The Hartlieb family, from left to right, Hunter, Ernie, Jaxson and Miranda.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of a series special to CollierSportsInsider.com that focuses on former Florida Everblades and where they are now. Throughout the season, several Everblades fan favorites will be interviewed, and we’ll see where life has taken them after playing for the Blades.
It was March 1, 2019 — five seasons after Ernie Hartlieb last suited up for the Florida Everblades as a last-second fill-in due to call-ups and injuries.
Everyone still knew exactly who Hartlieb was when he took that first stride from the tunnel onto the ice inside Hertz Arena. When you play the second most games (359) in team history, you meet a lot of people along the way.
Nicknamed “The Mayor” by many in the arena and community, Hartlieb spent a good portion of his hockey career with the Everblades from 2004-2010. (The 2009-10 season was his last as a full-time player; though over the next four years, he would play a few games here and there for the Blades when called upon.)
Even in retirement, Hartlieb — who now runs a business inside Hertz Arena along with his wife Miranda (more on that later) — has been ever-present in Southwest Florida. Whether running a summer roller hockey camp for youths, or acting as Santa Claus for the youth skate during the holidays, or putting on the Swampee suit to go to Golisano Children’s Hospital, it seems there’s nothing Hartlieb won’t do for the Everblades and the community.
“I was a fan favorite with the Blades. I always wanted to make everybody feel comfortable and like they were my friend,” Hartlieb said.
Hartlieb scored a goal during his single-game cameo in 2019, and even though the Blades trailed 5-2 late in the game, the home crowd still erupted. Standing on the other side of the glass where Hartlieb celebrated his goal was Blades general manager and lifelong friend Craig Brush.
“Ernie cherished his hockeydb (hockey database website),” Brush said. “Each year he wanted to get a game in for it, and I kept saying to him, ‘We’re not going to do this this year.’ We were successful for a few years, but we were short-handed (in 2019), so we gave him the call. Then to have him score a goal right in front of where I stand was pretty ironic, too.”
Brush knew Hartlieb long before he signed with the Blades in 2004. In fact, they knew each other well before the Everblades even existed.
Hartlieb and Brush’s son Tyler — who were 8 and 9 years old, respectively, at the time — were teammates on a spring hockey club in Michigan. Tyler made the squad through tryouts and was its only new player. Hartlieb, despite being one of the youngest on the team, was the first to show Tyler around the room.
“Tyler was a little bit intimidated walking in the locker room,” Brush said. “When he came in for the first time and sat down, Ernie came over and said, ‘You’re Tyler, right? Come on, I’m going to introduce you to the rest of the players.’ I think that kind of exemplifies what kind of person he is.”
“I know it’s always tough when somebody new comes into the room — they feel awkward or uncomfortable,” Hartlieb said. “Whether it was me playing hockey here for the Everblades or anywhere else, I tried to make everybody feel at home and comfortable.”
Eventually, Hartlieb and Brush would cross paths again. Coming back from Germany due to an injury, Hartlieb joined Brush and his son for a round of golf at famed Oakland Hills Country Club. Hartlieb soon ended up signing with the Everblades.
“In his six years playing for the Blades he always made a point to be friendly to everybody,” Brush said. “He never turned down an assignment to do public speaking or go to a school, or even just come out after games and talk to people. We use him as an example for players that are here.”
A former team captain, Hartlieb is happy the Blades are now being led by John McCarron, who’s held the captaincy for three seasons. The two have been good friends since McCarron joined the Everblades in 2017.
“He’s moving up on the (team’s) all-time scoring race, which he just passed me a couple of games ago, which I loved,” Hartlieb said. “To see Johnny — who’s a good friend of mine (as is also) Rosie his wife, who also trains a lot of people around here — succeed is fantastic. I love it. My kids never really got to see me play hockey, but they’re big John McCarron fans and Everblades fans. They cheer for them and they play video games as them on NHL 2021. They’re just big fans, so it makes me happy to see that my kids are enjoying it.
“A lot of us former Blades have been retired for a long time, but to watch the Everblades and to go and see them at the top of the ECHL season by season and watch them succeed every night even though lately they’ve been through a lot of injuries and turnover, I have to give credit to coach (Brad) Ralph, who is a fantastic coach and he’s done a great job, and obviously Craig Brush, who’s always put a team together every year that’s been one of the tops in the ECHL.”
A relationship Hartlieb forged with a Fort Myers family during his time as an Everblade still holds a special place in his heart.
In 2012, Dillon Simmons, a 13-year-old hockey player, was diagnosed with diffused astrocytoma of the brainstem, a rare disease. Hartlieb went above and beyond to help Dillon and his family, said Dillon’s mother Denise.
