In Sutter, Flames (and fans) trust

He's manipulative. Often infuriating. Single-minded. Overbearing. Demanding. Acerbic. Abrasive. Calculating. He does not suffer fools or slackers gladly.

But put aside the image for a moment; the checked shirts, cowboy kickers and that piece of wheat clenched firmly between his teeth.

"He may be a cowboy," cautions Calgary Flames assistant coach Jim Playfair. "But he's one smart cowboy."

Disregard the fact that he's never been presented with the Jack Adams Trophy or mentioned in connection with World Cups or Olympics or any of the other jobs that other, most fashionable coaches get offered.

Darryl Sutter is the smartest man in hockey.

Madness, you say? Well, there are valid arguments to be made in support of that declaration.

Need proof?

For starters, he took a ragtag team that had not contested a single playoff date in seven seasons and marched it to within a goal of sending Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finale into overtime, reshaping its identity and its fortunes in less than two seasons.

He's followed that up this season by prodding his Flames into first place in the Northwest Division, a taxing piece of real estate they must share with the Canucks, Avalanche, Oilers and Wild. In doing so, he's managed to win over even the skeptics who were certain those 2½ months of euphoria in the spring of 2004 were merely a moment caught in time, as irretrievable as they were magical.

Since he became coach, the Flames are 25 games over .500. In December, he reached his third anniversary with a franchise he has almost single-handedly rejuvenated.

"I had no idea," he said back then, and you believed him. "Three years, huh? Gawd ... the time's gone fast."

He's the only man in the NHL who continues to do double duty as coach and general manager, and neither job suffers for it.

His is the face on the franchise. Not Iginla's. Not Kiprusoff's. Make no mistake where the power lies, either. Other people may have fancy titles and swell write-ups in the official media guide, but the buck starts and stops in only one place. Banana republic dictators have less sway than this guy.

The fact that he's been able to corner such clout is the main reason for his success. He's his own lord and master.

"Looking back, you know, being able to come in in the middle of the season, when I did, right after Christmas, really helped me in getting a read on things," Sutter says now. "The attitude, the accountability, had to change.

"I saw that right away. As long as the big guys were scoring some goals or they beat Edmonton once in a while, everyone seemed to think that was fine. That everything was OK.

"Well, it wasn't."

Sutter the manager is every bit as crafty as Sutter the coach. His first official draft pick in the job was Dion Phaneuf. No need to elaborate there.

His follow-up to that was Dustin Boyd, who recently starred for the conquering Canadians at the World Junior Championships in Vancouver.

Need more proof? The reason free agents Roman Hamrlik, Tony Amonte and Darren McCarty chose Calgary this summer was the chance to work with Sutter. In Amonte's case, to work again with him after their years together in Chicago.

Look at his trades. Miikka Kiprusoff for a second-round pick could be the steal of the decade. Most of the deals have been small, quiet, within the franchise budget, but they've all added to the depth to the type of team he intends building -- Marcus Nilson, Rhett Warrener, Steve Reinprecht, Chris Simon.

The latest acquisition, Kristian Huselius, unwanted in Florida, has only come in and taken a spot on the No. 1 line, contributing 16 points in 16 games.

Sutter isn't afraid to cut ties with popular players. Craig Conroy, Denis Gauthier and playoff overtime hero Martin Gelinas pop immediately to mind.

He doesn't mind calling out Jarome Iginla or Kiprusoff or anyone, if he has a message to deliver. He isn't averse to shunning the media. There's a ruthless clarity in his approach. Argue his methods all you want, but there can be no argument to the accomplishment.

"He's a results guy," said Flames president Ken King, the man who eventually made the hire after Greg Gilbert was gassed as head coach. "And he has vision. He's looking two games from now, two years from now, and if he and I have our way, 10 years from now. This is someone who, if he decided to be a politician, would be running a country. Instead, he's running our hockey team. And we're awfully glad he is.

"People laugh when I say he's as sophisticated a management person as I've run across. They go 'Yeah, right ... He's just a rough-and-tumble cowboy.'

"But you look at the way he's built [the organization], in a relatively short period of time. Everyone believes. I've seen ... that just when you think you've got him pegged, he does something that surprises you. If you give him what he gives of himself, which is everything, there are no problems.

"He can accept losing if he knows everything has been left on the ice."

The Flames' dressing room is not what you'd call loosey-goosey. Not a lot of ha-ha goes on. Sutter's personality keeps things businesslike, on edge, focused on the task at hand. If you want fun, his unfixing stare seems to say, visit Disneyland. Popularity contests are for other men.

"I've been affiliated with Darryl for five or six years now, and it's the best education I've had in hockey," says Playfair. "He knows the league, he knows the game, he knows the locker room, he knows the heartbeat of a team. He's always on the hunt. By that I mean, always looking to the next two points, to the next challenge.

"He doesn't act like a hotshot boss. I think one of the misconceptions [of] Darryl is that he's a one-man show. He's not. He delegates. If he hires you, he trusts you, and he lets you do your job."

No man can continue to spin gold every time to the loom, of course. He will make mistakes. There will be squalls ahead. That much is inevitable. Even for someone as canny as Darryl Sutter.

But a sign held aloft in the Pengrowth Saddledome during the entire 2004 playoff run pretty much sums up what southern Albertans think of the job he's done: 'In Sutter We Trust.'

So far, he hasn't let them down.

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.