Mark Hartigan experienced a range of emotions on his journey to capturing the Stanley Cup last season.
Story by Mark Newman
Photo by Mike Bolt/Hockey Hall of Fame
Ain't no mountain high enough
Ain't no valley low enough
Ain't no river wide enough
To keep me from you
– Lyrics to the Ashford-Simpson classic sung by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell 40 years ago; Terrell died of a brain tumor three years after cutting what is regarded today as one of the most important records in Motown history.
Every hockey season is filled with highs and lows, and it’s often a measure of a player’s mental fortitude and ability to overcome adversity that separates the winners from the losers.
Mark Hartigan has shown that he clearly belongs in the camp of the former, not the latter.
Imagine the thrill of participating in your first-ever Stanley Cup playoffs, the excitement of being on a team that seems destined to win its first championship.
It’s a long and tumultuous road to the Stanley Cup, filled with breathtaking peaks and overwhelming valleys. In Dickensian terms, it’s the best of times and worst of times. For every winner, there is a loser; tears of joy matched by the agony of defeat.
Rarely, however, is that chasm bridged by the same man, but last season Hartigan’s chance to play for holy grail of hockey became both a dream and a nightmare.
As he looked to capture the crown with the Anaheim Ducks, Hartigan was devastated to learn that he was losing his mother to cancer.
In the midst of what normally would have been any athlete’s greatest triumph, the moment for which he had waited his entire life, Hartigan felt the kind of pain for which there is no relief but time.
“We found out that she had a brain tumor shortly after Christmas,” recalled Hartigan, who went home for a week. “She had surgery in January and while they got most of the tumor, it was a fast-growing cancer.”
Hartigan had started the 2006-07 season with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but he was traded to Anaheim on Jan. 27. He was recalled by the Ducks for the final five games of the regular season.
He played in the Ducks’ first playoff game against Minnesota on April 11 and was waiting for another opportunity to crack the lineup when it became apparent that things back home in Fort McMurray, Alberta, had taken a turn for the worst.
“I started getting phone calls but it seemed like she was doing all right, until late one night I got a call from my brother and sister saying I should find a way to get home right away.”
Hartigan’s mother, Debbie, had lapsed into a coma after a seizure. “I was in the Edmonton terminal, waiting for a plane to Fort McMurray when I got the call that she had passed away. I was home an hour and a half later.”
No one has ever described the Stanley Cup as a consolation prize, and hoisting the hardware could never temper the loss of Hartigan’s mother to cancer, but suddenly he had something else to play for.
“It was extremely emotional,” he said. “I was home about a week, but my whole family kept saying ‘She would have wanted you to go back.’ She was always the one to support me, who was always doing the little things for me.
“I finally realized that playing was exactly what she would have wanted me to do.”
Hockey players who have won the Stanley Cup talk about playing through injuries on their way to winning the title and Hartigan’s pain was no less real. The hurt is still evident in his voice when he talks about his mother.
"I knew she was there,” he said, recalling the emotions of rejoining the team for the Ducks’ successful drive to the Cup. “You always hear people say that, but it’s true. I could tell she was with me, kicking me, telling me to get going.”
Although he didn’t get into another game, Hartigan continued to practice with the team. “You’re practicing really hard so you’re always ready to go,” he said. “Every day was like training camp.”
Hartigan found being a practice player to be a real challenge.
“That was something that I thought was quite difficult. You’re trying to stay focused and prepared to step right in if needed, but it’s so easy to let your mind start wandering. You really have to stay focused.”
Although he had every reason to be distracted, Hartigan kept his eyes squarely on the prize, a mindset that was shared by every member of the mightier-than-ever Ducks.
“There was a feeling like no one was going to stop us,” he said. “We had a certain confidence, but it wasn’t like ‘We can’t wait to win the Cup.’ Nobody was looking too far ahead. We knew what had to do.
“If the other team really wanted it, they were going to have to take it from us.”
And so it was Hartigan’s job to not only be ready in case of an injury but also to help push the regulars, to help keep them fresh during the two-month run to the finals.
“You really get a feel for what it takes to win. No matter how minimal a role you might think you fill, it takes every single person on a team to build that winning atmosphere.
“Everyone had a role and there wasn’t one person who was bigger than the rest of the team. We had superstars, but they weren’t superstars in the locker room.
“Scott Niedermayer played unreal and (Jean-Sebastien) Giguere was incredible, but our whole third line could have won the Conn Smythe Trophy (as playoff MVPs). Everybody was just so good.”
As a member of the championship team, Hartigan had the pleasure of hosting the Stanley Cup in his hometown for a day. Mike Bolt of the Hockey Hall of Fame brought the trophy to Fort McMurray on Saturday, August 25.
