The clock is ticking, the time is near.
At some point this week, likely within the next two to three days, Brent Sutter will make an outright decision regarding his immediate hockey future.
Will he return to the New Jersey Devils for a third season in the role of head coach, or will he remain in Red Deer and make up for the time lost with his family and his ranch over the last two years, while overseeing the operations of his Western Hockey League team?
Only Sutter and those nearest and dearest to him know for sure, but everyone — most notably Devils president/GM president Lou Lamoriello — will be informed this week.
“I would say within the next week there will be a decision. I’m certainly leaning one way,” Sutter said Sunday, while taking in the final session of the Rebels spring camp at the Red Deer Arena. “Mr. Lamoriello and I have talked on a daily basis. He’s been so supportive because of the various circumstances that have come up through the last two years. Only he and I really know the in-depth of everything.”
While in Jersey, Sutter grew increasingly homesick and concerned with his WHL team, which has missed the playoffs two years running. He never anticipated that he would harbour those concerns to such a degree when he took the Devils bench boss position in 2007, signing a long-term contract which has been advertised as three years in length but could be even longer.
“I never had any of those feelings at all when I first went there. It’s just that things have occurred that are no one’s fault,” he said.
“I’m the type of person who throws everything into (a job) and when I’ve left for New Jersey in September I’ve committed myself to the team through the entire hockey season. I couldn’t be any other way.
“And yet, by doing so it has affected other parts of my life. So then you have to sit back and say ‘OK, is this the right thing at this point in time’. But that was all known going into it. Lou and I agreed that we would look at things on a year to year basis.”
Perhaps Sutter would not be looking at possibly stepping away from his NHL position if he’d been able to return home to Red Deer more often during the last two winters. The original plan was for him to do so.
“Sometimes things don’t work out because of the schedule, which is beyond your control,” said Sutter.
“Or maybe the team wasn’t playing at the level that it needed to be at when there was a break in the schedule. I’m the head coach and I’m responsible for raising that level. Things just didn’t work out at times, so you have to prioritize and do what you think is right.
“I’m not saying that I’m not going back to New Jersey. I’m saying that I’ve had to go through a process that takes time.”
The wildly popular theory is that Calgary Flames GM Darryl Sutter, after canning head coach Mike Keenan, will step behind the Flames bench for the upcoming season and then hire his brother once the final year — if it is indeed a three-year pact — of Brent’s contract is up.
“That has no bearing whatsoever on my decision making. None at all,” insisted the Rebels president and owner. “I haven’t had any communication with the Flames. Firstly, it’s not allowed, and secondly, it’s not the right thing to do. I’m under contract with the New Jersey Devils. That’s a fact.”
Not that he wouldn’t consider taking a head coaching job with another NHL team if in fact the opportunity presented itself.
“I’d look at it, like I always have,” he said. “But you still need permission to do so. Rules are rules and that’s just the way it is. I’m not saying Mr. Lamoriello would ever hold me back, but there is some accountability there. I am under contract moving forward, yet I can’t let that affect my bearing or thinking process on what’s right.”
If in fact Sutter doesn’t return to New Jersey in September, the likelihood is that he’ll spend the 2009-10 hockey season keeping close tabs on the Rebels, albeit not necessarily in any official coaching/managing role.
“I’m very attached to this team and the reality of it is we’ve missed the playoffs the last two years and that’s something that’s certainly concerning to me,” he stated. “Yet I feel that we took some good strides last season with the young players we had and a good coaching staff.
“My ownership with the team hasn’t changed one bit. To me, it’s still Red Deer’s and Central Alberta’s team that I just happen to own. We’ve made mistakes along the way and certainly there have been some made over the last two years, but we’ve tried to rectify those and move on. I know it’s been encouraging watching this camp because our future looks good.”
Sutter isn’t looking for sympathy. He considers himself to be in an extremely enviable position.
“I’m very fortunate because of what I have back here, and I don’t mean that in an egotistical way,” he said. “It’s just a fact. I own a major junior franchise and I have a family, including a daughter (Brooke) who will go into Grade 12 next fall, that I haven’t seen much of for two years.”
The bottom line: It’s decision time.
“I have to do the right thing and whatever decision I make is going to be the right thing for me and the people around me. I’m talking about the family, this organization and the ranch,” he said. “And the decision has to come down soon in fairness to the New Jersey Devils, who like all NHL teams want their head coach in place by the entry draft, or at the very latest by July 1 when free agency starts.”
Contact Greg Meachem at firstname.lastname@example.org