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Loud and Clear

Kings 4-0-3 start under Sutter is making noise

Tuesday, 01.03.2012 / 2:16 PM / Los Angeles Kings | News
By Rich Hammond

After two weeks, there have been no public whippings. The locker-room carpet is not soaked in blood. No eardrums have been pierced. What happened? Isn’t Darryl Sutter supposed to be a raging, raving dictator?

Hired by the Kings as coach on Dec. 20, Sutter was preceded by his reputation as a humorless taskmaster who would terrify players and snarl at the media. One Canadian columnist compared him to malaria. Even a mostly positive newspaper piece described Sutter’s public personality as ``caustic’’ and ``contemptuous.’’

``I heard he’s a bit of a yeller,’’ Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said, a couple days before Sutter’s arrival.

When Sutter left the family farm in Alberta last month, did he do so as a changed man? Maybe, maybe not. With the Kings, he’s been more teddy bear than grizzly bear. During games, he wraps his arms around players, pats shoulders and offers encouragement. For a full week, at the end of postgame interviews, he sincerely wished reporters ``Merry Christmas,’’ then ``Happy New Year.’’ He has been accessible, helpful and friendly.

For two weeks, many around the Kings have tip-toed gently, not wanting to be the one to detonate the Sutter bomb. But it hasn’t really happened. Has Sutter evolved as a coach? Is it a product of the fact that the Kings have fared well (a 4-0-3 record) during his tenure? Or has he been misunderstood from the start?

``This stuff that’s out there about him, where does this come from?’’ said Kings general manager Dean Lombardi, Sutter’s longtime friend and two-time boss, practically yelling in exasperation on an otherwise peaceful New Year’s Day afternoon. ``I mean, why did you even have that perception of him?’’

Well, largely it came from north of the border. For eight years, Sutter worked in Calgary -- first as coach and then as general manager -- a city known for its fervent attention to all things Flames. To say Sutter didn’t always have a chummy relationship with the media would be an understatement. He deflected or dismissed questions (and questioners) he didn’t appreciate, and rarely felt the need to give expansive answers.

Sutter’s persona didn’t help. He has narrow, piercing eyes, a perpetual frown and a dry sense of humor, and didn’t see the need to ``play nice’’ with reporters in a hockey media market that is perhaps third only to Toronto and Montreal in terms of intensity and standards. That relationship went farther south after Sutter left the bench, became GM and made a series of questionable roster moves over four-plus seasons.

On top of that, Sutter has a reputation for being demanding with his players. Sutter recently described his coaching style as ``honest, firm,’’ which is an understated way of saying that anything less than total effort, and dedication to the team, will earn a player an earful. He’s not afraid to publicly call out under-performers.

But does that make Sutter a monster? Or does it just make him a hard-nosed, no-nonsense coach? Asked about it, Sutter shrugged. He’s not going to win any popularity or public-speaking contests, and that’s not his goal. By all accounts, he couldn’t care less about possible public and media misconceptions of him.

``You know what? I like that,’’ Sutter said. ``People can think whatever they want to think, because it’s not about me. At the end of the day, it’s not. It’s about how we play.

``It gets taken way out of proportion. I’ve always had a real good relationship with players. That, still, is just as important. Where it gets taken out of context is because I believe it’s all about us. I’m very protective of (players), so my demeanor outside the room is maybe way different than it is inside the room. I’m very cautious and careful of how they’re handled outside the room. To me, that’s what it’s about.’’

In other words, Sutter isn’t afraid to fall on the media grenade, to draw the ire of reporters rather than perhaps have it directed to his players. That’s a big part of why Lombardi refers to Sutter as a ``players’ coach,’’ not because he coddles them -- just the opposite -- but because he tries to insulate them. It’s a bunker mentality that very much falls under Sutter’s general old-school coaching philosophy.

A first-hand look at Sutter has caused Doughty to rethink his initial feelings about his new coach.

``Coming in, we expected the worst, and I think we got the best,’’ Doughty said Monday. ``He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had, already, in such a short time, and I really enjoy playing for him.

``He’s good. He’s hard on us, but at the same time he always has a positive too. I think all of us in here like him a lot. He’s definitely a lot different than our previous coach, and I think it was a good change for us.’’

In many circles, Sutter remains very well-regarded in Calgary. Calgarypuck.com, a popular Flames fan website, had a 25-page thread after the Kings hired Sutter, with the vast majority of fans wishing Sutter luck and touting his success as a coach (if not as a GM). Flames captain Jarome Iginla, who played three seasons under Sutter, told the Calgary Herald that Sutter is not a one-dimensional character.

``He’s a very intense guy, but he’s also a very smart hockey guy. As a coach, he’s demanding -- probably runs in the family,’’ Iginla told the newspaper. ``When it was going bad, everybody -- literally, everybody -- took the brunt of it at some point. But every day wasn’t a whip. Certainly there are days when he may not love you, or vice versa ... but I’ve only got good things to say about him as a coach.’’

Sutter’s teams have made the playoffs in 10 of his 11 seasons as an NHL coach. He coached Chicago to the conference finals in 1995, the Flames to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004 and oversaw, along with Lombardi, the rise of the San Jose Sharks from also-rans to contenders in the late 90s and early 2000s.

In terms of team-building, Sutter stresses the concept of family, and that’s no surprise. The Sutter name is one of the best-known in hockey. Sutter played 406 games with the Blackhawks in the 1980s and his brothers Brian, Duane, Brent, Rich and Ron each played more than 730 NHL games.

