December 29th, 2002


Charlton's NHL

Sanity in the Nuthouse? Sutter Arrival Helps to Clarify Off Ice Issues

by Rick Charlton

AP Photo

Sutter II: Attack of the Clone?: Three years after letting Brian Sutter go, the Flames are back in control of the Viking family.

Not quite yet.
Darryl Sutter is now the fourth Flames coach in the last three years - and the most logical candidate to succeed to the post - but there still remains the intriguing non-status of Calgary GM Craig Button, his contract due to run out this summer.

Will the Flames be appointing their fourth GM in the last eight years or will they continue with the status quo?
Conspiracy theorists have been rubbing their hands in delight these last few years over an apparent duel to the death among the neckties battling for control of the darkened hallways of the Saddledome, the latest chapter a struggle for supremacy erupting over the appointment of a new head coach.

The settlement of the coaching issue yesterday may have also given us an indication that the organization has decided to give Button some space to do his job, probably at the insistence of Sutter.

It seems highly unlikely Sutter, a prime candidate for any coaching job that might have come up, would have signed with this dysfunctional nuthouse if a certain clarity on the status of his immediate superior, the general manager position, hadn't been offered.

Indeed Sutter, in the few public comments he's made on the issue, has made it clear settling the lines of communication between himself and the hockey group was a priority before he would sign in Calgary.

Asked last night directly on HNIC to distinguish between Button or GM-in-waiting Lanny McDonald, Sutter gave a flinty-eyed response.

"Button is the General Manager here," said Sutter.
Although Button stated today he has had nothing but support from fellow front office types like President Ken King as well as hockey gad-abouts Lanny McDonald, Jim Peplinski and others, his comments were undercut by a stark admission from Sutter himself only a day before.

"At the outset it was (a problem)," Sutter told the Calgary Herald, referring to Button's contract expiring at the end of this season. "But after we talked, it's not now. Put it this way: I'm not going into a situation where I can't have a long-term relationship with my GM."

"It was really good, everything that we've talked about," Sutter said of his conversations with Button and King. "What they need (in Calgary) is some stability. That's one of the reasons Edmonton is a good team, because they have Kevin (Lowe) and Craig (MacTavish)."

During another HNIC interview Friday night, King stated Button himself had chosen not to negotiate a contract extension immediately, preferring to wait through to the end of the year instead. King modified those comments somewhat on Fan960 a day later, stating both he and Button had agreed to put off negotiations regarding an extension until the end of the season.

"I'm not as concerned about that (his own contract)," Button told the Globe and Mail yesterday. "I'm concerned about doing what I can control. The most important thing for me was to make sure we had a coach that could lead us, guide us and get us to the level we feel we're capable of doing. I feel satisfied we're there today. Ken King and I will take the appropriate time and we'll discuss what needs to be discussed with regards to myself. My intentions are clear: I want to be here for the long haul."

Button strengthened that position in comments made on FAN960 yesterday.

"I want to be right there with him (Sutter) every step of the way," he said.

In this day and age of the NHL, a GM typically wants to find a coach who fits the style he wants his team to play, making the two partners in both success and yes, failure as well.

In that vein it's instructive to recall that Brian Sutter was among the final three choices - and probably the first choice - of Button in the summer of 1999. That was such a strange option, however, given Sutter had failed to have his contract renewed by the Flames only months before and departed in bitter fashion, that Don Hay was the low cost alternative finally settled upon.

The older Sutter brother, on a trip through Calgary last year, remembered the man who tried to re-hire him fondly, describing Button as "a good hockey man" while pointing out the Flames were in good hands, a feeling no doubt transmitted to younger brother Darryl while kicking around a few cowchips over the summer.

Also interesting is the news that Button himself insisted on dragging the hiring process out ad nauseum, feeling it was vitally important to give the former Sharks bench boss time to feel fully comfortable with re-joining NHL coaching ranks so soon after being tossed onto the garbage pile by San Jose.

"I've always said you can't propose marriage so soon after a divorce," said Button yesterday. "Darryl needed time to divest himself from San Jose and I was prepared to give him that time. That's why this process took awhile."

Sutter appears to have been Button's choice almost from the point this process started.

I said "almost" as we know from Jim Playfair's comments earlier that Button had talked to him about taking over the team on an interim basis.

When Playfair balked at that scenario - wisely - we can suppose Button himself might have been surprised the boys in the back (King, McDonald, Peplinski) were willing to consider names like Bowman (at least $2 million U.S. a year), Gainey and Robinson (at least $1 million U.S. a year), although only Robinson was a serious candidate.

"Craig Button approached Lou a few weeks ago at a governors' meeting, and Lou phoned me to tell me about the Flames' interest," Robinson told the New York Post. "I spoke to them, and it was something I thought about very seriously. But I felt it just wasn't the right fit at the right time."

Armed with the knowledge that unexpected money might be available, the stakes went up and Sutter immediately emerged as the logical name at the top of the list.

Armed with the knowledge that unexpected money might be available, the stakes went up and Sutter immediately emerged as the logical name at the top of the list.

King himself probably got an earful from Bowman when the Flames president went to consult the greatest coach in NHL history about the sad state of NHL hockey in Calgary. It was only last year that Bowman had this to say about the job Brian Sutter had done in Calgary.