“We had just returned home from the hospital and there was a knock at the door, and it was Ernie Hartlieb,” Denise Simmons said.
That night, Hartlieb gave Dillon his retired Everblades jersey for good luck.
“He said when he was about Dillon’s age, he had a very traumatic event that happened to him that left him in the hospital,” Denise Simmons recalled. “Doctors told his family the worst and they didn’t know if he would make it through the night, but he did — he was a fighter. And he told Dillon he knew he was a fighter, too, and that he would fight with Dillon as long as Dillon would let him.”
At 18, Hartlieb said he fractured his skull during a pickup game and “ended up in a coma fighting for my life.” He had just committed to Miami University in Ohio to play hockey.
“Thank God that I recovered. I had to learn to walk and talk again,” Hartlieb said.
“It kind of gave me the attitude ‘don’t take anything for granted,’ and I just wanted to try and make a difference whether it’s my life or anybody’s life. Being a happy person and making sure everybody is good is something important to me.”
Hartlieb often went to the Simmons house to play NHL the video game and order pizza for Dillon and his friends. He’d also invite Dillon to Everblades games — the first time in a private suite — and frequently asked Dillon to join him in the press box to do in-game commentary. After the games, Hartlieb took Dillon into the locker room to meet the players.
Hartlieb also invited Dillon and his family to dinner with other Everblades legends from over the years — Mathieu Roy, Tom Buckley and Matt Marquardt to name a few.
Anything to make Dillon feel like one of the guys.
“Ernie told me Dillon would always kick his butt in the video game and Dillon would say, ‘Soon enough you can help train me (to get) back on the ice again,’” Denise Simmons said.
“Dillon was a great kid, and he was battling a very tough disease,” Hartlieb said. “Whether it was playing video games, getting a pizza, or having him and his buddies come over to my house to hang out, it all just goes back to trying to make someone’s day.”
Dillon passed away at the age of 15 on April 25, 2014. At the request of the Simmons family, Hartlieb delivered Dillon’s eulogy — “probably the toughest thing that I ever had to do,” Hartlieb said. “I still get emotional.”
“As he read through his notes you could feel the incredible loss he felt, but also feel the joy they brought to one another’s lives,” Denise Simmons said. “He reminisced about joking with one another, playing tricks on one another, and just plain being one of the boys together. Ernie would be the first to tell you that Dillon touched his life as much as he touched his.”
At the age of 41, Hartlieb’s time finding games in an Everblades uniform is likely over. Now, he finds himself with a new venture.
In September 2020, Ernie and Miranda Hartlieb founded HEAT (Hartlieb Elite Athletic Training) inside Hertz Arena. The room had already been used as a training facility owned by former Everblade Brent McDonald and former assistant coach Tad O’Had. When O’Had left to coach in Kansas City, the Hartliebs jumped at the opportunity. With a few renovations and additions like the NINE nutritional bar and the massage and recovery room, HEAT was open for business.
It’s Miranda who’s the boss at HEAT, her husband said. Whether it be in the training room or helping parents, she does most of the heavy lifting.
“I’ve always had an interest in coming up here, especially now with my two kids, Hunter, 8, and Jaxson, 6, and wanting to get them on the skating treadmill,” Ernie Hartlieb said. “So, I thought this is a great opportunity for our family to do something together. And we just thought this was a great opportunity for us to do a family thing and help all the kids in the community.”
But it’s not only up-and-coming players that are training in the HEAT facility; HEAT is also the official training facility for the Florida Everblades. Also, the Hartliebs train a number of junior Everblades teams when they aren’t doing one-on-one sessions.
As for Hunter and Jaxson, they are both pretty good hockey players in their own right, and their dad was able to coach them in their first season of might minor hockey. It’s the dream of most hockey players to play in the National Hockey League; but for Ernie Hartlieb, the ultimate dream has been being able to coach his two sons.
“Being here at the rink every day with them and watching them get better is a dream come true,” Hartlieb said. “I think the biggest thing is teaching them things that I’ve learned whether it’s what to do or what not to do to in order to help prepare them for each next level. My main focus though, and I tell my kids and every other kid I coach: we play hockey, it’s a game, and it’s supposed to be fun. So that’s my priority. I try to make it fun for them and for all the other kids to be on the ice. And I tell them if they’re not having fun, then we’re not going to do it. So, I think the ultimate goal is obviously to make them better. But like I said, it is a game so we just try to have fun every time we’re on the ice while making them better hockey players along the way.”