Without any official designation or signage, Hartnell turned a neighborhood restaurant into an extension of the Flyers' locker room. At those tables the Flyers grew from a disjointed collection of 23 guys with a 1-7 record into a family with playoff hopes.
The glue to that group is now gone. Hartnell returned to the Flyers' practice facility in Voorhees one last time yesterday to collect his equipment, say thank you and goodbye.
"It was definitely tough coming in here," Hartnell said, brimming with tears. "I spent a lot of great times, blood, sweat and tears with the guys.
"I don't know if it has totally sunk in yet. I was surprised, shocked, angry the first few days that I got the call. I said I don't want to leave, plain and simple. I like our team, I like the guys. I am comfortable here. This is my home. [Ron Hextall] made it pretty clear they were going in a different direction."
Even 3 days after the news, Hartnell's sudden departure to Columbus in exchange for former Flyer R.J. Umberger and a fourth-round pick does not make a whole lot of sense.
It is impossible to argue today - without knowing what Hextall has up his sleeve - that the Flyers are a better team than they were last week.
Even in an "off" year for Hartnell last season, his 52 points are not far off from Umberger's career-high of 57 - numbers that Umberger hasn't posted since 2010-11.
Watch Giroux's face in interviews Monday from the NHL Awards in Las Vegas: He was staggered and stunned. He honestly thought Hartnell was kidding.
Hartnell, 32, played his first NHL game for Nashville as an 18-year-old on Oct. 7, 2000, in Japan, of all places. Another relative newbie, Kimmo Timonen, was his road roommate. They were traded together to the Flyers as free agents in 2007 and both cashed in on deals that made them wealthy beyond their wildest expectations. Nearly every single one of Hartnell's 953 career games have been in the same lineup as Timonen.
Would Timonen have signed for another run with the Flyers on June 13 if he knew his best friend would soon be jettisoned? Timonen, 39, said after signing he wanted to play in Philadelphia - but another close friend, and his first agent, is Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen.
"Kimmo, my best buddy," Hartnell said yesterday. "I was pretty upset when I talked to him after I decided to move on. We had a lot of beers on the road and a lot of great times. It is really tough. Obviously, he will be a friend for life, that is sure."
Hartnell is not on the up-slope of his career. He is not a true first-line left winger. His 6-year, $28.5 million extension - earned after that 37-goal year in 2011-12 - was already beginning to sting on the salary cap.
Acquiring Umberger, a player with a bigger statistical decline and nearly the identical cap hit, does not compute. Umberger has 2 fewer years remaining on his deal. He was destined for a compliance buyout this summer.
Let that sink in: If Columbus did not find a dance partner, Umberger would have been bought out before the June 30 window closes.
Forget any spin that Umberger was brought in for speed. He was a healthy scratch in Columbus at last season's most critical juncture because he didn't mesh with the up-tempo Blue Jackets style. Umberger voiced his displeasure with the benching in the Columbus Dispatch and ultimately asked for a trade.
Without a crystal ball to view Hextall's first draft weekend, it looks from here like the Flyers moved one bad contract for another. If both Hartnell and Umberger were bought out today, Hartnell would be due $15 million and Umberger $9 million in real dollars - a potential savings of $6 million in cash. The Flyers have become increasingly budget-conscious internally since new Comcast-Spectacor chief operating officer Dave Scott took over last December. Buying out Umberger, essentially grabbing a fourth-round pick to remove a tough contract, would be a little more understandable. Hextall said he wants more cap flexibility, and with Umberger's $1.5 million buyout, it would clear approximately $3 million in space.
This is a big weekend - and Hextall is owed the benefit of the doubt. But this swift move that has shaken the Flyers to their foundation will remain a head scratcher until we know more.
Daily News sports writer Andrew Albert contributed to this report.