By Brian D’Ambrosio
Mike Hartman was a resilient, keen, scrappy winger who played in 397 regular season NHL games during a career which spanned 1986-1994. At 6′ 1″, 190, Hartman once established the Buffalo Sabres’ team record for penalty minutes in one season (316).
Selected in the seventh round, 131st overall, by the Buffalo Sabres in the 1986 NHL Entry Draft, Hartman earned a reputation as an honorable, undersized tough guy, a skillful fourth-liner who was never a detriment to his team, who routinely stood up for teammates and himself.
Early Days, Buffalo Sabres
“I never felt that I was too small to take on the heavyweights,” said Hartman. “I wasn’t afraid to hit, bang the body, check, scrap, or defend teammates. Night after night, there I was, considered more of as a middleweight, having to challenge guys such as Bob Probert.”
Hartman, a native of Detroit, Michigan, split the 1987-1988 season between the Buffalo Sabres and their AHL affiliate. He became a full-time NHL player in 1988–89. That season, Hartman racked up a career-high 316 penalty minutes and contributed eight goals. Hartman’s first regular season NHL scrap came October 16, 1986, against Dave Hannan of the Pittsburgh Penguins. “I don’t recall the details,” said Hartman. “It was an uneventful moment and not a big deal. Hannan had been a real disturber on the ice at that point in his career, and I may have tried to send a message.”
“But,” added Hartman, “I do recall that I fought a lot in the exhibition games that ’87 season. We had a big preseason brawl with the Philadelphia Flyers and I even went with Rick Tocchet.”
The 1989–90 campaign was to be Hartman’s finest statistically, establishing career-highs in goals (11) and assists (10). He also led the Sabres in penalty minutes for the second straight year with 211.
“The wildest games and rivalry I’ve been involved in as a player were as a Buffalo Sabre and against the Boston Bruins,” said Hartman. “Boston had Jay Miller, Lyndon Byers, Gord Kluzak, Cam Neely and others. Including playoffs, we were playing them 13 times a year. To this day, the Sabres are the club I most identify with. My heart is still with the Buffalo Sabres. They are the team that gave me a chance to play in the NHL at age nineteen.”
Hartman’s fight card and opponent list in 1990-91 is a veritable who’s who of NHL tough guys: Ken Baumgartner, Chris Nilan, and Marty McSorley, to name a few. December 29th of that season, he even squared off with the NHL’s reigning heavyweight champion Troy Crowder, 6′ 4″, 238 pounds, a powerful puncher on the New Jersey Devils, who earlier in the season annihilated journeyman Craig Coxe and knocked out Flyers’ defenseman Jeff Chychrun with one ferocious punch.
“Crowder and are I were actually close friends,” said Hartman.”We played in juniors together. Right off the faceoff, Crowder bumped into me and said “nice goal”. I heard, “do you want to go?” So I dropped my gloves and grabbed hold of him. He was so mad that I went after him; he actually broke his hand on my helmet. Later, I found out he was congratulating me on my goal.”
After three full seasons with the Sabres, in 1991, Hartman was part of a five player transaction with the Winnipeg Jets. As a Jet, Hartman tallied eight points, 264 penalty minutes, and he accumulated a career-high 29 fighting majors, including tussles with Alan May, John Kordic, Link Gaetz, Mike Peluso, Joey Kocur, and Stu Grimson.
“Every night I had to handle myself,” said Hartman. “That’s the thing about that role, once you take on a guy like Kocur, all the other fighters recognize it, and they keep track of you. I always had a study sheet and checked out the stat sheet for the penalty minutes before the game. I always knew who I was going to be out there against.”
The Jets left Hartman unprotected in the 1992 expansion draft and he was acquired by the Tampa Bay Lightning. He played 35 NHL games for the New York Rangers, winning a Stanley Cup in 1993-1994.
1,388 Penalty Minutes
Hartman left the NHL in 1994. All total, he scored 43 goals, added 35 assists, amassed 1,388 penalty minutes and approximately 123 fighting majors, in 397 regular season games.
Hartman is still much admired for his gameness, competitive drive, and gamesmanship, a middleweight who dared to tangle with the game’s biggest brawlers, a mucker and grinder who could score a few goals, or even play a regular shift in the third period of a close contest. He maintains friendships with several former NHL tough guys, including Alan May and Warren Rychel.
The nicest tough guy he ever encountered was former Tampa Bay Lightning teammate Basil McRae. “Laid back, classy, all-around good guy,” said Hartman. Occasionally, he bumps into former on-ice foes, such as the time when he was in a bar in Portland, Maine, and the owner turned out to be ex-Bruin muscleman Bruce Shoebottom. Who is the toughest guy he ever crossed paths with? “Boxer James “Lights Out” Toney,” laughed Hartman, “I sparred with him one summer in the 1990s.”
Best fight he ever participated in or witnessed? There are too numerous clashes to count. But one epic battle on December 15, 1988, between linemate Kevin Maguire and Minnesota Stars’ Basil McRae stands out. Hartman stood close by on the ice as the two heavyweights slugged it out from blue line to blue line. “Maguire was protecting me and standing up for me against Basil,” said Hartman.
After exiting the NHL Hartman played for the IHL’s Orlando Solar Bears, and four seasons with the Charlotte Checkers of the ECHL, retiring in 2004.
Better Life Training
Hartman lives in North Carolina, where he is a successful Axiological Practitioner Lifestyle Coach at Better Life Training, a highly personalized coach-client life training program.
“At Better Life Training I utilize many of the principles that brought me to the NHL,” said Hartman. “As a hockey player, I was dedicated and mentally focused in order to stay competitive, two things which I help clients accept and take on in their own lives.”
Brian D’Ambrosio lives in Missoula, Montana.
About the Author: Lifelong hockey fan Brian D'Ambrosio lives in Missoula, Montana. His latest book about the life of Montana boxer "Indian" Marvin Camel is due out in mid-2013. D'Ambrosio writes widely for multiple publications.