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Imes forges ahead with a little help from his friends

| Thursday, April 25, 2002

When Thomas Jefferson High School product Brian Hartman decided to vacate Bozeman, Mont., and play his Junior A hockey for the expansion Pittsburgh Forge, he was advised not to do so, in part because "the coach is young, he doesn't know what he's doing."

That suggestion came from Hartman's old coach in Bozeman, John LaFontaine, brother of Pat LaFontaine.

Hartman's new coach, Chris Imes, didn't mind.

"He was recruiting his player, and we stole a player from him," Imes said. "No hard feelings. That's part of the business."

Imes has apparently come to grips with that and every other part of the business in this, his first season running a bench. The Forge — with a roster that includes 12 Pittsburgh-area players — will play the Compuware Ambassadors in the Detroit suburb of Plymouth, Mich., this weekend in a best-of-three series for the North American Hockey League championship. After that, it's off to Bozeman, where the Forge will be one of four participants in the USA Hockey National Junior-A Championships on May 3-4.

Imes isn't going to say now that he saw this coming back in July.

But nor did he enter the season with the trepidation you might expect.

"I think every coach has to be a little bit confident," Imes said.

And besides, Imes had a lot of help.

The Forge is the brainchild of Kevin Constantine, who served as the president and CEO of the Island Sports Center, the Forge's Neville Island oasis, before being called back to the NHL by the New Jersey Devils. And Imes was initially trained as a coach, although he probably didn't realize it at the time, when he played for Shawn Walsh at the University of Maine.

"I earned a lot from Kevin," Imes said. "He did all the video and taught us how to do that, breaking it down and all that kind of stuff. Kevin was a great influence for this organization. He got it off on the right foot.

"He and his wife were listening to the (playoff) game (against the Texas Tornado on Sunday) on the internet. They were on pins and needles.

"Part of Kevin is still here."

Part of Walsh is, too, even though he died in September following a 15-month battle with renal cell carcinoma. Imes was a two-time East All-America selection at Maine, a Hobey Baker Award runner-up and part of a team that won the national champion in 1993 (Paul Kariya was another part).

No wonder Constantine, and especially Walsh, have had such an influence on Imes.

"For sure," Imes said. "Probably more so with Shawn Walsh. A lot of motivational things, his sayings, and his game objectives, every game we have 11 game objectives. And our kangaroo court that we had to try to help the atmosphere, those are all things that we did at Maine that we do here.

"I talked to him a lot, especially since I took this job. We talked quite a bit. Even when he was sick, he was still worried about recruiting."

Imes was, too. One of the main reasons Constantine had for getting the Forge established was to give Pittsburgh players such as Hartman the opportunity to stay home while proving themselves worthy of Division I-A scholarships. Forward Pat Levendusky (Greensburg, Miami, Ohio), forward Doug Conley (Niagara), Hartman (Niagara), forward Kenny Trombetta (Gibsonia, Yale) and forward Carson Strang (Air Force) have done so this season.

Imes believes the likes of goaltender Tim Heneroty (Pittsburgh), forward Chris Lawrence, defenseman Bernie Chmiel (Pittsburgh) and forward Daniel Schildorfer will yet be so rewarded this season.

"There are still scholarships available," Imes said, "and (the colleges that have them) are looking at the teams that are still playing."

The better they fare against Compuware, the better their chances. Compuware has long been a staple of and standard for the NAHL. Its alums include Eric Lindros, Kip Miller, Brian Rolston, Brent Johnson and David Legwand, just to name a few. The Ambassadors had the league's best regular-season record this season and have won a Yankees-esque 10 championships in 15 seasons overall.

No, it won't be easy.

But win or lose, the Forge gets to go to Bozeman and play for the national championship.

When he gets there, Hartman can inform John LaFontaine the decision to come home was the right one after all.

And that Chris Imes knew what he was doing all along.

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