my career in the NHL and, really, in all of hockey, I was never a finesse player. I was known as a hard, physical player, someone who was more of a grinder or a digger than what’s known as a skill player. But I didn’t mind that. I was okay with that. I knew my strengths and weaknesses very well and decided to work within them to improve them. I saw what I was good at and tried to get better. I listened to my coaches to find my challenge areas and worked to reduce those areas or turn them into strengths. That’s what enabled me to make it to the NHL.
My first professional hockey game was better than I could have dreamed. I remember slipping on my Sabres jersey and walking out onto the ice in front of thousands of howling fans. I took a moment to just stop and breathe, to see the screaming fans and know that at least some of them were yelling for me. I had arrived. That night, I made my first professional hockey goal and contributed to my team actually winning the game. Even better, I was playing in the same line with Clark Gillies, a four-time Stanley Cup winner. Not only did I play with Clark but he also was my roommate and my mentor. I made the most of my rookie year with the Sabres. During that year, I played in almost every exhibition game after making the opening roster as a rookie. Even better, I had the opportunity to play against the Montreal Canadiens in the legendary Montreal Forum. Years before, I had traveled with my dad to the Forum to watch the Canadiens play. It was one of the best nights of my life and I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to someday play hockey there. In my first year as a professional hockey player, there I was, in the Montreal Forum, competing against the Canadiens. I didn’t think it could get any better.
As much as I enjoyed playing for the Sabres, I did eventually move on to other teams. During my time in the NHL, I played for the Winnipeg Jets (now known as the Phoenix Coyotes) and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Eventually, in 1993, I was traded to the New York Rangers, where I learned that I continue to be a role player.
As a role player, I would have to work as hard if not harder than every other player on the team with no assurance that I would actually play in the game. I had to learn different positions, knowing that I could be inserted at any time in any place during a game. I wasn’t a starter, but I was on the team and did see some time on the ice. Of course I still worked as hard as ever because I knew hard work was the only path to continued play in the NHL.
I was definitely not a finesse player at that level or, really, at any level, but I knew that. I knew what I could do. I knew my strengths and weaknesses very well and I always worked hard within them and improved them. During my third season with the Sabres I received the most important award of my career: The Player's Player Award, marking my hard work and tenacity on the ice. The award was informal, but I still have the boxer's robe I received that year to commemorate the event.
That year also marked one of the most important developments of my early career. At the time, I was playing with a two-way contract, which meant the Sabres management could play me in the big leagues for big-league money, or send me down to the minor leagues and pay me significantly less. If I managed to play in 70 games that season, my contract would automatically become a one-way contract, keeping me with the Sabres in the big leagues or, if they sent me down, I would be on a minor-league salary.
As the last game of the year approached, I had played in 69 games, one short of what I needed. The word came down from up top that I was not to play in the final game. It was a purely financial decision. That was when I learned about the importance of forming good relationships with the people surrounding you.
I couldn't believe it when ten veteran Sabres players went to the coach and told him they would sit out if I couldn't play. The coaches understood, but the decision had been made above his level. I was sincerely touched by their gesture. It meant a lot that they tried to look out for me.
Despite the help from my teammates, it looked like I would not get my 70th game that season. That's when Mark Napier and Larry Playfair, two of the best men I've ever met, stepped in. Mark Napier was in the last year of his 17-year career. He was a player who had been on two Stanley Cup-winning teams and was an amazing player and an amazing man. Larry Playfair stood up to the general manager and said he would not play and that I should be put on in his place. Unfortunately, Larry was a defenseman and I was a forward so his plan needed a bit of help from Mark Napier.
During warm-ups before the last game of the season, Mark Napier nodded at me and then winked. He then grabbed his leg, shouting about the pain. Yes, he faked an injury with one clear intention. I was there, warming up and I played Mark's position. With him out, I would have to go into the game.
Thanks to Mark's sacrifice, I was able to play in my 70th game that year and did get my one-way contract to either play in the big leagues for the Sabres or, if I were sent down to the minors, I would be a free agent and able to sign with any other team in the big leagues. That was probably one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. To this day, I take that with me everywhere I go in my life. He stepped aside to help out someone who was new and needed help.
