Sutter attitude goes a long way

Updated: May 24, 2004, 3:42 PM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Miikka Kiprusoff in exchange for a conditional draft choice (second or third round)? Incredible!

Ville Nieminen in exchange for Jason Morgan and another conditional pick? Highway robbery!

Marcus Nilson in exchange for a second-rounder at this summer's entry draft meat market? The height of absurdity!

Why, Kiprusoff is only the centerpiece of the Calgary Flames' wacky, exhilarating run to the Stanley Cup finals ("They believe he's impenetrable," praises Philadelphia's Jeremy Roenick. "And when a team's got that kind of faith in its goaltender, it's like an electric current runs through everybody. You believe you're capable of anything") and a possible Vezina Trophy winner. While the mouthy, pesky Nieminen and quiet, underrated Nilson comprise two-thirds of the team's most consistent line during these playoffs.

Yes, they're patchwork as your granny's favorite hand-stitched quilt, but what's at work here is about more than magic, more than mojo, more than manifest destiny, as utterly romantic as those things might seem.

Of all the moves brokered by the Calgary Flames since April 2003, the close of their seventh consecutive non-playoff season, the one that has carried the most impact didn't even involve a player:

It was Darryl Sutter assuming the dual role of coach and general manager.

Because the construction of this team (and it is a construction, only three of the starting 20 at the moment are Calgary draft picks), the setting-in-motion of these past seven unforgettable weeks, is about the implementation of an attitude, of an identity (to trot out a careworn hockey-ism), rather than about X's and O's or the skill level of individual players.

That is why a talent-thin team has been able to hang in despite the losses of No. 2 center Steve Reinprecht and two of its top six defensemen, Denis Gauthier and Toni Lydman. That is why whenever they seemed on the verge of crumbling, they have risen from the ashes to slay first the Vancouver Canucks, then the Detroit Red Wings and finally the San Jose Sharks.

All three division winners. All three 100-point teams.

As in all unexpected success stories of this sort, a measure of deserved credit has been unfairly misplaced or largely forgotten in the noisy fanfare. Long-gone GM Al Coates, for example, is directly responsible for two of the current team's three vital building blocks -- inexhaustible defenseman Robyn Regehr and captain/superstar/Olympic hero/all-around-good-guy Jarome Iginla. Coates, heavily criticized at the times of the deals, was savvy enough to snare such unpolished gems when forced to offload high-profile star veterans Theo Fleury and Joe Nieuwendyk over money issues.

His vision played a vital part. But these days Coates is working in Anaheim, trying to help sift through the rubble of the Mighty Ducks' season-gone-wrong.

Sutter's managerial successor, Craig Button, while understandably vilified for offloading upcoming Hart Trophy winner Martin St. Louis and last spring's Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere without so much as a cursory glance, can still take credit for bringing serial series-killer Martin Gelinas, puck-handling defenseman Jordan Leopold, faceoff ace Stephane Yelle (a particular Sutter favorite) and top-line centerman Craig Conroy, among others, into the fold.

He, too, had a hand. But now Button works as a guest analyst for the Canadian sports network The Score.

And if you care to go waaaaaaay back, current Minnesota Wild general manager Doug Risebrough just happens to be the man who selected rambunctious right winger Chris Clark, with the 77th pick in the '94 draft.

Yet Sutter has been the one to take all the disparate parts and pull them together into a cohesive whole.

The Rhett Warrener/Steve Reinprecht trade that sent Chris Drury to the Buffalo Sabres is a keeper. Signing the Polish Hammer, Krzysztof Oliwa, has worked out well, too, provided some beef and a new icon for the upper-deck fanatics at the Pengrowth Saddledome. backup goaltender Jamie McLennan was arguably the best-liked individual in the room, but Chris Simon's marauding menace means more on the ice.

Most everything Sutter the GM has done has turned into hand-spun gold. But building a group of players is one thing, building a team quite another. That has been left to Sutter the coach, Sutter the manipulator, Sutter the motivator.

All season long, he has gone about fostering the old bunker mentality, cultivated an Us vs. Everyone mind-set, flaying the creaky underdog angle whenever possible. And his players have bought in, hook, line and sinker.

The Flames may not be the best team left standing in the playoffs, but they are the hardest working. Hands down.

"I have never, to a man, seen 20 guys do whatever it takes to win the way these 20 guys do," praises retired center Joel Otto, now a part of the Flames' alumni. "Never. It's ... well, incredible is what it is. Jarome is a superstar, but he's working man's superstar. He sets the tone, and they all follow. Right through the lineup, they give an unbelievable effort."

They play with passion. They play with purpose. They play like a Sutter. Iginla, Conroy, they all do.

This team is tighter than a fist.

"The way I look at it," says Terry Crisp, the man who skippered Calgary to its lone Stanley Cup triumph, way back in '89, "is like this: There are tough gangs, and then there are biker gangs. Calgary is a biker gang. A biker gang doesn't give a [bleep]. They are going to kick the crap out of you, doesn't matter where, doesn't matter how and doesn't matter who.

"You watch the player interviews. I think they're great, a real tip-off to where the team is at. So calm. So level. I remember Bear Bryant telling his players that under no circumstances did he want to see anyone celebrate a touchdown. Absolutely no hot-dogging. 'Boys,' he'd tell them in the dressing room, 'act like it's no big deal that you got to the end zone, and act as if you're planning on being back soon.'

"That, to me, is the way the Flames act right now."

It's the way they'll act in the final, too, because it's now the only way they know.

What's happening now might seem from the outside to be an overnight sensation. But in actuality it takes in many years, much upheaval, a lot of suffering and gambles, both won and lost.

It's about grit. About shrewd bartering on a tight budget. About one man and a single power base who has consolidated everything and in so doing made the unbelievable seem somehow possible. And, too, it's about the contributions of former allies who have moved on, to other organizations, other challenges.

In a sense, though, they, too, are in on this. Four wins away from glory.

One team now stands in the way. Terry Crisp, for one, knows whom his money's on.

"My question," he says mischievously, "is not: Can the Flames can keep up to them? It's: Can they keep up to the Flames?"

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.

ALSO SEE