CALGARY, Alberta — A hockey scrum can be a nasty, ugly place. There are guys face-washing each other with sweaty, smelly gloves. There are guys jabbing at each other with the butt-ends of their sticks. And there are guys full-blown hitting each other with ungloved, closed fists.
And in the middle of those scrums, you’ll often find Ryan Hartman.
With a big ol’ smile on his face.
“He’s always been that type of player who’s on the line, not over it,” teammate Nick Schmaltz said. “He’s getting under guys’ skin and maybe getting them off their game a little bit, or drawing them into a dumb penalty to get us on the power play. As long as he stays right on that line, it’s great to watch. And every now and then you get a funny clip of him on Instagram or Twitter.”
That smile — more of a smug grin, to be precise — is Hartman’s calling card. It usually means he won the game within the game. Hartman drew a lot of comparisons to Andrew Shaw when he first broke into the league. But a better comparison is former Hawks center Dave Bolland, a pest of spectacular proportions, a creative irritant who derives obvious joy from goading opponents into doing something stupid.
Some examples come to mind.
On Nov. 9, during a post-whistle skirmish behind the net, Flyers forward Scott Laughton took a light swat at Hartman’s face with his gloved hand. Hartman responded with his trademark fake-punch — winding up for a big overhand right and getting Laughton to throw both his hands up in self-defense. Hartman was smiling as two linesmen jumped in.
On Nov. 28, during a scrum between the benches, Anaheim’s Corey Perry gave Hartman a half-hearted tap on the chest. Hartman responded with that big flinch-inducing windup again, sending Perry scurrying and sending Hartman’s teammates into a fit of hysterics on the bench. Hartman, again, was smiling.
“He loves it,” longtime teammate Vinnie Hinostroza said. “It’s just the type of guy he is. It’s hilarious when we’re on the bench and you see that. It gets guys going.”
Hartman’s obnoxiousness has its tangible benefits, too. He’s 15th in the league in penalties drawn, averaging 1.66 minors drawn per 60 minutes. Only Lance Bouma (1.70) has a better rate on the Hawks roster. Just last week in New Jersey, Alex DeBrincat was called for elbowing. During the delayed penalty, Hartman went to work. And once the whistle finally blew, the Devils’ Blake Coleman calmly pulled his left hand out of his glove and punched a passing Hartman in the neck. Penalty neutralized, just like that. It looked unprovoked at the time, but Hartman constantly is provoking.
And yes, Hartman was smiling as he got punched. Nobody enjoys getting punched in the neck more than Ryan Hartman.
“When there’s a delayed penalty on us, if I can try to find a way to make it 4-on-4 and even up the game, I’ll do that,” Hartman said. “That’s always been my game. I haven’t really changed anything in my game for the last 15 years. I’ve always played with that kind of edge, and that ability to piss people off, which I enjoy.”
Hartman’s feistiness pays off offensively, too. He entered Sunday night’s game in Calgary with goals in his last two games — both of them the scrappy kind, hard-earned by crashing the net and planting himself in the crease. He’s playing the role usually played by the injured Artem Anisimov, with Schmaltz and Patrick Kane. Only Anisimov is four inches taller and 20 pounds heavier. But Hartman stands his ground.
“That’s where the rewards are,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Go to the net, hang around, stop at the net, you know? Kaner or Schmaltzy will find a way to get it there.”
Scoring goals is fun, of course. But if the puck doesn’t go in, well, at least there might be a post-whistle skirmish. And that usually puts a smile on Hartman’s face.
Follow me on Twitter@MarkLazerus.