In Calgary, what’s old is new again. Calgary Flames general manager (GM) Brad Treliving unceremoniously dumped his head coach Geoff Ward in favour of old-school bench boss, former Flames GM and one time Calgary head coach, Darryl Sutter.
So how will Sutter and his old-school coaching style play out in Calgary? I don’t know, but as they say, I’ll buy the popcorn — let’s sit back and enjoy the show.
The Old-School Defined
Treliving seems to think Sutter’s approach will go over spectacularly well, saying in an introductory press conference for Sutter that he “is one of the game’s greatest coaches.” Foreshadowing what may be in store for Cowtown skaters he said that with Sutter, he was sending, “a clear message to the players — we need urgency.”
So, what exactly is coming the Flames’ way once Sutter gets to town? The old-school coaching style is based on the belief that when rewards don’t produce high performance in an athlete, then discipline, humiliation, embarrassment, public shaming, anger and fear will. Players who are belittled and abused both verbally and even physically will eventually deliver results. And if they don’t they can be relegated easily to the minor leagues.
But Just How Old-School is Sutter?
Interviewed on the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast, the one-time Carolina Hurricanes’ captain Justin Williams, who also played during his career on the two Los Angeles Kings teams that Sutter coached to Stanley Cup victories, said the coach had an “in your face style” and was “condescending to players.”
He also had a towering temper that erupted regularly, but perhaps in no more spectacular fashion than one time during a game against the Minnesota Wild. As Williams told the tale, after the Kings had put in a “so-so period,” Sutter gathered his assistant coaches during the intermission into a small room adjacent to the King’s dressing room. Suddenly the sound of him throwing aluminum chairs against a bathroom stall erupted. Terrified coaches started fleeing into the main dressing room seeking refuge from his rage.
Williams wasn’t the only player to talk about Sutter’s abusive style. Daniel Carcillo who played 26 games with the Kings said he was “the worst coach I’ve ever had in my life.” He would demean people in front of the room, in front of everyone. It’s just all about embarrassing guys.”
Carcillo said Sutter abused more than just his players. He alleged that on a team flight, the coach screamed at a female flight attendant to “f–k off” and remove the food being served because the team had lost.
At the presser, a reporter quoted Carcillo saying in 2019 that Sutter had kicked one of his players sitting on the bench in the lower back and berated another who was concussed. When the reporter asked if it was true, Sutter said point blank — “No. I think honesty and truth always prevails. We’ll just leave (it at) that.”
To be fair to the new coach, he went on to explain that he relates well to young players and knows how to help them develop. He does not seem to feel that the hammer is the only tool in his coaching kit.
Sutter lost his job with the Kings not because he failed to bring home the Stanley Cup a third time, but because his players were fed up with his style and quit playing for him. That left Kings management with no choice but to fire him. (from “Hickey on hockey: Old-school coaching clashes with new NHL reality” Montreal Gazette, 06/12/2019)
The Kings’ star defenseman Drew Doughty was vocal in his support for a coaching change. After rattling off a few obligatory compliments toward Sutter, he explained “…if there is a problem with the team, or if you had a problem with Darryl, you’d be intimidated to go knock on his door and say, ‘Hey Darryl, I don’t like this or I don’t like that.’”
Doughty talked about the unrelenting seriousness that cast a pall on the Kings under Sutter. Doughty said, “…he definitely would have liked me to be more serious in certain situations, but I just can’t play the game that way. I like that I have fun playing the game.”
Why Sutter? It’s as Clear as Mud
Concerns about style aside, Sutter is a peculiar choice for coach in Calgary. His name is etched twice on the Stanley Cup for the Kings’ championships in 2012 and 2014, but that was a different era in the league. Under Sutter, the Kings were a tight defensive team built around big bruising players who thrived under his grinding defensive systems. While the Kings didn’t score very often, their style of play meant they didn’t have to.
This season, the Flames don’t score much either, but they are physically small and geared toward an offensive style of play. Other teams keep their heads up when Milan Lucic and Matthew Tkachuk are on the ice, but that’s about as menacing as the Flames get.
So, what is Treliving trying to accomplish in bringing Sutter back to Calgary under a long-term contract? For me, that’s a head scratcher.
At first blush it looks like he has put a disciple of lock-down, defensive hockey played with a nasty, physical edge in charge of an offensively oriented team that is small. Is Treliving really trying to transform the team to play Sutter’s trademark style? If he is, he doesn’t have the right players.
Yet with Sutter at his side, Treliving explained that the team’s problems weren’t about structure and systems, but rather a lack of urgency and clarity on expectations. Sutter’s job is to “maximize” performance — whatever that means.
At the same time, both Treliving and Sutter pronounced the team a “talented group” — strong down the middle with some top defensemen playing in front of one of the best twine minders in hockey. That doesn’t sound like the core of the team is leaving town in a rebuild scenario, but rather a management group that believes their team’s time is now. This puts the lie to the notion that Treliving plans on remaking the team in Sutter’s image — a relentlessly defensive team where offense is secondary.
If the Flames’ structure and systems are fine and their roster is full of talented skaters, then how does Sutter fit into the Calgary mold?
Reading between the lines at the press conference I had the impression that Treliving thought the team needed some tough love, the proverbial boot in the derriere. But does he really think today’s players will tolerate the abuse that some old-school coaches dished out in days gone by?
Whether fans like it or not, plays from the old-school coaching playbook won’t work in Calgary or anywhere else in today’s NHL. Todd McClellan, head coach of the Kings summed up the coaching approach needed with today’s players explaining that “It’s easy to be liked. You have to earn respect. That comes through a lot of different avenues. One, the player has got to know you care about them, and not just if they win games or lose games. But how can you help that individual?” (from “Kings Coach Todd McLellan weighs in on abuse allegations made against NHL coaches”, L.A. Times 03/12/2019)
Time Will Tell What the Coaching Change Will Bring
I, for one, am confused at what Treliving was trying to accomplish putting Sutter behind the Calgary bench. In time, my prediction is that I won’t be the only one.
Of all the options he had, firing Ward was the easiest. Judging by fans’ wild applause on social media, the move will keep the fan base happy — for now.
Paul covers the Calgary Flames, the Ottawa Senators and the OHL’s Ottawa 67s for The Hockey Writers (THW). He also hosts the Flames Faceoff show for THW’s Podcast Network.
Paul has been sought for media interviews for the thoughtful pieces he has written on hockey’s response to the major social and political issues of the day including the place of gay players in the game. Paul is also known for his interesting perspectives on the key issues and challenges facing the teams he follows.
Of his work with THW, Paul says, “I love to tell stories about the game of hockey and the personalities – both past and present, who have made it the greatest game on the planet!”
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