Right around Christmas, as the Calgary Flames jockeyed with the Edmonton Oilers for the Western Conference basement, it was thought that perhaps only one meaningful game remained on their NHL schedule.
That would be the Heritage Classic, an outdoor game scheduled for the third Sunday of February against the venerable Montreal Canadiens.
But a funny thing happened on the way to playing a storied rival in the mid-winter chill of McMahon Stadium. Suddenly, the outdoor game is less about the novelty of the thing and more about the two points at stake.
Against all odds, Calgary is back in the middle of the playoff race, following a 16-4-5 surge that coincided almost exactly with the decision, two days after Christmas, to relieve general manager Darryl Sutter of his duties. The Flames are 14-4-5 since Sutter was replaced on an interim basis by Jay Feaster, a former Tampa Bay Lighting GM - and the two could be not be further apart philosophically, in terms of their respective managerial style.
Sutter was the ultimate old-school manager - and his hands-on approach could be felt from his Scotiabank Saddledome offices, all the way down to ice level. As a former player and former coach, Sutter had all kinds of thoughts and input on what needed to be done to turn the team around. Through a succession of coaches - Jim Playfair, Mike Keenan, then brother Brent - Sutter maintained that the team he'd assembled was a pretty decent collection of talent. He couldn't quite figure out why it didn't all come together.
Sutter was omnipresent and his brooding demeanour coloured morale at every level of the organization. When he was finally removed, it was as though a fog had lifted. As someone in the team's front office suggested, instead of the eyes-forward, head-down gloom that permeated the organization, all at once, everyone exhaled. Everyone relaxed. Everyone just started doing their jobs.
Weirdly, the talent and chemistry that Sutter figured was there all along, finally bubbled to the surface. That it took his ouster to emerge fully is one of those delicious ironies that make professional sports so wildly unpredictable.
By contrast, Feaster is a Georgetown law grad, with an upbeat attitude and a clear understanding of what he knows and what he doesn't know. Feaster never played hockey professionally. Instead, he arrived in the NHL as an assistant to general manager Jacques Demers in Tampa and climbed the ladder from there. Ultimately, he believes in a model that features clearly defined areas of responsibility.
"Owners own. Team presidents do their work. Managers manage, the coaches coach and the players play," Feaster said. "As long as none of us are trying to get in each other's way, I think that's how you have success."
Publicly, few in the Flames organization would discuss the effects of Sutter's departure, as part of an overriding NHL ethic that says you don't throw anyone, even a departed executive, under the bus - a euphemism for kicking him when he's down.
"A lot of people like to mention about what happened with Darryl and that that sparked the team," said left winger Alex Tanguay, speaking carefully about the man who brought him back into the Flames' fold as a free agent, when his NHL options seemed limited.
"As far as we're concerned, we've found a way to play up to our potential and we want to keep that going, and have fun while we're doing it. That's where the focus is - on having fun and trying to win some games."
That single word - fun - wasn't part of the Calgary vocabulary much these past few seasons and it was a subject that Feaster tackled directly on the day he was promoted. He talked about wanting to hear music in the dressing room again - loud, blaring rock music - something to provide energy to a team that lacked it most nights. His uber-positive attitude filtered down to the coaching staff, which players say has been far more supportive these past six weeks, even in games when the Flames fall behind.
It is a dynamic that authors Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton explored in The Carrot Principle, a study of 200,000 people over a 10-year span that focused on the relationship between happiness and workplace productivity. Gostick and Elton concluded that when managers offered constructive praise and meaningful rewards in ways that motivated employees to excel, results improved dramatically.
According to Peter Sherer, a professor in the Human Resources and Organizational Dynamics department of the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business, one of the most exhaustive studies of the job-satisfaction/job-performance relationship was conducted by researcher Timothy Judge and published in the American Psychological Association's Psychological Bulletin in 2001. It is an academically dense work that reviews all the previous research on the subject and concludes that there is "a modest but significant relationship between job satisfaction and performance," according to Sherer. "It's real."
Sherer professes to know nothing about the inner workings of the Flames, but says that research shows that "if top leadership is acting in a toxic way, it filters all the way down - because they are under pressure too - and it tends to become systemic."
Sutter took over the Flames as coach in December of 2002 and in April, 2003, received the general manager's portfolio as well. In 2004, the Flames unexpectedly qualified for the Stanley Cup final under his direction, but they have failed to win a playoff round since.
Sherer, who is more familiar with the Billy Martin effect in major-league baseball, suggested that an exceedingly demanding boss can have a short-term positive impact on results, and cites as an example, "turnaround artists in the CEO context" that "use fear to shake up the troops.
"Sometimes, it works, but it's not sustainable."
In the Flames' new model, Feaster's first hire as an adviser was the recently retired Craig Conroy who, for all of his playing success, was noted mostly for his positive and upbeat approach. Conroy's appointment reinforced the direction in which the organization is headed - where lightening the atmosphere is part of changing the workplace culture.
In a sport with so much parity, where the gap between teams is so narrow, that change in leadership strategy seems to have made a significant difference.
Feaster stressed that he doesn't operate in a vacuum and will solicit input and pass on suggestions to coach Brent Sutter, in the same way he did in Tampa with John Tortorella, on the grounds that any exchange of ideas can be healthy.
"But it's really important that I don't go in and say to Brent, 'well you need to play this guy on the power play,' " Feaster said. "I'm not going to micromanage it. I'm not going to say to Brent, 'well, you know what? I traded for this bleeping guy, or I signed this guy to an X-million-dollar contract, so he better effing play.' I might go in and say, 'do you think this guy could help us on the PK?' But if Brent says, 'there's no effing way,' then end of discussion."
Now that they're in the playoff hunt, the Flames cannot afford to let their results slip. It would be easy to lose all the ground they've made up in the past six weeks with one brief cold spell.
"We've given ourselves a chance now," said centre Brendan Morrison. "All of us expected to be in this spot at the beginning of the year, competing for a playoff spot. But how we got here? It's probably a little different than what we anticipated."