Sharks still feel Sutter's influence
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Darryl Sutter changed the franchise from the bottom up, erasing a losing culture and instilling passion in his players. He gave hope, pride and victories to a city full of downtrodden hockey fans.
The sour-faced, soft-spoken coach's two greatest creations will meet Sunday in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. This bit of serendipity apparently means nothing to Sutter, who claims his presence adds absolutely no significance to the series.
But try telling that to the Sharks who learned their craft under Sutter. They still feel Sutter's influence over their play, even while new coach Ron Wilson leads them to heights Sutter never reached in San Jose.
``Darryl was the biggest part of this organization,'' said goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who was transformed from an untested backup to a Calder Trophy winner during his first season with Sutter. ``To go against him right now is kind of exciting. He deserved the opportunity to do what he's doing in Calgary, and I'm happy he's doing so well.''
Over six seasons of steady improvement, Sutter turned the Sharks from laughingstocks into contenders, eventually winning the Pacific Division. When they regressed seven months later, he was fired Dec. 1, 2002.
``Personally it has zero, zero bearing,'' Sutter said. ``Every team now probably has 10 guys who have moved. I mean you separate it totally. I have a ton of respect for their organization and for the players I coached over there.''
Where Sutter stalled, Wilson has succeeded with a roster largely assembled by Sutter and former general manager Dean Lombardi. Wilson and new GM Doug Wilson overhauled the Sharks' style and attitude, leading them to the best season in franchise history _ followed by the Sharks' first trip to the conference finals and a date with Sutter.
Sutter and Ron Wilson have crossed paths countless times during two lives in hockey. They were even teammates in 1979 on an AHL team in Moncton, New Brunswick.
``We always stayed cordial and friendly,'' Wilson said. ``I don't know him as well as everybody else in this organization, but I have a lot of respect for what he and his whole family represent, in terms of hockey and their dedication to it.
``He is going to know individuals on our team, but I wouldn't say he has an edge, because we play a completely different style of game than when he was around. The only thing that's the same is the jersey and the team name.''
But Sutter's groundwork can be seen everywhere. In the hallway leading to the Sharks' locker room, Sutter's staff put up plaques featuring photographs of every NHL trophy for individual and team success, along with blank spots for the yet-to-be-added names of San Jose winners.
Sutter's staff also put up the 4-foot-tall puck display case in the shape of a Stanley Cup. It holds 16 pucks _ one for each victory necessary to win a title.
``Darryl helped us learn how to compete in the NHL,'' said defenseman Mike Rathje, the longest-tenured San Jose player. ``He taught about professionalism and responsibility, all the things you need to succeed.''
Sutter built the Sharks as a bruising, grinding club _ not dirty, but a hard-nosed team behind gritty captain Owen Nolan. He has done the same in Calgary, where the Flames make up for a lack of overwhelming talent with their work ethic: They award an ugly, green hard hat to the hardest-working player after each victory.
But when Wilson took over, he saw the Sharks' greatest untapped strength _ a collection of speedy, talented forwards just waiting for somebody to cut them loose from Sutter's system.
Starting with summer workouts after last season's early end, Wilson taught a forecheck-intensive, puck-possession scheme. The new Sharks work every bit as hard as Sutter's team, but play to their strengths much more.
Finally tired of a dozen mediocre years with unproven leaders, the Flames scooped up Sutter 27 days after he was fired. From nearly the first day, Sutter has been a wild success in his home province of Alberta _ and Calgary's current playoff run only endears him more, particularly since he became the Flames' GM after last season.
And though Sutter downplays it, he enjoyed his time and work in San Jose, where he won 192 games and started something big.
``Darryl can say all he wants that it has no impact on him,'' Wilson said. ``I know how I felt a year, two years after (getting fired) when we played Anaheim. I wanted to beat them really bad.''
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press