I played hockey, both professional and amateur, for most of my life. I've been hurt, injured, angry, sad and everything in between on the ice. But that night, when Mark Napier stepped aside, faking an injury so I could play, that was the only time I ever took the ice with tears in my eyes.
Mark probably didn't mean to be teaching any kind of lesson by what he did that night, but I learned something extremely important from his actions. He saw someone with a greater need than his and he sacrificed something important to help with that greater need. Mark taught me about the importance of sacrifice for the sake of the team and sacrifice for the sake of other individuals. While you don't have to sacrifice something important, just learning that you can give to others for their benefit is an important lesson to learn and to put into practice in your own life.
I tried to honor Mark's lesson by playing as hard as I could, practicing as hard as I could and working as hard as I could at all time, sacrificing my time and my sweat to make my team better.
I knew hard, constant work was the only way I could continue to get better and help out whatever team I was playing with.
During my 1993-94 season with the Rangers, I made the best of my playing and practice time to get better. I could only reflect the behavior of the rest of my team. The Rangers were the best team in the NHL that year. We went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals and actually won the cup. We were the best team in the National Hockey League and I was a part of it.
The secret to my success as a player then and as a coach now is that I found what I was good at – being a hard worker, someone willing to do anything and do it at top speed at any time – and applied those strengths to help my team win. Before you can contribute to a winning team, you have to find the one thing you do very well.
If you’re a good goal scorer, you need to become a great goal scorer. If you’re a good salesman, you need to become a great salesman. Once you do that, you can focus on your properties, what makes you successful at your one good thing.
You maximize those properties one at a time. You pick one area to improve and then work on that until that property is where you want it to be. That’s how you become your Personal Best, by improving yourself one property at a time.
Because I was injured that year, I only played 35 games; my name was only added to the Stanley Cup because Mark Messier and Mike Gartner fought to add it, along with the name of Ed Olczyk. There, engraved along with the names of the rest of the team, was Mike Hartman. My name, listed there among the best hockey players in the National Hockey League; my name listed with greats such as Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe.
When my time with the NHL was finished, I knew I still wanted to keep playing hockey, so I was signed by Colorado Avalanche. They then sent me to the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League, which is one step below the NHL.
I was named captain of that team and tried my best to lead by example. The Bears went on to win the Calder Cup as champions of the American Hockey League, thanks in part to coach Bob Hartley, one of the best developmental coaches I've ever learned from. While that was surely a high point of my professional career, it had to come in second to winning the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers.
As a member of the Rangers, I was permitted to take the Stanley Cup back to my home town to show it to my friends, family and the people of Detroit. An autograph party was held in a local restaurant. I still smile when I remember those young boys and girls, all smiling and laughing, while they waited to talk to me, a professional hockey player and member of the best team in the league. I often wondered how many of them had dreams like mine of one day playing in the National Hockey League.
If I had only one thing I could tell those young boys and girls it would be this: Never give up on your dreams and never, ever expect that the journey you’ll take on the way to achieving those dreams will be easy. It’s the difficulty that makes achieving that dream all the more worthwhile.
I can’t imagine how empty I would feel if I had given up on my dreams. The ache of unfulfilled dreams must surely be the worst pain of all. The pain of a twisted ankle barely able to fit into a skate is nothing compared to what I would have felt had I given up on my dream of playing in the NHL.
There are millions of different dreams in the world, millions of different paths to finding fulfillment, but there is only one way to get to these different destinations. You need to find something you love, something you’re passionate about and then work your hardest to get there.
Most important of all though, is to remember to have fun on your way. If you enjoy yourself on the way to your goal, it will be all the sweeter when you achieve it.
Mike Hartman's Life Choices
One of the most important things I learned while growing up is that it’s very important to have a plan. You need to talk with mentors, friends, family and others with knowledge of your goals to get all the information you can. Once you have your information, you can break it down into achievable steps that will lead to your goal.
When I finished playing professional hockey, I became a professional life coach to try and help other people achieve their dreams. I’ve been fortunate that I was able to play with and learn from some of the best leaders and players in the National Hockey League and throughout my hockey career. Everything I learned as a hockey player, I’ve taken and applied to my calling as a life coach.
