Soon after Darryl Sutter took over the Los Angeles Kings, he moved into former coach Terry Murray’s Manhattan Beach house and began the process of learning L.A.’s complex freeway system.
More than once, he got lost along the way and, sometimes, he shared rides with members of the coaching staff to make the travel easier. Then, during one particularly bad patch of the NHL season, Sutter drove to the Staples Center alone – and the Kings won.
You can guess the rest of the story.
Is Sutter superstitious? Is Viking, Alta., the centre of the hockey universe?
“Yeah, I am,” the head coach answered sheepishly, “but in real dumb ways. Like when I first came here and I didn’t know where the heck I was going. I’d travel with the coaching staff to games and it didn’t work very good. So I figured, I was better off getting lost but going by myself. Now, when guys ask me for rides, I say, ‘No, sorry.’ When you think how stupid that is, when you sit there and see that [fast-moving carpool]lane …”
Bernie Nicholls, a long-time associate of Sutter, who played for him with the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks, laughs uproariously as he retells the story about Commuter Darryl.
“It’s funny,” Nicholls said, “but you get that way – and I don’t know who wouldn’t. People, when they do something and it’s successful, you keep doing it.”
In fairness, superstitions are rarely rooted in cold, hard logic and maybe a better description is Sutter is a slave to routine and repetition. It is a linchpin of his coaching philosophy, which is why he gets so animated when talking about travel and game times and days off and recovery: all factors beyond the standards Xs and Os he believes are vital to success.
“When Darryl got here, one of the first things he said was, ‘I’m not a video guy,’ “ Nicholls said as the Kings prepared to open the Stanley Cup final series Wednesday against the New Jersey Devils. “Geez, these guys do more video than when Roger Neilson was coaching. But it’s all teaching.
“You know we had that NHL 36 [TV show] Darryl wouldn’t let them in the dressing because he hates cameras, but I really wish he would have let them in to see him go, because he’s amazing. I don’t think people realize how smart he really is. … He’s taught these guys so much, and he’s so prepared. He doesn’t let one thing get by him.
“Right now, [the players]feel like they can’t lose – and that’s how you want to be.”
Sutter joined the Kings last December, after the Kings had fallen to 12th place in the Western Conference and general manager Dean Lombardi reluctantly showed Murray the door.
So far in these playoffs, just about everything has fallen into place for the Kings. They are 12-2 and dispatched the West’s three divisional champions –Vancouver Canucks, St. Louis Blues and Phoenix Coyotes – to qualify for only the second Stanley Cup final appearance in franchise history.
According to Kings centre Jarret Stoll, the reality of Darryl Sutter doesn’t accurately match the reputation.
Yes, Sutter can be a hard-and-demanding coach. No, he is not a screamer. The biggest issue for Kings players the first month was understanding Sutter’s instructions because the timbre of his voice is often so low.
“I would just say he’s very honest,” Stoll said. “That’s all. He’s just very honest. But he doesn’t miss anything. So you can’t go out there and think you’re working hard, or think you’re doing the right thing, because if you’re not, or you’re out of position, or you make a bad read, he’ll tell you. But you respect a guy like that because he’s just telling it the way it is.”
One of the things that keeps Sutter connected to the modern generation of players is he has children roughly the same age. His son, Brett, plays in the Carolina Hurricanes organization and got into 15 NHL games this season. Another son, Christopher, graduates from high school in Calgary this spring.
“He almost treats us as his own kids,” Stoll said. “He’ll tap you on the arm and he’ll say, ‘How are you doing today? Everything okay? How’s your family?’ “He cares. He really cares.”
Two of Sutter’s younger brothers, Brent and Duane, have their names on the Stanley Cup with the New York Islanders in the early 1980s. No one in the family has had a chance to do it since.
Sutter doesn’t talk like to talk about winning the Stanley Cup – just another one of those crazy hockey superstitions – but you know that it would mean the world to him to get his name on there as well.
“Trust me, every one of the guys in the room understands that,” Stoll said. “It’s one of my reasons – one of them – to see a guy like that win. It would be pretty special.”
Sutter at a glance
Born: Aug. 19, 1958
Played: 406 career NHL games, recording 161 goals, 118 assists and 288 penalty minutes. Sutter scored 20 goals or more five times in eight NHL seasons, including a career-high 40 in 1980-81. In 51 playoff games, he had 43 points (24 goals). He was the Chicago Blackhawks captain twice in his career, from 1982-85 and 1986-87.
Playoff coaching record: 59-56 (12-2 this season)
June 7, 2004 – Head coach of the Calgary Flames for a 2-1 loss at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the decisive seventh game of the Stanley Cup final.
July 12, 2006 – Sutter steps down from the dual role as Calgary’s general manager/coach, turning the coaching portfolio over to Jim Playfair. Sutter had a regular-season record of 107-73-30 in roughly 2½ years behind the Calgary bench.
June 23, 2009 – Two weeks after Brent Sutter resigned as coach of the New Jersey Devils (after leading them to a franchise-record 51-win season), Sutter hires his younger brother to coach the Flames, replacing Mike Keenan, who’d previously replaced Playfair.
Dec. 28, 2010 – Sutter resigns as Flames GM and is replaced by Jay Feaster, who was GM in Tampa when the Lightning knocked off Calgary in 2004.
Dec. 20, 2011 – After firing Terry Murray and conducting a brief search, the Kings announced Sutter would become the 24th head coach in the team’s history.
Apr. 12, 2012 – Under Sutter, the Kings go 25-13-11 in 49 regular-season games, finishing third in the Pacific Division and eighth in the Western Conference.