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STAYING THE COURSE

Despite early season struggles, Gulutzan never waivered and that approach paid off

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

The realization, reckons Brad Treliving, reminds him of the multiple Academy Award-winning film A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe as John Nash, Nobel Laureate in Economics.

"We've joked about that, Glen and I,'' says the Flames general manager. "Remember the part in the movie when he's written all that stuff on the board?

"That was us. Glen's written all this different stuff on the board.

"It looked Greek. Or Latin.

"You're sitting there, staring at the board, saying to yourself: 'The answer's in there somewhere. We may not see it right now but it's in there … somewhere.'

"So you study the numbers, study the numbers …

"Then - bam! - all of a sudden the numbers make sense."

Not that anyone acutally needed a John Nash-inclined brain to wrap his or her head around this level of math.

On Nov. 21, in the wake of a 4-1 home loss to the NY Rangers, the Flames found themselves listing five games under break-even. Bleak.

From the outside, in the real workaday world, the sky seemed to be falling. People were acting as if the Orson Welles War of the Worlds had just been broadcast on radio and the Martians had actually landed.

That level of angst seems but a distant age ago now.

So what turned the tables, got the ball rolling in the right direction?

"Our character in the room,'' coach Glen Gulutzan replies unhesitatingly.

"Did we change a lot of things? Yes. A lot of things. Different way to look at the game, different style. Not right or wrong, just different.

"But they had enough openness to go with it. Did I ever, even at 5-10, think: 'Man, maybe I'd better do something different here?' No, not for a millisecond.

"I credit the players for sticking with it. Our leadership group was on board from the beginning. 

"It's like a snowball. You try to pick up people.

"They kept listening. They kept trying. They kept pushing forward. There's a little bit of blind faith involved.

"Eventually, because that faith was strong enough, they started to see there are some benefits here."

For Gulutzan's boss, the man who hired him, one coaching characteristic above all mattered during the transitional period.

"His steadiness at the wheel,'' says Treliving. "He never changed, the message never changed.

"There was a lot of turbulence outside the plane but that's when you trust in your pilot to land it safely.

"When we were going through those difficult times, the fact that the message didn't waver - at all - was very comforting and reassuring. Instead of grasping and deluding ourselves into believing 'Oh, something magical will happen.'

"No. Glen's message was always: 'This is going to come. We're not getting it yet. But we will.'

"And they did.

"It's like putting your hand on an element on the stove and being told: 'It's not on.' You're still hesitant, right? You still think you're going might get burned.

"Only by putting your hand on the element do you know you won't get burned."

The Jack Adams Trophy goes to the NHL's top coach of course. If Gulutzan had a ballot, who would be his choice?

"Tough question,'' is the hesitant response. "I'd vote for …. Torts (John Tortorella) or Bruce (Boudreau).

"I think Bruce has done a great job with Minnesota. That team plays faster. I know the West so I can appreciate what he's done.

"I look at where Columbus has come from, non-playoff team to a hundred-and-something points. And not because John and I are friends.

"So one of those two guys."

And Gulutzan, the man most responsible for the buy-in and return to relevancy here, where would he fit into any sort of hardware discussion?

"No,'' he says, with a soft shake of the head. "Sorry. Don't see it. What I do see is the good people around me that have helped get this turned around.

"I look at where Dave (Cameron) has taken the powerplay. I look at the penalty kill now, where Paulie (Jerrard) has taken that, to a place that has confidence and swagger and can get things done in the heat of a game, came from 74 per cent and is gonna end up at 81. And I look at Gelly, Siggy …

"And I most of all I look at our players. When things aren't going well, that's when a dressing room can splinter. Our character guys, our leaders, would not let that happen."

Gulutzan's persistence, along with that of his team, has the Flames firmly back in the playoff hunt.

"Critically,'' notes Treliving, "he never lost the players. He had the room at 5-10. From the inside, you could tell.

"We struggled but it wasn't because the players were trying to fight the message or him, or had stopped listening or believing. They just hadn't gotten it yet.

"They trusted him. And he's pushing them, remember. Leaning on them. Prodding and poking. Hard.

"I think what you're seeing right now is the trust that's been building all year. Glen's talked the whole time about building those relationships so that when you have to take a withdrawal, you can take it and it's not personal. 

"He's taking some withdrawals now."

From then to now, Nov. 21 to March 16, from five games under. 500 to 12 games over, a seismic shift in inner belief and outside expectation.

"Maybe,'' acknowledges Gulutzan, "it's just me being stubborn. But when you're been around the people I've been fortunate enough to be around - from Torts to Sully to Willie to Perry Pearn to Dougie Lidster, Curt Fraser - you believe in playing a certain way because you've seen it work."

Gulutzan adheres to the Mike Krzyzewski doctrine. Coach K, of course, has led Duke to five NCAA basketball titles.

"He used to say: You hear it, you forget it. You see it, you know it. You do it, you understand it.

"That's what I teach my guys: I can tell you and show you, but only until you do it will you truly understand it.

"We're at that point.

"They're understanding it."

Glen Gulutzan doesn't profess to be any sort of Nobel Laureate in shinny, but like Russell Crowe in the movie he got the guys staring at the board to understand the numbers.

So maybe not a Beautiful Mind, exactly. But a Determined Mind. A Single-Focus Mind.

And although their 10-game winning run did end Wednesday night, it translated into one Beautiful Streak.

 

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