CALGARY — The worst-kept secret in hockey became reality on Tuesday when the Calgary Flames named Brent Sutter as their new head coach.
The Flames, in the process, finally got it right.
Not since Darryl Sutter left the bench and moved upstairs to his shiny new office as general manager, have the Flames possessed a distinctive identity.
Jim Playfair replaced Darryl as bench boss in 2006, but the players apparently did not harbour enough respect for their former assistant and so that experiment failed.
Then came the storied Mike Keenan.
But ‘Iron Mike’ was starting to rust.
He had mellowed with age and reportedly had fallen out of touch with popular theories regarding the importance of, say, a power play.
Keenan gave certain players too many minutes, and others not enough, or so the story went.
The once-dreaded country club atmosphere was starting to resurface, it was suggested, and most importantly, the team struggled defensively during Keenan’s second and final season.
When the Flames flickered and died in the first round of the playoffs this spring, Keenan was as good as gone, although he certainly couldn’t be faulted for the massive amount of injuries suffered by the club.
Enter Red Deer Rebels owner/president Brent Sutter and an impressive new staff of assistants.
Sutter’s right-hand men are Dave Lowry and Ryan McGill, both proven winners, while former Flames’ stopper Jamie McLennan will tutor the goaltenders.
Sutter is the right man for this job, a no-nonsense type who won’t play favourites and will expect each and every player to earn his salary. In fact, he’ll expect more.
“A big part of the game, if you want to have success, is to be accountable to yourself and to the guys sitting with you in the dressing room,” he said during an afternoon press conference at the Saddledome.
“You need a wolf-pack mentality and that involves everybody.
“I’m very excited about our staff. We have a group here whose job it is to provide the players with an environment in which they can succeed. The standards of this organization are high and to be quite honest, and I’m saying this on behalf of the whole coaching staff, we wouldn’t want it any other way. We have the same standards, which are standards of excellence.
“You have to have a strong foundation and an identity, and that’s what we need to accomplish as a staff. The process starts today and we’re all excited to get going.”
Sutter will almost certainly restore the Flames’ status as a defensive power and he might start with reining in former Rebels rearguard Dion Phaneuf, who was a Norris Trophy finalist in 2008 and a defensive liability last season.
“I want this to be a fresh start for everybody.
“There’s no other way,” said the new bench boss.
“There’s going to be a strong structure in place, a solid foundation that stresses accountability and responsibility. Dion is not going to be any different than anybody else. I know Dion very well but haven’t spent time with him since he’s become an NHL player. But we still have that relationship that goes back to junior hockey.
“There’s a lot of work to be done here in a lot of different ways and we have to do it collectively as a group. I’m talking about the coaches, players, trainers, management and owners. It’s up to us all to make sure we do it the right way.”
Darryl Sutter keeps his emotions well in check, but it was clear Tuesday that he and Flames president Ken King are thrilled with their new coaching staff.
“We were looking for three things we wanted to bring back to our club — leadership, structure and detail,” said the GM. “All of our coaches have brought these attributes with them. They are young guys with not a lot of experience at the NHL level, but the thing I like about them the most is that they know what they want to accomplish. It’s not what they have accomplished, it’s what they’re going to accomplish and we have a group of players who need that clear picture from these guys.
“To me, this is a big day. To be able to get who is think is the best free agent head coach out there and then to be able to add the other guys, is an awesome thing.”
Added King: “This is an important day in the history of the Calgary Flames. These (coaches) are young guys, but they have seen the pyramids. They’ve been around and they’re a very special group.”
Darryl Sutter was able to sign his younger brother only because he received permission from New Jersey Devils president/GM Lou Lamoriello to contact Brent about the position. After serving two years as the Devils head coach, Sutter resigned on June 8 with a year or more remaining on his contract, meaning Lamoriello had every right to block his move to the Flames.
Sutter, who left the Devils because he missed his family and his ranch, has been heavily criticized on various newspaper and internet message boards for vacating his Jersey post while still under contract, and the rants will persist now that he’s joined the Flames.
But the critics clearly don’t know Sutter as a person. He’s a devoted family man and a straight-shooter who must have had a special agreement with Lamoriello regarding a possible early departure. Sutter was, and is, respected by one of the most respected men in hockey, a man who on Tuesday was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder.
“Lou and I had an understanding that I would evaluate things on a year to year basis,” said Sutter. “He knew this past season that things were wearing on me and we had a long discussion at the end of the season.
“The dialogue between Lou and myself has been outstanding. He’s a phenomenal man and I learned so much from him in two years. I talked to him for a while today. Our relationship will never change. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him, not just as a hockey person but as a human being. He’s been like a father to me.”
Lamoriello’s statements to the Associated Press on Tuesday would suggest that he and his former coach are on the same page in terms of respect.
“Brent made the decision to leave, in our opinion for the right reasons: his family and businesses,” said Lamoriello. “When I received the phone call from Darryl Sutter, asking to speak to Brent, you can go one of two ways, because there’s a lot of time left on the contract. But you look at the individual situation, and the trust and respect you have for the person.”
Sutter insisted that he had no idea he’s be sitting behind a microphone answering questions at a Flames press conference just two weeks after resigning his Jersey post.
“When I resigned I was very content and perfectly fine with the notion that I may never coach again in the NHL, or maybe it would be one or two more years before it would happen,” he said.
Now, he’s a 90-minute drive from his family, as opposed to a five-and-a-half-hour flight.
“In the 16 months that I was away (with the Devils) I saw my daughter (Brooke) 21 or 22 times, and that to me doesn’t cut it,” said Sutter. “I need to be a better dad than that. That’s the way I looked at it.”
Contact Greg Meachem at email@example.com