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Craig Custance takes intimate glimpse behind the scenes of Hartley’s 2001 Colorado Avalanche in ‘Behind the Bench’

The oft-forgotten angle from Colorado’s 2001 Stanley Cup is revealed in Custance’s new book, available now.

NHL: Calgary Flames at Minnesota Wild Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Last summer, Craig Custance - currently writing for The Athletic Detroit - took a cross-country journey to make a long-dreamed-of reality come true.

Starting with former Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, he worked his way around North America to go ‘behind the bench’ with some of the most iconic minds in the NHL coaching circuit. He sat down with them to watch a game from their most iconic (and sometimes, their only) Stanley Cup win - looking at everything from Boston’s triumph over the Vancouver Canucks and Pittsburgh’s meteoric rise to defeat Detroit to older wins like Colorado’s 2001 victory.

It’s a surprisingly fun book, more than just required reading on tactics and play systems.

Custance tells the story, chapter by chapter, from his perspective as much as he did from the coaches. The reader is driven across the country with Custance, buying a Winnebago motor home and frantically seeking out old game tape before sitting down on couches and futons and bleachers across the continent to witness greatness through the eyes of those that directed it.

Make no mistake, though; it’s a hockey book, through and through.

The forward immediately sets the tone, as the surprisingly poignant Sidney Crosby gives the reader a peek into the feeling of re-living one’s own greatness on TV years down the road. That carries over as each head coach - Bylsma, Claude Julien, Mike Babcock - walks Custance through what he was thinking as his team clinched the Stanley Cup.

While Colorado hasn’t made it to the second round of the postseason since 2008 - and have only seen the playoffs at all twice since then - there’s quite a bit of success in the team’s history from their first decade in the league.

The Avalanche made it to the postseason every single year from 1995 to 2006, excluding the lockout season.

That included four third-round exits, five years of 100-plus point regular season campaigns, and two Stanley Cups.

Custance brought fans back to that second championship when Bob Hartley was quite literally on top of the world.

The year that Hartley coached a star-studded Avalanche roster to their Stanley Cup win over the New Jersey Devils, helping Patrick Roy defeat Martin Brodeur and Joe Sakic overthrow Scott Stevens, he was three years into his NHL career.

Custance brings fans through the rise to Hartley’s Colorado job, starting with his job at a windshield factory and moving from a Junior A goaltending coach to the flight that took him to Colorado for his biggest gig to date. He had never played in the NHL.

Despite that, Hartley managed to coax some of Colorado’s final great years out of them, bringing them to the third round twice before they won the Cup in 2001 - and then once after that win, before he was fired mid-season in his fifth year with the club.

Hartley has been criticized plenty around the NHL. He struggled to find a gig after spending time with the Atlanta Thrashers, despite coaching the club to their only postseason appearance in franchise history - and then after getting time with the Calgary Flames, he was ousted again in 2016.

Custance helps Avalanche fans take a better look at the coach that gave them their last championship to date, though.

He walks them through who Hartley is as a person, how he helps his players off the ice and why he never drinks. He guides the reader through the decisions made in a high-flying Game 7 against the league’s most suppressive team, stopping along the way to chat about Hartley’s coaching tactics, work ethic, and even the hockey camp he was running when Custance sat down with him to watch the game.

It’s a side of Hartley that few have gotten to see over the years, despite his success with the various teams and leagues he’s worked in.

For Colorado fans, it wraps up an era of greatness. It may bring back some heartache, but it’s equally therapeutic.

[This excerpt from Behind the Bench: Inside the Minds of Hockey’s Greatest Coaches, by Craig Custance, is presented with permission from Triumph Books. For more information or to order a copy please visit]

“As we sit down to watch the 2001 Stanley Cup clincher for Hartley and the Avalanche, he gets a call from a parent who is a little concerned that his son is going to quit before the end of camp.

Hartley won't have it.

"He will not quit, if I have your support," Hartley tells the dad. "The worst thing we can teach the kids is to quit. I don't think there's a bone in his body not hurting right now. For me, I say it's a hockey camp but it's also a life experience."

The conversation goes on for a couple more minutes, with Hartley assuring the parent he will be there every step of the way to help the kid through it. It captures Hartley quite well. He pushes really, really hard but in the end this kid is going to be better for it. Hartley's players usually are.

Finished with the phone call, he cracks open a Coke Zero. His drink of choice used to be Diet Coke, now it's Coke Zero. As long as I've known him. I've never seen him have a sip of alcohol. His lack of taste for beer makes him a rarity in the world of hockey, where that seems to be a prerequisite.

As a kid, he'd bring his father a beer, sometimes pouring it into a glass too quickly. His dad would have him drink the foam and he didn't like the taste. It removed any interest he may have had in beer early on in his life.

As he got older, he noticed that nothing good resulted from excessive drinking. In his small town, he saw people dying from alcohol-related problems. He played in a men's baseball league as a teenager and would sleep on ballfields and in cars in order to attend the tournaments on weekends. He'd see the older players show up for morning games and puke their guts out after a night of drinking.

"I was so proud that I was in the lineup, I didn't want to take a beer with the fear that I would strike out or miss a fly ball and the coach would stop me," Hartley says.

As he worked his way through the minor leagues as a hockey coach, he'd see the perils of drinking from players who couldn't stop.

At one point in the American Hockey League, a player showed up to camp with a broken leg. He got mixed up with the Hell's Angels and they had broken it.

"In a fight?" I ask.

"In 'dealings'."


"He came to me and I said, 'What happened?' He said 'I broke my leg working out.' I knew the kid, so I made a few phone calls. I grabbed him in the office the next day. I said, 'You know what? Don't lie to me. I might be your best ally.' He started to cry and said, 'I'm so scared.' I said, 'Now, we will take care of you.' Today, the guy is a good businessman. Once in a while, he calls me to thank me."

We move to a small office at the rink. Before the action begins, I ask him to tell me how he wound up in Colorado after Marc Crawford left the organization and created a coaching vacancy.

As Hartley tells it, he was hanging out at home with friends on a Sunday afternoon when his wife came over with the phone in her hands. Francois Giguere, the general manager of the Avalanche, was on the line. He wanted to talk in private.

Giguere asked Hartley to get on a 7:30 PM flight from Harrisburg that would eventually take him to Colorado.

"Bring your best suit," Giguere said.

A storm was starting to roll in and Hartley was in his swimsuit with a house full of people. He apologized, then made it to the airport in time for the flight from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. The plane then sat on the tarmac for three hours. The sky had now turned pitch black from the clouds coming in.

Finally, the plane took off, but the storms had turned the Pittsburgh airport into a disaster. There were stacks of luggage everywhere. Hartley had never seen anything like it.

Around 2:00 AM, Hartley finally got his ticket from Pittsburgh to Colorado for the next morning. He took a cab to his hotel and told the same cab driver to pick him up in a couple of hours to take him back to the airport.

When he returned to the Pittsburgh airport, with a ticket to Colorado and a possible new job waiting for him, he was told his ticket was no good, that the flight to Denver was full.

"Are you a hockey fan?" Hartley asked the gate agent.

"Yeah, I'm a big Penguins fan."

"Look at me," Hartley told the agent. "I'm telling you, you need to get me on this flight. Get me with the pilots. Get me with the baggage. Get me anywhere. I need to get on that flight. I'm the coach of the Hershey Bears in the American League and I'm going to get a job with the Colorado Avalanche. You give me your business card, the first time we get to Pittsburgh, I will have two tickets for you. I'm not bullshitting you, I need to get on this plane."

The guy started typing. Moments later, a ticket printed out. Months later, the guy would get his Penguins tickets.”