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Rutherford reflects on his years in the NHL

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

As Jim Rutherford walked into one of the interview rooms set up at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex on Thursday for the Penguins' annual Creative Day, he found himself in a reminiscent mood.

Because while a few of the Penguins' prospects were lined up at another station down the hall, ready to kick off their first-ever NHL training camp, Rutherford is entering his 38th season in the NHL.

"When you're growing up and you think about what you want to do or what you want to be part of, as a kid you'd like to be part of the NHL," he told "Just in the last couple of days it's kind of hit me how long I've been in the NHL. A fairly long time for a goalie, 13 years, and now my 25th year as a manager."

Rutherford spent three of those 13 years as a goalie for the Penguins from 1971-74. Inside his office at the facility, a photo of him wearing his bright blue Penguins mask hangs from the wall alongside pictures of fellow netminders Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury. 

"Now that I've stayed in the game, the biggest thing is seeing the change in the equipment and the style the goalies play," Rutherford said. "Especially the equipment, because the equipment wasn't great in those days. Not saying it was harder to play goal in those days, but you played injured a lot. And I would've liked to have the new equipment."

Rutherford, who was general manager of Hartford/Carolina from 1997-2014, joked that what he remembers most from his playing days are all the bruises. In those days, goalies were obviously mindful of the top offensive players, like the Hull brothers and Bobby Orr, but every now and then someone would surprise them with how heavy their shot was. For Rutherford, that was Doug Volmar, who was his teammate with the Detroit Red Wings for a brief time.

"We played a very wide-open style game in those days," Rutherford said. "They were just starting to change the sticks, using big hooks in their sticks. There weren't as many guys who could shoot the puck as hard as the guys can today, but there were always two or three guys on the team who could shoot it the way they do now, even with those wooden sticks. You had to beware of those heavy shooters, certainly."

There are certain games that still stick out in Rutherford's mind, like the time he was with Detroit and they were playing the Penguins - who were on a 19-game winning streak - and the Red Wings snapped it. But when he reflects back, what he remembers most fondly are his teammates.

"I think the biggest thing about my playing days is I think about all the guys I played with," he said. "We don't stay in touch anymore, and I just remember how important they were in my life. That's the nice thing about thinking back to those days. I had a lot of great friends as a player. I think about a lot of those guys quite a bit."

One of those players was Dave Burrows, who was his teammate in Pittsburgh all three years. 

"Dave Burrows was the guy in my playing days that took care of me," Rutherford said. "He was the guy that I really had a lot of respect for. We were roommates. And then Les Binkley was another one because he was a veteran goalie when he came here. He was so good to me."

While Rutherford has lost touch with his old teammates, someone he does stay in touch with is Orr - who lives in Florida and used to take Rutherford's late mother Dorothea out to dinner when she would come down for the winters

"One day my mother drove over to the pet store that Bobby's son owns and said, 'I'd like your dad's phone number,'" Rutherford said. "He didn't know who she was. He said 'ma'am, I don't know who you are.' She said, 'I'm a friend of your dad's, I need his phone number.' They went back and forth and finally he called Bobby and said 'Mrs. Rutherford was looking for you.'"

When Rutherford eventually transitioned to the front office, the one superstition he took with him is being quiet on game days, which began during the 1978 Stanley Cup quarterfinals against Montreal. The Canadiens were coming off back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, but the Red Wings were only down 2-1 in the series entering Game 4 of the best-of-five series.

"Everybody was all excited that we had a chance to beat Montreal, which realistically, we didn't," Rutherford said. "There was just a lot of talk before the game on the way into the rink and everybody's shaking hands and I was a part of that. Then we got blown out that game 8-0. It really bothered me. It bothered me in a sense that you weren't thinking about the game, wasn't prepared for the game. Some of the things that I said that day before the game actually turned out to be the opposite. So I just decided not to say anything and it doesn't turn out to be the opposite (laughs)."

Rutherford has only made a couple of exceptions to that rule in his career, and that's with his children - daughter Andrea and son James. 

"I remember the seventh game of the Cup Final in Carolina, and everybody that knows me understands, you know? Just leave him alone," he chuckled. "So there was a lot of tailgating in Carolina and I remember getting to the rink for Game 7 against Edmonton. My daughter was tailgating close by and she comes over and gives me a big hug and wished me good luck on the way in. That was not normal. But it was my daughter, so that was okay, and we won that game."

That was back in 2006 with the Hurricanes, when Rutherford won the first of his three Stanley Cups as a general manager before capturing back-to-back championships in 2016 and '17 with Pittsburgh.

"Obviously when you win, those are your biggest memories," he said. "When you get time to reflect on it, there is such a fine line of winning and losing. When you go back to all three of the Cups that I was part of, you can find times where it was amazing how a certain goal went in or that one stayed out - a guy had an open net and missed it or hit the goal post. You know then how blessed you are that you were ultimately part of a team that won."

And now, entering his 38th season in the National Hockey League, Rutherford is hoping to continue making more special memories.

"When I was a kid I didn't know if I'd get 38 minutes or 38 days in the NHL," he said. "To be able to look back on it, you say, 'boy, you're a blessed guy.' I just feel very fortunate. I made the NHL as a player against the odds. I was a much smaller guy and did it against the odds, and was able to stay in it for 13 years as a player. Then to get my chance to get back in it with (Hurricanes owner) Peter Karmanos. Then to get that phone call from David Morehouse and to get to come to Pittsburgh, knowing that when I made that decision I knew that we had a really good chance to win the Cup. To come here to such a great sports town and enjoy this place and win two Cups is very special."

Rutherford paused and smiled.

"But we're not done."

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