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Sutter lays into sputtering Flames

by Brian Hedger
DETROIT -- Some might've called it a diatribe. Others may have described it as a long, slow burn.

In reality, Calgary Flames coach Brent Sutter's impassioned 20-minute post-practice media session on Tuesday at Joe Louis Arena was both of those things -- and then some. In fact, fictitious sports agent Jerry Maguire might even call it a "mission statement," because a sizeable part of it was that, too.

It consisted of about 3,500 words, sounded at times like a self-empowerment speech and likely included the word "team" at least a couple hundred times. It also included a definitive statement that illustrated Sutter's – and the Flames' front office – frustration with the lingering struggle against complacency that has Calgary (8-10-1) sitting 13th in the Western Conference with nearly a quarter of the season gone.

"You have to sacrifice a little bit for the betterment of (the team), and that's what we're asking the whole group to do and that's what we need to do," said Sutter, a full 13 minutes into his "greater good" mantra. "To be quite honest, I'm not asking them to do it anymore. I'm demanding it has to be done. And that's just the bottom line, because it's been something that has been ongoing. Since Day One coming here I noticed it and I told (reporters) that (Monday) night – and we have to cure it. It's the only way that we cure that."

Brent Sutter let his team know he was not pleased with their poor performance in a 4-1 loss to Columbus. (Photo: Brad Watson/NHLI)
It was one of those moments that made everybody's ears perk up and handheld voice recorders to be pushed just a little closer to Sutter's face. Instead of another strong statement, what followed was seven more minutes of repetitious talk trumpeting the values of team play and sacrifice – such as star veterans' willingness to adapt their long-held roles for the team's sake.

Sutter was even asked at one point whether veteran center Olli Jokinen – who clearly doesn't possess the ability of past seasons – was one of the players he was talking about, and the coach started his answer before the question was even finished.

"Sure it is, a perfect example," Sutter said. "I was one of those players. I went from being a second line to a first line to a second, to a third and I finished my career as a fourth-line player. But I was able to play 18 years and I had some success … went to the Stanley Cup Finals four times, won it twice, and my role was different every one of those times. But the fact is … it's always, ‘What is best for the environment of your hockey club?' "

Sutter said that his main point wasn't aimed at just one or two players and wishes his team – not to mention the local media – would take a similar approach. Captain Jarome Iginla's five goals in 19 games, for instance, is just one example of what's eating at Sutter.
Iginla isn't shy about the inner pressure he puts on himself to shoulder the bulk of the scoring load, but Sutter wants guys like Iginla, Alex Tanguay, Rene Bourque, Mark Giordano and Jay Bouwmeester to concentrate less on individual stats and more on team-oriented details that don't show up on a stat sheet.

"I know (reporters) look at me sometimes and say, ‘Well, he always talks about the team, team, team,' " Sutter said. "Well, it's because that's the only way this team is going to have success is our team game. We can't be (focused on) Jarome's only scored five goals in 19 games or Tang's only done this or Bourquey's only done this … or these (other) guys only did this. Let's all get thinking like, ‘What's best for the team?' That's so important, because that was lacking. It was missing here and it's something we continue to work on."

It went on like that for much longer than most post-practice media sessions go, and the version that reporters heard was, by at least one player's account, tame compared to the roasting Sutter gave the Flames on Monday night in the visitor's locker room at Nationwide Arena in Columbus.

Just two days after beating the Western Conference-leading Chicago Blackhawks at home, the Flames were rolled 4-1 by the struggling Columbus Blue Jackets. Evidently, it was the straw that broke Sutter's back.

"Brent definitely tore a strip off of us and it hit home," Iginla said. "It's something that, in the game against Chicago we worked very hard and last game we didn't work nearly as hard as that – especially in the first period. And the first period ended up being the difference in the game."


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It was merely the continuation of a disturbing trend for the Flames, who seem to "get up" for big games but follow those successes with stumbles against so-called "lesser" opponents.

"If you look at this year, we're a couple of games under .500, but we've pretty much been pretty good against the better teams and the teams that we feel their records aren't as good, we haven't had that same intensity and work ethic as a group," Iginla said. "That's something that we're addressing."

Diminishing the pressure he puts on himself to score goals, however, isn't something he wants to address – at least not yet. A reporter tried making the comparison to former Detroit Red Wings star Steve Yzerman accepting a reduced offensive role as he got older, but Iginla respectfully shot that down.

"I don't think the situations are quite similar," Iginla said. "When he switched (roles), they were an offensive powerhouse. When he switched more to that role – when he was getting 30-plus goals and 75 points as opposed to 100-some points – that's what the team needed and he took that role on, absolutely. But I wouldn't say that if I just turn into a pure defensive player, I don't think you're going to say that's exactly what our team needs. I know there's a combination and I'm trying on the defensive side to keep improving and I will."

As Sutter pointed out, though, it's more than just Iginla or Jokinen or any of the Flames' bigger names on the roster. If they truly want to dig out of this hole, it's going to take more dedication to what Sutter is now "demanding" from all of them.

"That's what we have to get into our head right now," said veteran center Brendan Morrison, who's recovering from a knee injury and is expected to rejoin the lineup at some point during the current road trip. "When things aren't going exactly the way we want, we still have to find ways to win games. So, that means the guy who doesn't normally block shots … he has to block shots. If a guy who is not normally physical … he doesn't have to go out and run guys into the wall, but he has to eliminate guys. All these little things add up in the big picture."

When these moves aren't executed, time and again, they add up to one frustrated coaching staff.

"It's what we need the team to work on and focus on here, because when we get there, that's when we'll take a stride," Sutter said. "That's when we'll start. Then every player that comes to the Calgary Flames knows that this is what they're about. This is how we play. This is how we do things. I've been on teams that have had success. I've been part of building teams that have had success -- and you know what, that is how you have to do it."
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