A sign at the city limits of Viking, Alberta -- one hour southeast of Edmonton -- proclaims the town to be ``Home of the Sutters,’’ and Darryl Sutter still spends his free time there. For Sutter, hockey has always been a family affair, and as the years pass, that takes on a new form for him.

``The one line, Brownie [Dustin Brown], Kopi [Anze Kopitar] and Mike Richards, they’re all about the same age as my daughter,’’ Sutter said. ``A lot of it, to me, is that same kind of relationship. You really trust your guys and you have to, because they become an extension of yourself. Then those young kids, you have to have almost like a parental relationship with them. It’s that simple. It’s communication and talking.

``It’s not always about Xs and Os and hockey. It’s about people. That’s just how I feel. It doesn’t make it right or wrong, but that’s how I feel and that’s how I was as a player. I believe in it. Times change, the game changes, but there are still principles that are still very much about family.’’

That’s the Sutter that Lombardi emphasizes. It’s an odd-couple pairing: Lombardi, the long-winded Northeastern lawyer and Sutter, the quiet, intense Canadian farmer, but it works. As GM in San Jose, Lombardi hired Sutter in 1997 -- Sutter had previously coached Chicago for three seasons -- and had to fire him in 2002 when the Sharks, with high expectations, got off to a dismal 24-game start.

Through the years, though, Lombardi and Sutter stayed close, and Lombardi made no attempt to publicly hide his affinity for Sutter, often dropping his name into conversations with reporters. So when Lombardi fired Terry Murray last month, his first -- and believed to be only -- call was to Sutter.

``Talk to any player who played for him, and there’s always a common theme,’’ Lombardi said. ``You’re accountable, he’s hard on you, but he makes you a better player. That was the report I got when I hired him in San Jose. The thing that convinced me was how many former players -- whether it was Belfour, Chelios or Roenick -- all said the same thing. It was, `You’re accountable, you play hard, and I’d play for him again in a second.’ Tony Amonte said, `He’s hard on you. He makes you better.’ That’s exactly the way it was in San Jose. When I fired him, a week later I had players in my office telling me they missed him.

``The texts I got, when it got out that I was hiring him (last month), there were so many from former players. So if I had a choice between getting a bunch of personal texts from former players about him, versus getting trashed in the media, the only thing that matters to me was how many texts I got from players who played for him, telling me what a great coach this guy is. People don’t see those.’’

Murray was hired at a different time in the Kings’ development process, in 2008. At that point, Lombardi declared his intention to go all-in with the youth movement, and felt he needed to move away from then-coach Marc Crawford and toward the patient, calm, stately Murray.

That worked for a while, as Murray established the Kings’ identity as a defense-first team. By Murray’s fourth season, though, things had started to head south. The Kings fell to the bottom of the Pacific Division and regularly seemed to be playing without passion. That opened the door for the bench return of Sutter, with the presumption that Sutter would whip the Kings into shape, run the hockey version of a prison camp.

``It’s quite the opposite,’’ Sutter said. ``That doesn’t work. When guys have coached a long time, it’s about their records and their numbers. Terry Murray is a hell of a coach. His record says that. Everything is about the situation and what’s right at that time. That’s all. Quite honestly, I think the team is fortunate to have coaches that are maybe different types of coaches, but we’re experienced coaches. I might believe in some different things, but that’s fine. If everybody coached in the same way, you could just have a computer do it, a machine do it, right?

``I told the guys, if you can’t hear me (talk), tell me. I’m not a guy who screams and hollers, because that doesn’t make sense. You holler on the bench because they’ve got to hear you, but that doesn’t make sense. It’s like going into the kitchen and hollering all the time. It doesn’t make any sense, right?’’

The phrase ``doesn’t make any sense’’ would also cover Lombardi’s view of Sutter’s reputation. Without question, Lombardi’s view of Sutter is a bit biased. The two men are longtime friends and, for obvious reasons, Lombardi is heavily invested in Sutter being a success with the Kings.

But it goes beyond that. After a recent 20-minute chat about Sutter, Lombardi called back 10 minutes later. Sounding much like the law-school graduate he is, Lombardi gave a five-minute closing argument, speaking passionately about Sutter’s character and integrity.

Lombardi talked, in great detail, about how a young Sutter turned down a full ride to Princeton University in order to play junior hockey. Then, after becoming an 11th-round draft pick by Chicago in 1978, Sutter was displeased with a lack of a contract offer and left to play professionally for one season in Japan. Sutter returned to Chicago the following year, signed and, three years later, was named team captain.

``The guys who played with him tell stories about his shoulders,’’ Lombardi said. ``He actually cut his career short because of his shoulders. He had three major shoulder surgeries. The guys who played with him said it was unbelievable, that he was playing in the playoffs with his shoulder hanging off. That’s back when they didn’t have all the stuff they used to shoot you up.

``So, you see what kind of guy he is. Obviously he’s sharp, if he’s being offered a ride to an Ivy League school. He believes in himself to go to Japan, and then he has the will to become the captain of a team and then the will to play through injuries. That’s a role model. Give me character, will and a good mind. Put that together with a solid work ethic, and that beats an Ivy League education every time.

``They call him a farmer. OK, he’s not very gregarious, and he’s a farmer. Are we assuming that he’s a hick or something? This guy’s mind is as sharp as anybody I’ve met in hockey, and his mind as as good as anybody I went to law school with. This is a very sharp person. There’s a simpleness to him, but a lot of times, there’s genius in simplicity.’’