There were so many great leaders to learn from in the NHL. I’ve taken bits from all of them, including greats such as Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe and many others. They were all great leaders in their way. Of course, they also were great human beings and that only helped them to lead.
Becoming a great leader doesn’t mean that every leader has to be the same type of person. Some people are loud, while others are quiet, leading by example, showing the way through making good choices for themselves and their teams.
For instance, Mark Messier (an NHL Hall of Fame player) was a quiet leader. He led by example, not by talk. He led in how he carried himself. When he was upset with you, if, for some reason, you weren’t doing your job, he’d inconspicuously let you know. He’d pull you aside and basically tell you to never do it again. He wasn’t the screaming type.
One important thing I did learn by studying with and working alongside the greats was that not everyone can be a leader. However, you can take those leadership qualities and apply them to your life. Some people don’t want to be considered a leader, but even for them there’s nothing wrong with looking to leaders and appropriating their skills to help you achieve your own goals.
I didn’t learn those leadership skills from just sitting on the sidelines and watching leaders perform. I worked with them, forged relationships with them. Building relationships with people is extremely important. You’re not going to love everybody on your team, or in your office, or even in your family. You still have to get along with them, however.
In the offseason, I did anything I could to stay in shape. I mean, really, anything. Of course, I would go out and jog and swim and lift weights. That went without saying. I would also get into a few unorthodox training methods - that included boxing. My team didn’t like it, but I needed to get any edge I could to make sure I kept sharp on the ice. I knew I needed an edge and the only way I knew to get that edge was by working as hard as I could.
In forming good working relationships, one very important thing to remember is to not burn any bridges. That sort of fire will come back to haunt you, often when you least expect it or can least afford it to do so. I know I’ve not always followed that advice, but I also know I’ve always come to regret it when I didn’t.
While you might not like everyone you meet, that’s still no reason to cause hurt to them. No matter how trivial you might think the pain you inflict is, they might never forget that pain you caused.
Growing up, playing hockey, working in the business and coaching worlds, I’ve found the best way to cultivate those relationships is to use your ears. Really. Listening to people, actually actively paying attention to what they’re saying is probably the most important thing you can do to help you cultivate good relationships with the people around you.
By listening, actively trying to understand what people say and mean, you gain a fantastic insight into what makes them work. You learn the kind of people they want to be and the kind of people they really are. This gives you a fantastic window to see the ways in which you can work together and live together in harmony.
One important thing I’ve discovered is the importance of getting rest, not just physical rest like sleeping good at night, but often mental rest like taking a break from someone who makes good relationships difficult. That concept of getting rest is quite important to the way I look at life.
A lot of people say that life is a marathon; you keep running and running, having to hoard your energy for the hard work just down the line. I don’t believe that. Life is a series of short sprints, and it’s all about recovering energy between those sprints. That rest and recovery is what gives you the energy to run flat-out as fast and as good as you can during the next sprint.
If you’re running a marathon, at the end, you’re exhausted and have nothing left to give. In a sprint, you can focus on that sprint and give everything you’ve got, with no worry about saving something for later because you know you’ll be able to rest and recover when the sprint is over. Put together enough winning sprints and you’ll have run that marathon, but you’ll have run harder and stronger than the person who never stopped, but never ran as hard as he could.
I know I’ve said that I wasn’t always the best student when I was in school, but I think that, really, my life has been all about learning. I had to learn about myself, from my coaches, from my teammates and from my family to help me achieve my goal of playing professional hockey. I applied myself to that area of study in ways I could never have imagined while sitting in school. It took a long time, but I was able to put together a comprehensive philosophy of achievement based on how I was able to meet my goals.
When I finally finished playing professional hockey, I knew I wanted to find a profession where I could help others the way I’d been helped during my life. I knew I wanted to become a coach, but not only for athletics, for life. So I sat down and looked at my life, my achievements and began to think about how I managed to set goals and then work toward fulfilling them.
When it came time to describe the path I’d taken to success and look for ways to share what I’d learned, I had only to look back to my childhood. Once again, the leaders from whom I’d learned had taught me another lesson. I broke down my philosophy on how to achieve your goals and become your Personal Best into a number of smaller steps. Each of these steps is important and, taken together; they can help you become your Personal Best.