Over the course of its 42-year franchise history, the Calgary Flames have been home to many memorable characters. Talented and hard-working players, fiery coaches, unwavering management, dedicated owners; four decades worth of familiar faces and names that have provided indispensable entertainment, joy and angst for a loyal fanbase.
Among head coaches, of which there have been 18, few are as well-loved as Darryl Sutter. Known for his unpretentious, no-nonsense, likeable manner, Sutter is taking a second crack at the head coach job, having come out of retirement last March to once again lead the Flames.
His first go-around, from 2002 to 2006, was a high-point in the team’s history, culminating in a 2004 Stanley Cup Final game seven loss, and spawning the infamous Red Mile. It was a great time to be a Flames fan.
Sutter’s return as head coach 15 years later was to many a welcome relief. In the 14 years prior, the Flames made the playoffs only seven times.
His first 12 months back on the job have not been without challenge; in the midst of a global pandemic, COVID-19 restrictions have handicapped the team’s ability to play unfettered. Last Christmas, for example, 19 players, three coaches and nine staff members were put into the COVID-19 protocol, and the team didn’t play for two-and-a-half weeks. Other public health restrictions have made the game less enjoyable for players, coaches and fans alike.
So why did the 63-year-old Sutter, who was enjoying retirement at his 3,000-acre ranch in Viking, Alberta, agree to a three-year deal with the Flames?
“I’m a big hockey fan,” he admits from his office at the Scotiabank Saddledome. “Living back on the farm I was watching a lot of hockey, and deep down I’m a big, big Flames fan. And I didn’t like where they were headed and how they were playing, in terms of keeping up with the way the league was being played.”
It was not a decision taken lightly but came down to Flames ownership and fans – specifically their love and passion for the team. “The ownership group in Calgary when I first came here included Harley Norman Hotchkiss and Doc Seaman, icons in the league who were really, really respected,” he explains. “Then Murray Edwards, Allan Markin, Alvin Libin and Bud McCaig came into it. All high-end, respected men, not just in the hockey room, but in the community. So that meant a lot to me.”
Flames fans too, drew him in. “I think the fans and players are equally important,” he says. “I can walk downtown and people have no problem coming up to me to tell me what they think, what we should be doing, or could do, that sort of thing. And I love that. Those are real fans.”
He notes the fan base has changed since his first time on the job. In the early 2000s it was an older crowd, but the 2004 Stanley Cup run brought out a whole new generation of younger fans. “The kids were wearing jerseys again – Iginla jerseys, Kiprusoff jerseys, Regehr jerseys. Now those people are in their 30s and 40s, and they’re our fans. And that’s something we have to continue to recreate.”
So far, the job has been a lot of challenging work. “There’s something different, exciting every day,” he says. “Trying to reset an organization in terms of work ethic and forging an identity, gaining respect back in the league. It’s a lot of work. It trickles down and it trickles up.”
“[Head coach] is by far one of the toughest job in the organization,” Sutter continues, “because you’re dealing with a payroll of $80 million, and players are expected to perform at the highest level. When they don’t, it ultimately comes back to you. I get it. It’s why having great ownership to work with is so important.”
Of course, head coach was not Sutter’s first position in the NHL. His path began as a 21-year-old left winger for the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1979-80 season. It was destined to be; NHL hockey player was the only career he ever aspired to, growing up the second of seven boys (born within 10 years!) at the family farm in Viking.
“Hockey was just what we did behind the barn once we were finished doing our chores,” he recalls of his childhood. “It’s where we learned teamwork. Because if we were really good at doing our work together, we’d get it done a lot faster and then could go from work to play.”
Before he could even skate, Sutter and his brothers would pretend to be NHL players. “I remember practicing on the old linoleum floors in the farmhouse. It was slippery and we pretended we were NHL players and practiced to be NHL players. So going into the NHL wasn’t a decision, a plan or about an opportunity. We just believed it.”
While the Sutter family didn’t have everything other families had, they learned the importance of family. “Our parents taught us to respect others and to take care of each other,” he says. “We all went to church and we worked in the farm, so we didn’t get to do what a lot of other kids did. But the importance of taking care of each other was ingrained in us.” Six of the seven brothers made the NHL (four of which coached as well) and they all remain close today.
Being selected by the Blackhawks in the 1978 draft was especially meaningful, since as a young boy Sutter had idolized Bobby Hull (also of the Blackhawks). “I got to play for Chicago and I got to know Bobby Hull,” he says. “That was, for me, about as good as it gets.”