"Brian (Sutter) was a good coach in Calgary," said Bowman at the time. "He did a good job in Boston, too, but his best was in Calgary. He wasn't appreciated in either place."

We are left to wonder if Bowman, in between fits of laughter at being asked to coach the Flames, might have told King that Darryl Sutter was the best man he could find.

And so another Sutter era begins in Calgary.

All coaches are hired to be fired and undoubtedly this one will eventually be fired too.

In San Jose, Sutter was fired for the usual reason - after five years the message was being tuned out by 23 players who couldn't all be traded. In Chicago, Sutter elected to walk away for personal reasons but may well have lasted five years there as well.

Sutter could in fact, be here only a year and a half, the time it takes to get to 2004 when an entire season could be wiped out and a new economic system, either good or bad, comes into place.

He could be the last Flames coach ever. Or he could last into an era when the Flames may be able to compete economically once again.

In the immediate future, however, Sutter will be inheriting an underachieving team that is leaving perhaps the bitterest memory in a long line of bitter memories for Calgary's long, long, embittered fans.

And a team that still lacks clarity at the top. 

"I THINK THEY'RE AN AGGRESSIVE TEAM. They can challenge teams in terms of work ethic. We have to learn how to be better workers in terms of smart work. This team needs an identity. They just can't say they work hard and we have to create that." - Darryl Sutter on the Flames.

ONE CAN'T UNDER-ESTIMATE THE IMPORTANCE of Jarome Iginla's lacklustre start to this season. The old adage that the best players on a team need to perform as the best players has rarely been so dramatically evidenced as it has with the current Flames. Undoubtedly the organization entered this campaign thinking they were building on Iginla's MVP calibre season from last year. But injuries - admitted by Sutter yesterday - essentially stalled Iginla out of the gate and with him, the Flames hopes as well. Ten more goals from Iginla, giving him a pace for 41 (full schedule) and the Flames might have five more wins right now given they've been involved in 14 games that either ended in a tie or a one goal deficit. And five fewer losses. You can't blame Iginla because an injury is merely a fact and not an act that can be corrected. But he's been absent nonetheless and the effect has been just the same. The odds of making the playoffs from this juncture have been rendered statistically possible but likely improbable in real terms. The damage has been done. But there is still plenty to play for this season. A .500 record to finish the year isn't an impossible goal. Building a team identity for next season is also a good reason to hire a coach with a three-year contract instead of finishing this campaign with an interim coach. The Flames have reached a point where it has become extremely unlikely they would now move to another city prior to 2004. That line has probably been crossed. But a lousy finish to this season and the hordes of season ticket cancellations that would follow might be severely debilitating nonetheless. Yes, there is plenty on the line before this season is finally done.

"YEAH, I THINK WE HAVE TO WIN SEVEN OUT OF EVERY 10 GAMES to get into the playoffs. ... That's a tough task." - New Flames bench boss Darryl Sutter admitting the distressing position he inherits.

THE PERILOUS STATE OF THE BUFFALO SABRES FINANCIAL PICTURE is both real and perhaps convenient for the NHL given the NHLPA's reluctance to re-open collective bargaining prior to the 2004 expiration of the current CBA. I doubt the NHL is seriously going to deliberately push the Sabres over the precipice but if Buffalo were to fall over the edge through its own self-induced vertigo, with 23 NHL jobs taking the fall, owners around the NHL might not be clasping their throats in horror as you might expect. At this point, with only a year and a half to go until the current CBA expires, one should be particularly cautious in believing anything out of the mouths of either side, since the PR war is only now getting underway. The NHL and other professional sports have become just the latest high ratio businesses in North America to tumble from the lofty expectations created by the excesses of the 1990's. The more levered a business is to expectations that the good times will continue, the further it has to fall when an economic malaise begins to take hold. The NHL is still pricing its product aggressively and consumers, both corporate and retail, are making decisions based on the changing economics of their circumstances. The first thing in any corporate budget to get the chop in perilous times is marketing (taking clients to games or offering free tickets) while individual fans, faced with the neck-tightening reality of rising unemployment, begin to make more cautious spending decisions. The economic plight overtaking many NHL teams appears to be real and the willingness of owners to aggressively seek the "cost certainty" espoused by Gary Bettman is also probably genuine, even if the players still need convincing. Consider then the Sabres, a team that is unlikely to get all the city, state and federal support it seeks to continue to exist. Will it simply disappear? Will a trustee auction it off to the highest bidder? Declare bankruptcy? Move to Portland? Would Portland want them? A simple fading to black for the Sabres is well within the realm of possibility and that would be a full-blown cannonball sailing across the bow of the NHLPA. Would it be enough to avert a lockout in 2004? We could only hope.

"IF YOU PUT A GUN TO MY HEAD, I wouldn't buy an NHL team right now, and that includes the one I own." - Chicago's acerbic Bill Wirtz, who doesn't believe in televising local games and has managed to turn one of the more fanatical audiences in the league into 13,000 a night after forcing long-time season ticket holders out of their seats with astronomical price increases.

"I HAVEN'T COACHED ONE GUY ON THIS TEAM. That's unusual." - Darryl Sutter on taking over a locker-room full of players he's never had anything to do with. Conversely, Sutter said he is completely comfortable with the support staff he has. "It wasn't really ever an issue," he said of the possibility of bringing in assistant coaches he might have selected himself. "I know those guys and it wasn't an issue."

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