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General Manager and President Glen Sather of the New York Rangers works the phones during the 2009 NHL Entry Draft at the Bell Centre on June 27, 2009 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) (Bruce Bennett/2009 Getty Images)
General Manager and President Glen Sather of the New York Rangers works the phones during the 2009 NHL Entry Draft at the Bell Centre on June 27, 2009 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) (Bruce Bennett/2009 Getty Images)

Big Apple Hockey Part II

Sather returns to familiar formula Add to ...

He says when he arrived in New York he began preaching the philosophy that "you're better off to go with your own," but was up hard against a city philosophy that took its lead from baseball's Yankees: 10 years running with the game's highest payroll ($206-million in 2010) and, usually, remarkable success after signing the game's biggest free agents.

"When I came here," says Sather, "the thinking was, we need stars."

He had to convince the likes of Dave Checketts, head of Madison Square Garden Inc., that slow and within was the way to go and it was, at times, a next-to-impossible debate to win with the city's fans. The Rangers missed the playoffs during Sather's first four years. Sather hired an inexperienced Bryan Trottier to coach and it was a disaster. He hired and fired coach Tom Renney, replacing him with John Tortorella, the current coach.

Through all this, Sather never paid the usual price that falls to GMs and coaches who fail to produce the sort of results expected in a city like New York.

"Glen operates out of a comfort zone," one long-time friend says. "He gets on great with the ownership and the organization makes so much money with its teams and cable deals that there's really no pressure on him to produce right away. It's not that they don't have to win, but sort of. … He has them convinced to be patient."

At times it can produce surprising results. Sather took on NHL bad boy Sean Avery for a second outing with the Rangers when most of the league had declared the foul-mouthed agitator a pariah - and yet Avery, while still infuriating most of the league with his play, has developed into a useful, skilled forward.

"He's just a really misunderstood player," Sather says of Avery. "When he first got here he had his own publicist and was trying to get into the newspaper all the time. I got him through all that to the point where we have a hockey player 65 per cent of the time."

If the years have taught Sather one thing, it is that big-name, big-dollar signings of aging veterans is just too high a risk: "It never works out."

In today's NHL, he says, the reality of the salary cap and the ability of young players to become free agents in their prime have forced the Rangers to re-think strategy. The notion of an Oilers' type dynasty ever occurring again is unlikely, he believes.

"Look at Chicago, look at Pittsburgh," he says, referring to the last two Stanley Cup winners. "You can keep four of five of your top guys - you can't keep 10 or 12."

So you build from within, a strategy almost unknown in New York. "It actually started here in the beginning," he says, "but first you have to get rid of the stuff." Including, he admits, his own stuff that did not work out, from forward Scott Gomez (signed to a $51.5-million deal over seven years, later traded to Montreal Canadiens) to Redden and current enforcer Derek Boogaard, who is being paid $1.625-million a year to have other players refuse to fight him.

"You're in a situation where you have to shore up the team," he says. "But you also have to get draft picks. It wasn't very popular when I traded Brian Leetch [to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2004 for two prospects and two draft picks] but that's what you have to do."

Not all Sather's draft picks have worked out, of course - find a GM whose picks have - and perhaps none so dramatically as goaltender Al Montoya, taken sixth overall in 2004. One of the franchise's most promising picks, Alexei Cherepanov, died tragically at 19 after collapsing during a Continental Hockey League game in Russia. Yet increasingly the team has seen success from players such as Staal, Del Zotto, Dubinsky, Anisimov and Callaghan - all underscored by Lundqvist, who has become one of the league's top goaltenders.

Sather says that the rally against him last March was water off his back - "Doesn't bother me at all" - and that he has intention of stepping down or retiring in the foreseeable future.

"I like the adventure," he says.

It is an adventure that has taken twists and turns, but one that he says is now on course to produce a legitimate New York Rangers contender by working mostly from within and with new budget restrictions that make following the Yankees route now impossible to entertain.

"It's a building process," he says. "The process would be a lot easier if we could have ended in last place the last four or five years."

But then, it is suggested, he wouldn't be here, would he?

"Probably," he admits, and takes an imaginary draw on the unlighted cigar.

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