He played eight seasons with the Blackhawks, retiring at the end of the 1986-87 season. He was 29. “It wasn’t a decision on my part, to be quite honest,” he says. “It was a decision on the Chicago Blackhawks’ part.”
Because the organization had his rights until age 30, management offered Sutter the opportunity to coach. With a wife and two young babies at home, the promise of a bi-weekly paycheck was reason enough to accept. As assistant coach in his first year, Sutter found himself coaching his old teammates, some of whom were older than him.
“And after that first season, I didn’t like it,” he recalls. “I remember talking to my boss Bob Pulford and saying ‘Bob, I don’t think I’m doing this thing. I got to try and find something else.’ So Bob suggested I coach the farm team in Saginaw, Michigan.”
Sutter coached in Saginaw for a year, then in Indianapolis and then back to Chicago. “It was during those times, riding the bus and coaching in cities that most people haven’t heard of, that I realized I wanted to be a head coach. I didn’t want to be an assistant or a specialty coach. My strength was as a head coach.”
He eventually gained that title with the Blackhawks in 1992. He remained head coach until 1995, when he and his wife Wanda decided to move their family back to Viking after their youngest son Christopher was born with Down Syndrome.
“We made a decision that the best thing for him and our family at that time was to go back to the farm and spend a couple years to let him develop,” Sutter says. “The way we wanted him to. Once we were comfortable, and if the right opportunity arose, then I’d go back – if it was right for our family.”
That opportunity arose with the San Jose Sharks, where Sutter was head coach from the 1997-1998 season to 2002 when he joined the Flames. His time with the Los Angeles Kings, from 2011 to 2018, garnered the top prize: he lead the Kings to their first Stanley Cup championship in the organization’s 45-year history in 2012, and in 2014, to their second Stanley Cup championship in three years.
As head coach, he views his responsibility to the players: “The only thing you can control with your players is their work ethic and commitment to each other. And as I get older, a big thing for me is to make them better people off the ice too.”
Successful head coaches, he believes, are either great leaders, great teachers or both. “And they surround themselves with what they don’t have,” he says. “Those are natural qualities you can’t learn them from a book. With maturity and being a little older, I’ve figured out which direction I should go.”
Indeed, over the course of his coaching career the NHL has changed, and Sutter has adapted. “There’s a lot more involved today,” he explains. “Because of the age of the player, the technology of the game, the size of the coaching staffs, the number of teams in the league. The list goes on and on and you have to be on top of it all.”
His plan for the Flames was to reset the team, change some values and set realistic goals: “You have to be able to work at it from an analytics standpoint, a data standpoint and a personnel standpoint, then bring it all together. A realistic goal for this team – and it’s a high standard – would be to play 600 hockey [a win percentage of 0.600), and hopefully that should secure a playoff spot.”
So far this year, that’s about where the Flames are at: “I’ll never say I’m satisfied, but overall, I say I’m still very optimistic.”
When it comes to the question of where the Flames play, he’s unequivocal. “I think we have a great old building. It’s one of the few left in the NHL. And I think we should honour it, treat it like a shrine. When the Saddledome is full, it still has that same excitement and that adrenaline, and that resonates with me. I love it.”
The lack of capacity crowds this season (due to COVID protocols) is regrettable. “It’s incredibly disappointing,” he laments. “We hear and talk a lot about mental health and wellness today. In Calgary, being able to go to a hockey game is a big part of that.”
A family man to the core, Sutter and Wanda spend much time with their three children and eight grandchildren. Eldest son Brett, 34, is captain of the American Hockey League’s Ontario Reign – he played his thousandth game in January – and lives in Calgary in the offseason.
Christopher, now 29, lives with his parents. “The farm, the agriculture, the animals [they run quite a bit of cattle], the outdoors, that’s all really, really important for him,” Sutter reflects. “We want to maximize his potential every day. And his brother and sister, even though they’re married with their children, are very much in tune with that and understand it. So at some point, when we’re not able to take care of Christopher, Christopher will take care of them.”
His advice – credited to his parents – to athletes (including his own kids and grandkids) in any sport: “Work hard, listen to your coaches and have fun. You could tell that to a six-year-old or a 36-year-old, but it’s pretty clear and simple.”
Back with the Flames, Sutter’s second term as head coach holds promise for a team that wants to win and a city looking toward better days. We might just get what we’re hoping for.