“We met him at the airport at noon,” Hartigan said. “We had a bus that took us around town.”
First stop was the local fire hall. “They had experienced a loss the day before, so I think it helped boost their morale.”
After a visit to Alberta Motors, the area’s largest GM dealership run by a family friend, Hartigan took the Cup to the hospital. Seeing the children’s ward was closed due to renovation, they stopped at the intensive care unit.
“A lot of the older folks had never seen the Cup in person,” he recalled. “In the hall we ran into a woman who said ‘Holy ----, it’s the Stanley Cup!’ We took a lot of pictures wherever we went.”
Next stop was the Dugout Coffee House and Youth Center. “It was started by a friend of the family who lost their son in an accident a couple of years ago,” he said.
Finally, Hartigan carried the cup into Thickwood Arena, where a ball hockey tournament had been organized, the winning players earning the honor to get their photos taken with the Cup.
Eventually, the celebration found its way to the home of Mark’s brother Colin, owner of a Coldwell Banker brokerage firm in Fort McMurray and the No. 1 seller in the city, just ahead of their sister Lisa.
“We had over 150 people at the house, with steaks, a bartender and the whole works,” Hartigan said. “Everybody wanted their picture taken with the Cup. When they started coming around for seconds, I finally said ‘Enough.’”
Hartigan retreated to the basement with his wife Melissa, his brother and a few friends. “We sat there for about 40 minutes, just staring at the Cup. We looked at all the names. It’s amazing to have a piece of history like that, right in your basement. It was unbelievable.”
The Stanley Cup ended up in the hot tub and, later, the shower. “We cleaned it up good,” Hartigan laughed. There were also plenty of baby pictures. “We had a baby (Ava Lynn) in July, so we took a whole bunch of photos of her with the Cup.”
In the morning, “Stanley” joined the family for cereal. “We had a big bowl of Fruit Loops and my wife, my brother and my brother’s kids all ate cereal – milk and all – out of the Cup,” Hartigan said.
Because Fort McMurray is so far north, there were no early flights out of the city, so Hartigan and his family got to keep the Cup a little longer than they expected. “The whole experience was something I’ll never forget.”
Hartigan posed for hundreds of photos during the 24 hours with the Cup but none was more special than the one Bolt took of him with his mom’s picture in the Cup. “You can’t see it in the picture, but her ashes were there, too, inside an urn.”
The whole experience was highly emotional for Hartigan. “I’m always thinking about my mom,” he said, noting that he keeps his mother’s picture on his cell phone as a reminder.
“We didn’t think we’d lose her so fast, but it was almost a blessing because she would have quickly lost the use of her speech, her arms and legs. It would have been a downward spiral.”
Hartigan, who had signed a free agent contract with the Red Wings earlier in the summer, said he’ll always be grateful for the opportunity he was given by Anaheim.
It was after he came to Joe Louis Arena that he realized the magnitude of it all. “You walk into the locker room and you see all these old photos on the walls and you see them with the Stanley Cup and then you realize, ‘Hey, I just had that thing!’
"You see so much history and being a part of that now is pretty cool.”
Nobody was happier when Hartigan signed a two-way contract with Detroit than his brother Colin. “The Red Wings have been my brother’s favorite team from day one. He absolutely idolizes (Steve) Yzerman.”
Hartigan likes the fact that Grand Rapids is only a little more than a two-hour drive from Detroit, much closer than the distance between Anaheim and its affiliate in Portland, Maine.
“Being on the bubble is never easy,” he said. “It’s tough on the family because you can’t plan anything. You get sent to the American League and a week later you’re called up, except you have no idea for how long. Meanwhile, your wife is in the other city, waiting.
“Finally, you have her come out after a couple of weeks and then you get sent down again. It would be nice to be a full-time NHL player and be able to get situated for a change.”
Hartigan has had a few opportunities over the years. He has appeared in 79 NHL games with Atlanta, Columbus and Anaheim.
He started last season on the Blue Jackets’ top line with Rick Nash and David Vyborny. He had a goal and an assist in their first game together, then added another assist in the second.
“(Sergei) Fedorov was out with an injury, so I thought, ‘OK, here we go. Let’s rock ‘n’ roll.’ Then he came back and I was bumped to the fourth line. Eventually, we lost three games in a row and they sent me down.”
Of course, that’s life in pro hockey.
“You get a little frustrated when you get sent down, but you have to keep things in perspective. It’s a business and things are not always your fault,” Hartigan said. “I can’t complain. I’ve had some good chances."