Darryl Sutter’s return to Calgary will be less about nostalgia, and more about family and bulls.
This weekend, Sutter will return to the city where he spent eight high-profile years, first as coach and then as general manager of the Calgary Flames. Something of a polarizing figure in the town, at least among the media, Sutter is remembered both for his success behind the bench and tougher times in the GM’s seat.
Sutter led the Flames to the playoffs in each of his two full seasons as coach, then became full-time GM in 2006 and left in Dec. 2010 after mixed results. If Saturday’s return to Calgary holds any emotional attachment for Sutter, nearing the end of his first month as Kings coach, he won’t publicly acknowledge it.
"I have no feelings one way or another about it," Sutter said. "(Working in Calgary) was a great experience. I worked with great people and I got lots of friends. That’s what it’s about at the end of the day."
If anything, Sutter is disappointed. The Kings will fly into Calgary early Friday evening, play Saturday night, then immediately fly to Edmonton and play the following night. Sutter’s farm is located an hour outside Edmonton, and he won’t have a chance, on this trip, to visit extensively with family (and his prized bulls).
"I wish there was a day in between (games)," Sutter said. "I’ll see one part of my family in Calgary and the other part in Edmonton. That’s the most meaningful part, from a personal standpoint, clearly."
Sutter’s mother, Grace, is in her mid-70s and still lives on the 1,400-acre farm. Sutter’s father died in 2005, but Sutter is certain to see at least one of his brothers during the trip. Sutter’s younger brother Brent is the head coach of the Flames -- Darryl hired him in 2009 -- so the brothers will go head to head for the first time.
It could be said that the Sutters are the first family of Alberta hockey. Louis John and Grace Sutter raised seven boys in the small town of Viking, and six of them played at least 400 NHL games. Gary, the oldest, chose to stay on the farm rather than pursuit an NHL career. Ron Sutter played 21 games for the Flames in 2000-01 before his retirement (he later worked as a Flames scout), and five of the six Sutter boys went on to have some coaching or front-office role for one of the two Alberta teams.
Brian Sutter coached the Flames from 1997-2000 and Duane Sutter is a scout for the Edmonton Oilers. (Rich Sutter, Ron’s twin brother, also has worked as an NHL scout.) So if Calgary brings out any sentiment in Darryl Sutter, it’s because his family has enjoyed so much success in his home province.
"We were Alberta kids," Sutter said, "and none of us -- other than Ronnie, briefly -- none of us had the good fortune of getting to play for an NHL team in Alberta. So for three of us to get to coach there, and five of us to get to work there, between Calgary and Edmonton, that in itself is pretty special.
"The game is way bigger than me. I was very, very fortunate to be in a good city with good ownership. All those things are way more important than how long you were there."
After largely-successful stints as coach in Chicago (1992-95) and San Jose (1997-2003), Sutter took over a Calgary team that, in the previous six seasons, had averaged 73.5 points. In Sutter’s first full season (2003-04), the Flames totaled 94 points in the regular season, then reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
By that point, Sutter had also been promoted to general manager, and he left coaching in the summer of 2006 to concentrate on management. In his six full seasons as coach or GM, the Flames averaged 95.8 points and made the playoffs five times.
"We averaged almost 100 points a year, every year," Sutter said. "That’s pretty good for an organization that didn’t make the playoffs for seven straight years, to do that."
In the latter years, though, several of Sutter’s personnel moves were sharply criticized. In 2009-10, the Flames totaled only 90 points and missed the playoffs. Last season, the Flames started 16-18-3 and there were media and fan calls for Sutter to fire his brother Brent, the coach. He didn’t, and on Dec. 28, Darryl Sutter ``resigned’’ and was replaced by Jay Feaster.
Sutter said he holds no hard feelings about the end of his tenure in Calgary.
"There’s nothing bad about it, nothing bad to think about," Sutter said. "It was awesome. It was a good experience because we had a good team. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters. That’s how everybody measures, in wins and losses. It’s simple. That’s a fact. It’s like when I talk about Terry (Murray) and the respect I have for him. That’s what it’s about, is wins and losses. It doesn’t matter if you’re a general manger or a coach. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters."
Sutter’s return is likely to be a major story in Calgary, in large part because he never addressed the media after being fired as GM. Sutter regularly clashed with some reporters, which in some ways is inevitable.
Calgary is a "fishbowl" NHL market, within which there is year-round, intense scrutiny given to all things Flames. By nature, that doesn’t mesh well with Sutter, who rarely minces words with reporters and, by all accounts, is entirely unconcerned about the public perception of him.
"I’m not into the fishbowl stuff. I’m a private guy," Sutter said. "One of my biggest responsibilities is to shelter the players. If certain members of the media don’t like it, that doesn’t bother me. I’m not a guy who is critical of players publicly. Sometimes they
[reporters] don’t like that, because they want you to be. That’s not my style. What’s inside is inside, and I think that’s important."
Meaning, don’t expect any mushy stuff from Sutter in Calgary during his "homecoming" trip.
"It’s more of a media thing than a personal thing," Sutter said with a shrug.