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On the final day of a month that began with his firing as the San Jose Sharks coach, Darryl Sutter was talking about life and how it sometimes collides with hockey, the game that represents a way of life for all members of the Sutter clan -- hockey's first family.

Sutter joined the Calgary Flames as their 13th head coach this past Saturday and he will spend most of the next four months -- longer if he can miraculously coax his new team into the playoffs -- separated from his family.

Darryl and Wanda Sutter's oldest daughter, Jessie, attends Leland High School in San Jose. She is a senior, an impossibly difficult year to switch schools. His oldest son, Brett, is in Grade 10 and playing for a San Jose-area travelling team. He was in Vancouver for one post-Christmas hockey tournament and will go to San Diego after New Year's Day for another.

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Their youngest son, Christopher, was born with Down's syndrome and is fully integrated in the San Jose school system, a Grade 3 student who is only a year behind his peer group.

For Sutter, the easy choice would have been to do nothing for the remainder of the season -- collect the paycheque the Sharks owe him and then sort through the job offers that might come his way next summer. Instead, he listened when the Flames called, offering him a chance to coach in his home province of Alberta.

The lure of that opportunity, which probably wouldn't have been there next July, was too great to turn down.

So Sutter called a family meeting to discuss the opportunity and the family collectively made the decision to press ahead. They will see each other at least twice during the foreseeable future -- when Calgary visits San Jose Feb. 24 and then again on March 15. The rest of the time, their contact will be by telephone.

"The toughest part of this is when you have young children," Sutter said. "They can't understand why you're not coming home. It's different for me because I've coached two teams in one year. Chris, my little guy, can't figure out why I'm not coaching the Sharks anymore. I said, 'it's because I'm coaching the Flames.' He says, 'well, then you should be able to come home after the game's over.' "

That would be a long commute, even by Silicon Valley standards.

Sutter spent two years out of coaching when Chris was a preschooler so they could be together on the family farm. For most of the past five years, Chris Sutter was a fixture in the Sharks' dressing room, spending time with the players and helping out with small tasks.

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"When Chris was born, we said we were going to be real aggressive," Sutter said. "We said we'd rather give him too much than too little. So he's fully integrated in the school system, with a full-time aide and three different therapists. The way we looked at it was, we wanted to try and keep him in his age group. He's a year behind, but it's proven that once they start slipping out of their age group, then they start falling back -- because they see they're falling back.

"Everybody's different, but for me, being from a big family and being around them all the time, this [being separated]is hard. It really is."

For the most part, Sutter hasn't had too much of a vagabond existence during his 20-plus seasons in the game. He spent his entire eight-season playing career with the Chicago Blackhawks and upon his retirement, moved quickly into coaching, first with Chicago's minor-league affiliates -- one season in Saginaw, Mich., then another in Indianapolis.

From there, he became an assistant to Chicago head coach Mike Keenan for two seasons and then moved into the head coaching job for the next three, beginning in 1992-93. He went home to Viking, Alta., for the 1995-96 and the 1996-97 seasons, acting as a special assignment consultant for the Blackhawks before getting back into coaching with the Sharks in the fall of 1997.

Under Sutter, the Sharks improved in each of his five seasons and made the playoffs each time.

If wanting to win counts for anything, then it's difficult to argue with the Flames' decision to select Sutter as their coach, even though they probably could have hired him much earlier and saved themselves untold ridicule.

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Sutter possesses a unique passion for the game and the city of Calgary. In an era of uncertainty and instability among so many small-market Canadian teams, it is difficult to say which counts for more. He certainly recognizes the need to get the Flames back on a winning track to keep the franchise alive and promises to invest whatever emotional capital is needed to make it work.

Sutter has a reputation as a one-note coach, someone who preaches work ethic as the cure for any and every situation.

He suggests that this is too pat a characterization and one that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

"You can always approach guys about work ethic, but in the end, the way the game is now, there's a lot more to it than that," Sutter said. "I've even talked to some of these kids here about it already. Everybody says we're a hard-working team and I think we are, but in the end, you still have to be better. Skill is still a big part of it. There's a trade-off there. Even coaching the other night, my first game, some of these guys, it's so ingrained in them to work like dogs. Sometimes, that prevents everything else from working.

"I saw things where, there's a puck there and the opponent is three feet away. Instead of taking the puck, they go hit the opponent. It doesn't make sense. Go get the puck. It's not always about hard work, sometimes it's about smart work."

Curiously, there wasn't a single player on the Flames who had crossed paths with Sutter previously, an unusual development nowadays. Accordingly, Sutter was asked how long it might take him to get a handle on his new team.

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"It took about 10 minutes in the first game," he said. "Now I have a good feeling about them. I'm not an expert or a genius, but I am a pretty good judge of character and competitive spirit.

"I know what everybody's saying [about the Flames' fading playoff hopes] but if they're going to believe in me and I'm going to believe in them, then we have a chance." Eric Duhatschek writes a daily hockey column for globeandmail.com.

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