Sutter rouses sleeping Kings
New coach Darryl Sutter isn't Hollywood, but he's got the Kings winning again
Seen by some as a desperation hire, Sutter has made his team more aggressive
During his tenure in Calgary, he had withdrawn into a Captain Queeg-like shell
(Los Angeles) -- Outside the Staples Center, a formerly seedy section of downtown Los Angeles pulsates with the color of money. Fancy schmanzy hotels tower above other instantly recognizable brand names dressed up in 100,000-watt marquee signage. Downtown hipsters in skinny jeans seem to mix comfortably with well-heeled suburbanites in a place now known as "L.A. Live." It's a place that demands to be noticed and succeeds at it.
All of which is to say this does not describe very well the new coach of the Los Angeles Kings.
One must have very good ears and lots of patience to talk with Darryl Sutter, the native of Viking, Alberta, who took over the Kings on Dec. 17 for the fired Terry Murray (and interim coach John Stevens). Sutter's voice is deep and hard, but his words are soft. He probably has been told once or twice by a loved one, "Stop mumbling, speak up!" His words kind of just stop abruptly at times, leaving awkward silences with his audiences. But listen close, because there's hockey gold in them there standstills.
Sutter has an E.F. Hutton quality. When he talks, players listen to what he has to say as a coach, the latest evidence being the Kings' quick turnaround under his watch. Through his first eight games on the job, the team didn't lose in regulation (5-0-3). And Sutter, even though you can't tell outwardly, seems to be enjoying himself again after some time in the literal and figurative hockey wilderness. "The biggest part for me was (getting) to know the character of the players here and knowing the young guys, where you can work with them and what they can do," he says.
Sutter, 53, seems to think there is enough to work with in Los Angeles for him to want to stick around a while. He could have continued to live on his Alberta ranch, maybe waiting for another general manager's job to open up, instead of jumping back into the coaching meat grinder. But when his old boss, Dean Lombardi, called looking for a coach to get his underperforming Kings going again, the competitive spirit in Sutter awakened.
While some close to Sutter say privately that he likes having as few bosses over him as possible, it can be tricky to gain readmission to the NHL's GM club, and he still had too much passion for the game to sit on the sidelines forever. So after tending to some business at the ranch and getting his immigration papers in order, Sutter got on a plane to L.A. and has lived out of a suitcase ever since.
"I've only been to the hotel, practice rink, downtown for games and on the plane," he said, after a 2-1 shootout loss to Colorado on Monday night in front of a sold-out Staples Center crowd. "I haven't had a chance to settle in at all. This will be the time I've had two days between games to do anything else. I told the players, 'As much as I've grown to adore 'em in the last week, it'll be good not to see me for a day or two.'"
Sutter is probably the least "Hollywood" kind of guy imaginable, but he was probably a better fit for the Kings than some observers first thought. While he was called a retread hire and a desperation move in some quarters, Sutter fits in L.A. first off because of his good relationship with Lombardi that was forged in San Jose. Sutter is used to the laid-back ways in which hockey is viewed in California, and seems able to thrive in such a culture despite an all-hockey upbringing that spawned NHL careers for him and five of his brothers who all played in the league during the 1970s and '80s.
Of all the Sutter brothers, Darryl might have had the least talent as a player, but he made the most of what he did have. He was drafted lower than Brian, Duane, Brent, Rich and Ron -- 179th overall by Chicago in 1979, but he still managed a 406-game career as a forward that was cut short by injuries in 1986-87.
His successful NHL head-coaching career started in 1992 with Chicago and was followed by long stops in San Jose and Calgary. If not for Marcus Nilson's failed scoring opportunity in the waning seconds of regulation in Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final, Sutter's Flames could easily have put the first championship ring on his finger.
Sutter then took over as Calgary's GM and oversaw some success but probably more frustration. Some of his moves were roundly criticized in the city's only-game-in-town hockey press, including his dispatching of defenseman Dion Phaneuf's services in a blockbuster trade with Toronto for four players -- only one of whom (the injured Matt Stajan) remains a Flame.
Sutter seemed to retreat into more of a Captain Queeg-like shell as his tenure in Calgary wore on, bristling and sneering at media inquisitions. There were also some not-so-subtle signs of friction between him and brother Brent, who is still the coach of the Flames.
In what was widely seen as a jump-before-he-was-shoved-out move, Darryl finally stepped down from the GM role in December 2010 and lived a quiet life on the ranch until Lombardi's call.
The Kings have seemed more aggressive on the ice under Sutter, especially prized defenseman Drew Doughty, who had five points in his first four games since the regime change. With top young talent in Anze Kopitar, Jack Johnson and goalie Jonathan Quick, not to mention veteran leaders such as Mike Richards and Dustin Brown, there is no reason why the Kings shouldn't be more aggressive.
"We're trying to push the pace and keep things real even out there," says Sutter, who has a persona that seems outwardly passive. Inside, he's fiercely aggressive, say others who have played for him.
"He made it so guys played hard every shift, wanted to play hard for him," says former Flame Stephane Yelle. "He's an excellent coach. I learned a lot from him."
Upon taking the job in L.A., Sutter told the Los Angeles Times, "I think X and O this team is as good as there is in the game. One thing that hasn't changed in this game ... it's men playing a boys' game and there is some emotion involved and I think that's what I have to get out of them."
Indeed, he has, and the Kings are ascending.