Front-office drama? Not between Playfair, Sutter

Updated: September 27, 2006, 2:31 PM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

The curiosity, Jim Playfair understands.

"People want to know, 'How much control will he really have?' Or 'Will Darryl be downstairs all the time?'"

The new Calgary Flames coach shrugged.

"Well, obviously I can't answer any of those questions. And, quite frankly, they don't interest me. What interests me is this hockey team. It's about the players. Not Jim Playfair. Not [GM] Darryl Sutter. Winning the Stanley Cup is the objective here. That's what he wants. That's what I want. That's what everyone in this organization wants.

Jim Playfair
AP Photo/Larry MacDougalAfter spending three seasons as Darryl Sutter's assistant coach, Jim Playfair takes the Flames reins this season.

"How we get that done is irrelevant, as long as it gets done."

After waiting so long to be put in charge of an NHL team, Playfair is fully aware the skeptics think he'll merely be playing Charlie McCarthy to Sutter's Edgar Bergen this winter, that the general perception out there is of Sutter the omnipotent, Sutter the manipulative, Sutter the overbearing.

Why, the doubters saw an ominous tip-off as early as during the media conference announcing Sutter's decision to concentrate strictly on general manager duties and hand the coaching reins to his heir. Playfair would be asked a question, begin to reply, only to have Sutter cut in and finish the answer.

"Yeah, I know," Playfair said with a laugh, unfazed by any warning signs. "At one point, I had to elbow him in the ribs."

Sutter, in this town, is a tough act to follow. Think The Beatles on "Ed Sullivan." Think Olivier in "Richard III." Think Connery as "Bond, James Bond."

Sutter took a fading franchise and pumped oxygen into its lungs.

His blunt (some might say toxic) style in the dressing room had perhaps played itself out, though. Given the fact the Flames had been eliminated in the first round of playoffs, and seeing as how Playfair apparently had been the man being groomed for the day Sutter kicked himself upstairs, the move made sense from a number of angles.

The time was right.

So what does Playfair have in his favor as he embarks on a job he's waited 13 years to land?

  • He's smart, and has more than paid his dues.

  • He's inherited a solid, if unspectacular team, blessed with the game's top goaltender and a genuinely inspirational captain; a top-half-of-the-West team that figures to be even more complete given the addition of the skillful Alex Tanguay on left wing.

  • After playing for Sutter in Indianapolis and spending the last three seasons under Sutter as an assistant (as well as coaching the Flames' farm club in Saint John before that and winning a Calder Cup in 2001), Playfair understands his boss' idiosyncrasies and flinty passion. There'll be no surprises between this GM and coach. Playfair has stood in the mouth of the cannon, in gear and in a suit.

  • People of stature within the hockey community believe he'll do very well. Philly coach Ken Hitchcock spoke encouragingly of his "curiosity"; Dallas Stars general manager Doug Armstrong guaranteed that Playfair possesses the necessary mean streak to make the difficult, unpopular decisions.

    "I believe Darryl respects me," Playfair said. "And that's crucial.

    "Obviously, I respect him. There are three or four people that profoundly affect your life or your career, and for me in this game, Darryl is one of those people. I also know I've earned this. I started coaching when I was 29. I thought, 'No problem, I'll be a head coach by the time I'm 35.' Well, I'm 42 now. That's seven years longer than I'd figured. I had to move my family around North America. I had to change jobs, change leagues, be the top guy and an assistant. I couldn't phone a buddy and say, 'Got a job?,' snap my fingers and be a head coach.

    "I put in my time, worked at it, and in retrospect, I believe those extra seven years have made me a better coach, better equipped to deal with this job now. When you have to have to wait for something, two things happen: You get frustrated and you develop a deeper passion to reach for it."

    The task of replacing someone as identified with the franchise as Sutter is with the Flames can be a daunting one.

    "Tell me about it," Armstrong said the other day. "I replaced Bob [Gainey]. Most times, you're coming into a situation that's been unsuccessful, so you can start fresh. But in my case, as in Jimmy's, it's not a fix-it mandate, it's a don't-screw-it-up. And that can be a lot harder to negotiate. Anyone in a new job wants to establish themselves, be their own man, put on their stamp, but when you inherit a job in a successful organization, you have to tread carefully."

    Although they are vastly different people, Playfair insisted his coaching style is not so markedly different from his predecessor's. After all, he learned his craft from a master. Playfair recalls vividly the night the Sutter-coached Indianapolis Ice won the International Hockey League championship. Playfair was the captain of that team.

    "He was really tough on us, very, very demanding, but in the end it was worth it. We won," Playfair said. "I remember Darryl wouldn't come on the ice when the game was over and join in the celebrations. We all skated over to the bench and 'Come on! Come on!' But he wouldn't. He just kept shaking his head and saying 'This is your time. You deserve it. Enjoy it.'

    "As I said before, all about the players."

    So years later, when Playfair coached the baby Flames to an AHL title, his mind drifted back to that night years before.

    How did he handle the identical situation?

    "I went on the ice. I had my kids passed down out of the stands and I told them, 'This is for all the school plays I missed and all the times I wasn't there. Go on,'" he said. "And they were running around the ice, having a great time. And I joined them.

    "Before I did go on the ice, though, I remembered back to Darryl. Remembered him not moving. But I'm Jim and he's Darryl. It was right for him, not for me. In the end, I decided not to stay on the bench."

    He smiled. "But, let me tell you, I thought about it."

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

    George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.