Sutter's hard work fits Flames

CALGARY, Alberta -- It didn't seem like a momentous loss. On Nov. 4, the Flames left the ice despondently after a 3-0 loss to mighty Detroit. Not many fans had expected the seven-years-out-of-the-playoffs Flames to match the President's Trophy-bound Red Wings, and maybe the players themselves didn't either. Maybe that was part of the problem.

The Flames trudged into their dressing room and saw no sign of their coach/GM, Darryl Sutter. In fact, they would not see him at all that night. All they saw was his handwriting on the dry-erase board: "Be here 7 a.m."

Message sent. Said veteran forward Krzysztof Oliwa: "I set every alarm clock in the house." And the crack-of-dawn skate the next morning? Assistant Jim Playfair described it with one word: "quiet."

The story is vintage Sutter. Some coaches rant and rave. Others play mind games. Sutter is direct, bluntly honest, and as generous with words as his organization has traditionally been with money.

Just watch any of his press conferences. Watch him shrug or grimace at most questions as if he's being offered a shot of syrup of Ipecac. Watch him drone slowly and lowly with only a rare half-smile from his perpetually-frowned face. (In the hallway outside the Flames' locker room, a poster made by elementary school students features reverse anagrams of the Flames' names. In "Sutter," the 'S' stands for "Smile more often" and the 'U' stands for "Use those lips for smiling.") The man is an Elston cartoon come to life. To say Darryl Sutter is understated would be vastly overstated.

Make no mistake, Sutter will yell on occasion. He will call players out in the press, as he did with defenseman Jordan Leopold before Game 3 of the finals. But Sutter is the master of the slow burn: obsessed with hard work and the hard truth because anything else is a waste of his time.

Examples are plentiful. On the very first day of training camp, Sutter gathered his team together and told them they were here to make the playoffs, period. "He let us know we are not here to hope for the best," said Oliwa. "So every game from December on was a playoff game for us."

After the All-Star break, Sutter broke the team's remaining 28 regular-season games into seven-game increments. He challenged the team to win every "series" from then on. Playfair called the idea "brilliant." The team won seven straight series, and now is two wins from its eighth and the Stanley Cup.

Sutter has been just as straight with individual players. When he arrived in Calgary after being fired in San Jose, Sutter saw a team completely reliant on Jarome Iginla to carry the offensive weight. That riled the Alberta native, who grew up with five brothers -- all of whom made the NHL and two of whom won the Cup.

"It's the way we were brought up," he said. "You didn't let anybody off the hook. It's the same here."

So instead of asking certain players for goals and other players for hits and still other players for defense, Sutter asks everybody for effort and mental toughness.

"The guys realize that the only way to believe in the system is to accept that with hard work, everything is possible," says Oliwa. "Take responsibility for what you do. If you can face that, you can face your mistakes."

That style has done two things: First, it has taken pressure off younger players. The Flames defense is anchored by Robyn Regehr, who is only 24. Before this season, Sutter gave Regehr a five-year contract (the longest in team history) and told him he was expected to be a rock on the blue line. Regehr responded by developing into a young Derian Hatcher, with the nasty hits and searing slapshot to match. And when injuries crippled the Calgary defense in the early rounds of the playoffs, similar expectations placed on newbies like Mike Commodore and Steve Montador lessened the burden of making the extra, fancy play.

"It's an honor to play for him," said defenseman Andrew Ference. "He challenges guys. He's gonna make you better. If you can be mature, you realize how much you can learn."

But Sutter's no-frills style has worked just as well with veterans. Iginla, previously relied on to score big goals, has now become a power forward in the truest sense. Sutter called the captain out in the Vancouver series for not attacking the net. And in that Game 7, Iginla basically won it by himself with Messier-like abandon. Left winger Chris Simon, whose fists are hard as quartz but whose hands are soft as sand, went through several identity crises in other cities -- am I a fighter or a scorer? -- but finally found a place in Calgary where he could just be himself. He scored the game-winner Saturday in Game 3.

Miikka Kiprusoff, who Sutter brought from San Jose because he was "a player that's 27 years old with something to prove," has destroyed a reputation built when he bailed out of a Team Finland game and replaced it with a stunning resiliency. Ville Nieminen, who at times is every bit as laconic as his coach, was miserable in Pittsburgh, where he felt he didn't know his role. But he found new energy in the United Center, when head coach (and Daryl's brother) Brian Sutter asked him simply to fight for every centimeter of ice. In Calgary, Nieminen has been able to transform one simple request for hard work into a dynamic, two-way game. Nieminen says he's never felt this important on any hockey team he's ever played on. "I expect to be accountable," Nieminen said. "That's a better word than 'important.'"

Accountable is a word Sutter himself aspires to. After last year's final regular-season game against Edmonton, Sutter was back at work the next morning at 8 a.m. He proceeded to work every day the entire offseason. On plane trips, players and staff rarely see the head coach doing anything other than research. The morning after putting away San Jose, Sutter was preparing game plans for both Tampa Bay and Philadelphia. After winning Game 3 here Saturday night, Sutter began meeting with assistants to make fixes a full minute-and-a-half after the final horn. Then he marched into the dressing room and barked, "Great game, great win, gotta do better." Five-year plan? Some GMs have those. Not Sutter. Flames president Ken King said Sutter has already worked out a plan for the next decade. (Safe to say the team is ahead of schedule.) Says King: "As great a coach as Darryl is, I think he'll be an even better GM."

Which brings next year to mind. Will the work-first style continue to galvanize? Remember last season, when Anaheim Mighty Ducks coach Mike Babcock walked into the locker room on the first day of the year and said, "Today is the most important game of the season." That rallied the team all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, but the daily grind could not be replicated this season. Anaheim missed the playoffs. Will the Flames keep drinking the Kool-Aid, secure in the knowledge that they have the ability to go all the way to the finals?

Sutter himself has issues with the present situation. He feels his dual role kept him from giving all the time he wanted to his coaching duties. "There's a lot of days, quite honest," he said, "when the coach wasn't on the ice."

Since expansion in the late 60s, only Glen Sather with Edmonton and Scotty Bowman with the Red Wings have won Cups as coach and general manager. (Bowman was technically not even GM when he did it with Detroit in '97.) Sutter believes it "unfair to players" to speculate on his future role with the Flames, but he has set opinions on the dual role. "I don't think it works," he said. "Because it hasn't." The other two coach/GMs in the league this season, Sather and Columbus Blue Jackets boss Doug MacLean, abandoned bench duties during their losing seasons.

Well, maybe Sutter -- honest to a fault -- will offer a slight hint about his thinking. Asked if he preferred being a coach or being a GM, Sutter admitted: "I'd rather be a player."

Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.