By John Lachmann
OXFORD, Ohio – After a strong finish to his junior season, ultra-durable Joe Hartman was preparing for his final year at Miami.
The 6-feet-4, 209-pound defenseman had missed just two games in the first three seasons of his RedHawks career.
But in his first official practice this season he suffered a foot injury. Hartman played opening weekend vs. Colgate, but he said it was not getting better and had it checked out.
It turned out the foot was broken. Amazingly, it was the first bone fracture the physical Hartman had ever suffered in his hockey career.
"Just beginning senior year, trying to put a good year together, to find out that you're out from a fluke injury kind of irritated me quite a bit," Hartman said.
Hartman was told if the foot was put in a cast, he was done for 6-8 weeks, but if he wore a boot and was extremely careful it would probably heel in three weeks.
Fortunately he chose the latter option, and after missing just six games early in the season he has gone on to the best campaign of his career.
"It's nothing special, it's just focusing day in and day out on little things like winning battles in practice," Hartman said. "Things I need to be good at in games, I have to focus on in practice, and that's what I did."
With just 35 points in his RedHawks career, he may not wow the casual fan with his play, but by knocking the puck away from opponents, hitting them and by physically driving them out of shooting lanes, Hartman is a key reason Miami has allowed less than two goals per game in the four years he has spent in Oxford.
"He's just that reliable defenseman," senior captain Steven Spinell said. "When he needs to, he can get pucks on net and he has that (offensive) side of it, but he just doesn't get beat."
The St. Cloud, Minn., native saw two of his older siblings participate in college sports. His sister played basketball for Minnesota-Duluth, and his brother graduated from St. Cloud State in 2009 after a hockey career there.
Hartman played high school hockey in Minnesota, and his junior season he logged seven games with the NAHL Minnesota Blizzard before and after his prep season at Apollo High School, where he was named to the all-conference team.
He stayed in the NAHL and played 59 games for Alexandria as a high school senior, recording seven assists. The following season he led all Alexandria defensemen with 31 points on 10 goals and 21 assists, and was fourth on the team with a plus-18 rating.
Hartman's final year of juniors was played with the Indiana Ice of the USHL in 2008-09, coached by former Miami assistant Jeff Blashill.
While Blashill was in Indianapolis, Hartman was one of a number of players to follow the pipeline to the RedHawks. Miami coach Enrico Blasi decided to bring Hartman to Oxford in the fall of 2009 after his six-goal, 22-assist season with Indiana and a league championship.
"Obviously Blash's connection there, obviously Indiana being close – we see a lot of them – and Joe was one of those Steady Eddie guys we thought we needed, especially with the guys we had in our lineup at the time," Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. "He's not only done that but he's exceeded what we thought he could do for us."
Hartman said he had several collegiate options, and the reputation of Miami's business school was a major factor for the finance major.
"Once I came to Miami I knew there was where I wanted to play right away," Hartman said. "The campus, the hockey, everything."
Opening night in October of 2009 was against, of all teams, St. Cloud State at Cady Arena. Hartman's brother had just wrapped up his hockey career there the previous season, so he was quite familiar with the team.
"Obviously your first college game is going to be pretty amazing no matter what," Hartman said. "Playing against the hometown team, it was a pretty cool weekend for me."
His first shift was on the penalty kill against a stacked St. Cloud power play unit.
Miami went on to win both games that weekend and Hartman's first season in Oxford was quite a success. He led the team in defenseman goals with seven, including two shorthanded goals – the second-most of any blueliner in the NCAA.
He also picked up eight assists, giving him the third-most freshman points on the team behind only Reilly Smith and Curtis McKenzie. Hartman also finished the season plus-17 and scored the RedHawks' only goal in their Frozen Four loss to Boston College.
"It was a good year for me," Hartman said. "A lot of things worked out and went the right way, and when you work hard sometimes that's the way things go. To put up numbers like that was pretty good for me."
Like the team as a whole, Hartman took a step back as a sophomore. He actually posted the highest assist total of his career with 10, but he only scored one goal and his defense was not as strong as his rookie campaign.
"Sophomore year wasn't quite as impressive,"
Hartman said. "Things just weren't working out for me the way they did the previous year. I was trying not to let that get me down, but obviously sometimes it gets to you a bit."
Despite posting a career-low four points (1-3-4), Hartman was back to freshman form by the end of his junior season.
He tied for fourth on the team in blocked shots (37), finished with a plus-8 rating and his lone goal was a game-winner in the CCHA third-place game vs. Bowling Green.
"Things just started clicking again, somewhere along the way," Hartman said. "I wasn't putting up the numbers that I was used to my freshman year, but I thought I started to play stronger in the areas that I pride myself on, like the D-zone."
This season, Hartman has five assists and is plus-10. While his offensive numbers have never returned to freshman levels, he has played better than at any point of his career since returning from the foot injury.
"He's taken his game back up another level this year," senior forward Curtis McKenzie said. "He's taken a leadership role and he's really made things happen on the back end, especially. The last couple months he's been dynamite for us."
Being a close friend of Hartman's, McKenzie is especially happy his teammate's career is having a happy ending.
"Especially having a relationship with him over the last four years, to see how well he's playing now is good to see," McKenzie said.
McKenzie said that Hartman drives him nuts when he has to play against him in practice.
"I think he's got the best stick I've ever played against," McKenzie said. "It's frustrating to play against him in practice, but he's great to have on the back team for the team out there."
In addition to playing at a higher level, Hartman has become more of a leader this season on a team with 18 freshmen and sophomores.
On the ice he has been put in a leadership role first hand, as his defensive partner for much of the season has been freshman Chris Joyaux. Spinell is in a similar spot, being paired with freshman Matthew Caito.
"That's not easy," Blasi said. "They've done a nice job cultivating (the freshmen) and helping those two guys grow as well, so kudos to them for doing what they're doing. No different than when they were freshmen, they had to play with some veteran guys and those guys took it upon themselves to make sure those guys were going to be ready to play as well."
Hartman said the leadership role is new for him at Miami, but he has enjoyed it.
"There's a learning curve for all of them, and sometimes you have to sit back and breathe and go, they're not going to be perfect right away," Hartman said. "But a lot of them have played phenomenal, which has made my job very easy."
After Miami's Frozen Four berth in 2009-10, Miami has not won an NCAA Tournament game the past two seasons, and Hartman said his senior class realizes this is its final chance to return to college hockey's biggest stage.
So Hartman and his classmates have been hands-on this season in getting the youngsters up to speed.
"I think we all realize that we're on our last leg here and if we're going to achieve what we set out to do our freshman year it has to be this year or never," Hartman said. "With 12 incoming freshmen we knew we had to bear down and get them to buy in quickly, we couldn't wait until Christmas for them to figure it out at this level."
Hartman's shut-down style is a key reason Miami earned a No. 2 seed in the Toledo Regional of this year's NCAA Tournament as the RedHawks are surrendering just 1.73 goals per game, the second-best average in the country.
Regardless of the RedHawks' fate in this year's NCAA Tournament, Hartman said his time in Oxford has been an unbelievable experience.
"It's been great," Hartman said. "Everybody talked about The Brotherhood when I came in, and they were trying to explain it and I'm like, OK, but I didn't know exactly what it was. When you're around the guys and the coaches and you see it every day it's just a great team atmosphere here, it's like family more so than any other team I've played on before in my past. I don't regret a day that I'm here. I had a lot of options but I couldn't see myself playing anywhere else."