With a tip of the fez toward Comrade Theisen’s ongoing doctoral thesis, “Eugene Melnyk: Threat Or Menace,” we must also examine the other side of Thursday’s Ottawa Senators game, in which the Sens very nearly won, 3-7. Specifically, the return of the most Western Canadian Western Canadian of them all, Darryl John Sutter.
Sutter is nearly a cult vortex of his own, between his press conferences, his mouth that tends to run at a 45-degree angle to his face and his alter ego, Farmer John. Indeed, he was once asked what he was doing when Los Angeles general manager Dean Lombardi called him up to coach the Kings and responded as one would in such circumstances: “I was in the barn. I wasn’t shoveling shit, I remember that, but I had that day.”
Asked to confirm the anecdote as something more than Sutternian lore, he said, “Yeah. That’s what I said.”
Sutter, you see, is unique among coaching retreads, which is a sentence of some heft right there. This is his fifth job if you include the last time he coached the Flames, from 2002–06, and the second one he’s taken after extended farm time; he waited five years after being fired in Calgary and immediately won a Stanley Cup in L.A., and this hiring comes after a three-and-a-half-year break, uhhh, shoveling more shit. Sutter is part of the prodigious Sutter hockey tree that runs 12 people and two generations deep. He is also a son of Alberta, which made him desirable to general manager Brad Treliving once he decided that the sub-optimal Flames needed more of a sardonic voice and a pointed boot than that of Geoff Ward, an—ugh—Ontarian.
And in typical Canadian hyperpolite fashion, at least this time, the coaching change happened after a game in which the team firing its coach won. The new “You Won, You’re Done” philosophy, though, is a pathological study for another time.
This is about that other Canadian hockey virtue, “When you need to deliver an ass-kicking, hire Darryl Sutter’s right foot.” As described in what must be Eric Duhatschek’s 56th career exegesis of the Sutter philosophy, he is being brought in to give a different voice to the room, a voice that says, “I’m here because you’ve been sucking, and now we’re going to work like mules until we suck less.” It is a message that is either so rare that nobody else delivers it, or one that managers like because it’s so, well, Darryl. His last job was as a coaching consultant to Dallas Eakins in Anaheim for old teammate and current Ducks GM Bob Murray, so he was probably delivering pointed suggestions with a shovelful.
Hockey discards successful coaches at a higher rate than any other pro sport save international soccer because the technical theories aren’t all that varied. Sutter being on his fifth team is no big deal at all; Scotty Bowman worked for six and Mike Keenan eight, just to name two whose players largely disliked them for their draconian messaging.
But Sutter’s messaging is singularly funny because they come in that nasal baritone with that diagonal mouth and that head that always seems to be at a slight angle, as though his vertical and horizontal holds are doing a tug-o’-war in his neck.
And he is the greatest/prickliest/tersest/funniest soundbiter the game has seen in maybe the history of mouths in that he provides next to nothing in better and more creative ways than all the other coaches who have ever provided next to nothing. He is the purest devotee of dismissing vague questions with themes like “confidence” and “momentum,” and “the regular season doesn’t mean screw-all to me” is a classic in and of itself. It will doubtless be a recurring theme in Calgary while explaining to his players that the regular season is everything. If somehow the Flames reach the playoffs and play Winnipeg and Paul Maurice in either round, the postgame pressers will be a festival of desiccation.
His return symbolizes the perfect synthesis of a league whose Canadian teams are currently more self-contained than at any time since 1925. In some ways Darryl Sutter IS Canada … at least the part that only dreams of ocean- or lakefront property.
The only way this could be better is if he was next hired by the official hockey team of Defector.com, the Ottawa Fightin’ Theisens. By any reasoned analysis, the only thing keeping them from firing head coach D.J. Smith is another three-game winning streak— say, starting Sunday in Calgary against the man whose day job between day jobs is shit-shoveling.