Sutter concocts transparent ploy

Updated: June 3, 2004, 11:54 AM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Having apparently ruled out sex as an option, Calgary Flames coach Darryl Sutter opted for controversy to help bring some much needed attention to the Stanley Cup finals.

Not surprisingly, it works for him and, oddly enough, the National Hockey League, as well.

On Wednesday, Sutter all but accused NHL commissioner Gary Bettman of dictating the terms of the one-game suspension handed to Flames forward Ville Nieminen for Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday (ABC, 8 ET).

He also strongly implied that not only does the league not want Calgary to win the Stanley Cup, but it also did not want the Flames here in the first place.

He fudged the truth about whether Nieminen had made the trip from Calgary.

Then, after blaming the media for its role in the Nieminen suspension, he finished his news conference by declaring his players unavailable.

All in all, it was a horribly transparent ploy designed to embarrass the league and set us all off on a story line that has next to nothing to do with the prickly situation he and the Flames are facing -- beating Tampa Bay in a two-out-of three games series while the Lightning hold home-ice advantage. Give Sutter credit in at least one area though, he has a wicked sense of humor.

Pressed on the suspension to Nieminen, Sutter said: "The decisions are made in New York not in Toronto."

Bettman's offices are located in New York, while Colin Campbell, the league's executive vice president and director of hockey operations and the man charged with supplemental discipline, works out of Toronto.

Sutter also said that during the playoffs his team "lost three players total to injuries and there was a total of two minutes called, not -- that's as far as it went. So fine, we know what we're up against. We're the underdog. We've said that. I am not saying it now to make a point, but it's dead on true. We're the little team that wasn't supposed to be here, and a lot of people don't want us to be here and want to make sure that we're not successful.

"We know that."

Pardon us if we take an editorial pause here to both put on our hip boots and reflect upon the consequences of those remarks.

First off, Sutter isn't entirely wrong. The commissioner's office does sometimes get involved in both the suspension hearings and the discipline imposed. It comes with the job description and -- in this instance -- happens to be in writing (not always the case regarding NHL rules). If Sutter knows for a fact that Bettman had a hand in this, it would be because of one of two possibilities: Either Campbell told him or he was making it up.

Regarding the poor, persecuted Flames, the little team from Canada against the world, excuse me while I laugh out loud. If there's anything sustainable about the rhetoric surrounding this series so far it's that Sutter is playing that card so far beyond the high-roller limit he would be booted out of Las Vegas. Unfortunately for hockey, however, there are huge numbers of Canadians who believe this stuff.

By virtue of location, the Flames have emerged as Canada's team. And from the actions of the coach and the reactions in some media, one has almost to stop and remind one's self that Nieminen did indeed hit Lecavalier with an elbow in the head from behind with intent and injured him. On a non-Stanley Cup playoff day, that's often good for anywhere from a three-game suspension to a Todd Bertuzzi-like dismissal.

The commissioner was not pleased by Sutter's tack.

"Mr. Sutter's comments were ill-advised, inappropriate and inaccurate," Bettman said in response to numerous requests for comment. "The focus of the Stanley Cup Final should be on the ice, and to the extent any response is needed to any gamesmanship off the ice, it will be made after the Final is over."

Campbell held a lengthy press conference to defend his one-game decision, fending off a number of inquires about why a repeat offender who delivered a blow to the head only got one game.

In true NHL fashion, Campbell said the rules are simply different in the playoffs.

Sutter then had enough brass in his extremities to say that even one game was a media-orchestrated event.

"Hey, the media is a powerful tool, believe me," he said. "And it's unfortunate that's what ends up -- you know, I hold myself responsible because I don't bitch and whine in the media.

"So that's something I have learned, that you should bitch and complain and whine, and it has an impact."

Sutter never did address who, in fact, was doing the complaining. Though the implication was strong that it was opposing coach John Tortorella, the Lightning coach refused to address the issue after the game and said even less about it on Wednesday. It was, for him, a don't-go-there affair.

Which is not to say that the Lightning don't conspire to get their story straight either. Posted in their room was a message advising the players to meet at 3:15 before media availability, presumably to get their story straight about the hit, the suspension and Lecavalier's readiness for Game 5. If so, Lecavalier might have missed the notice or part of the meeting, because he said he felt great and would play in Game 5 minutes after his coach refused to discuss it.

Which brings the manure wagon full circle.

A series nobody is watching -- and even fewer people are writing about -- now has a story line that has almost nothing to do with on-ice performance or off-ice personality and everybody is clamoring to get a piece of it.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE