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Calgary Flames head coach Darryl Sutter on his bench against the Dallas Stars during the second period in Game 1 of the first round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Saddledome.Sergei Belski/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

One of Darryl Sutter’s favourite sayings throughout this opening week of the NHL playoffs has revolved around learning the lessons of the past.

“Last night’s a history lesson, so pass it on,” he said before the Calgary Flames’ playoff opener on Tuesday, after watching the parade to the penalty box in the first round of games the previous evening.

“Very clear history lesson from last night again,” he said Thursday, again firing a warning shot across the bow of his players when it comes to staying out of the penalty box.

If history is indeed the best teacher, then it’s hardly surprising that the Flames reached back into their own annals on March 4, 2021, to bring back the head coach who steered the team to within one win of a second Stanley Cup, in 2004. A solitary playoff series win in the intervening years will do that to an organization that had procured a core of outstanding young talent but still needed an experienced hand on the reins to harness that youthful energy.

If general manager Brad Treliving had his way, the reunion would have happened sooner.

“Bringing Darryl in last year wasn’t the first time I talked to him, tried to convince him to be the head coach here,” Treliving said Thursday. “I’ve known Darryl a long time and finally convinced him to come our way and I think it’s probably one of the most important, best decisions I’ve made.”

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Though the Flames GM wouldn’t expand on exactly when he had first approached Sutter, it’s possible that an earlier reunion may have seen Calgary steer clear of Bill Peters, avoiding the subsequent fallout that occurred when former players Akim Aliu and others brought to light stories of the former head coach’s racial abuse.

That Treliving chose to pursue the 63-year-old Sutter might seem as something of a surprise to those outside the organization, particularly as it was his fourth head-coaching hire. General managers without much playoff success tend not to get too many more, so putting faith in an old-school head coach from Viking, Alta., could be viewed as a desperation roll of the dice.

The modern NHL is very different to the one in which Sutter thrived during his first go-around in Calgary. As the fall from grace of Hall of Fame-calibre coaches such as Mike Babcock has illustrated, current NHL players don’t always respond well to the demanding coaches that the Sutter clan – Darryl and five of his six brothers all played in the NHL – grew up under.

Treliving was far from deterred.

“There was never any question in my mind is he up to speed on how you have to be successful in today’s game,” he says. “There’s certain things that don’t go out of style and I think accountability, holding people accountable, having high standards and pushing people to meet or exceed those and being disciplined, I don’t think those go out of style in any era.”

Sutter only coached 2 1/2 seasons in Calgary the first time around, from 2003-06, before deciding to focus solely on his other role as general manager. But after leaving the Flames organization in 2010, he found his way to Los Angeles, where he coached the Kings to two Stanley Cups during his six years in Southern California.

That success not only allowed him to further pad his résumé, but allowed him to keep growing as a coach.

“Darryl’s done a really good job at evolving himself as the game has evolved,” says his brother Ron, who played for Darryl in San Jose at the end of his own playing career before working for him in a number of different capacities.

“For a few years there I think people didn’t give him credit for that. He is still the same coach in terms of making players accountable, but also understanding that you know how the game has evolved, he’s allowed the players to have more input and as tough a coach as he is, he’s become a good listener.”

Much like Gregg Popovich, the often-prickly head coach of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, Sutter portrays a somewhat gruff exterior, suffers no fools and can sometimes bristle when asked leading questions in news conferences.

But that façade belies a person that has a deep affection for the players in his charge.

“He actually cares a lot about players, and I think the players really recognize that,” Ron Sutter says. “I know that still today and when I played, when there’s days off. … He encourages guys to bring their kids around the rink. He wants the kids to have a feel for what their dads are going through and experiencing.”

As with Popovich, the exterior also belies a sharp tactical mind, one that leaves no stone unturned in looking for every possible edge to help his team succeed. Ron says his older brother is a “hockey junkie,” watching pro and junior games whenever he can.

The Jolly Rancher, as the Flames head coach is nicknamed because of his love of spending time working on the 3,000-acre family farm in Viking, has happily embraced new methods of measuring on-ice performance, too. Treliving says his coach has jumped head-first into analytics – anything to get a leg up on the competition.

“He digs into every number, every data point,” Treliving says. “He’s as forward-thinking a coach as there is, so don’t let the exterior fool you. He’s a brilliant hockey mind, not only tactically, but everything that goes around in terms of his preparation, there’s a meaning to it.”

Just over a year into his second stint in Calgary, the current Flames squad seems onside with Sutter 2.0. The success has obviously been there, with the team winning the Pacific Division this season after posting the second-best season in franchise history. The 50 wins and 111 points trail only the 54 wins and 117 points the team put up in 1988-89, the season that culminated in the only Stanley Cup parade in Calgary’s history.

After a season in which he put up 40 goals and 115 points, both career highs, winger Johnny Gaudreau was happy to praise Sutter’s impact this past week. It’s all changed from a year ago, when Sutter criticized Gaudreau’s lack of energy in a game shortly after taking the helm.

“I don’t think we’ve had a coach like him probably dating back to Bob Hartley,” Gaudreau said, referring to the coach who won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year after the 2015 season. “Just demanding of their team, expects a lot out of every player, every shift.”

Trevor Lewis, who signed for the Flames last summer after winning both Stanley Cups with Sutter in Los Angeles, says his long-time head coach is much the same as he was in La-La Land.

“I don’t think he’s changed his philosophy,” he said. “He gets the most out of guys. He’s been awesome for our group.

“There’s been little changes to the system and stuff like that over the year, but he’s the same guy, same coach.”

Same coach or not, Sutter’s place in NHL history seems secure as he continues to move up the league ranks in terms of playoff wins by a head coach.

Tuesday’s Game 1 win over the Dallas Stars was Sutter’s 90th playoff victory, with which he eclipsed long-time Edmonton Oilers head coach Glen Sather. Another win against the Stars on Saturday will not only allow his team to take an important 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven first-round series, but also allow him to move past Babcock to take sole possession of seventh place overall.

For Treliving, that sort of success is only going to lead to one destination.

“I’m a firm believer he’s a Hall of Fame coach,” the GM says. “So when you can add Hall of Famers to your organization, it does nothing but do good things and he’s been unbelievable since the day he got here.”

With a report from The Canadian Press