CALGARY – An NHL general manager hiring his brother to coach is novel enough, but a rival club speeding that process is extraordinary.
Calgary Flames GM Daryl Sutter introduced his younger brother Brent as the club’s new head coach Tuesday to bring the number of Sutters in the organization to five.
Brother Duane is director of player personnel, brother Ron is a scout and Darryl’s son Brett played for the Flames farm team last season.
New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello accelerated Brent’s arrival in Calgary by giving Darryl permission to hire his brother. Brent resigned from the Devils on June 8 with one year remaining on his contract.
“Obviously Lou giving the Flames permission to talk to me, I’m not sure under normal circumstances that would happen,” Brent admitted Tuesday.
“Him understanding the uniqueness of the whole thing, the communication from the get-go that he and I had, he felt like he wanted to allow me to coach in the National Hockey League if that could happen.”
Brent behind the Flames bench makes sense given his coaching talent and the Sutters’ deep hockey roots in Alberta.
But his hiring raises questions of nepotism. His departure from the Devils was unusual, given he’d coached the team 97-56-11 regular-season record in his first two seasons as an NHL coach.
The 47-year-old from Viking, Alta., insisted he didn’t leave the Devils with the intention of coaching the Flames and he didn’t make the decision to do so until this past weekend.
Brent reiterated he wanted to be closer to his family and his business ventures, which are his ranch and the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels.
“When I did resign from my position, I was very content and perfectly fine with the fact that I may never ever coach again in the National Hockey League, I might not coach for a year, I might not coach for two years,” Brent said. “I didn’t know.”
Darryl said the Sutter name played no part in hiring Brent.
“I’m the GM, Brent’s the head coach and this is the coaching staff,” he said. “They were the very best people available. It didn’t really matter what their last name was.”
The two have worked together before as Darryl coached Brent when he played for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Flames president Ken King wasn’t concerned about a plethora of Sutters working in the organization.
“If there was any grave concern about it, we wouldn’t do it,” King said. “We’re not concerned about them having the same last name.
“What we are concerned about is who they are as individuals and who they are as people and where they have been and what their expectations are and understanding what our expectations are.”
The Flames also named Ryan McGill, Dave Lowry and Jamie McLennan assistant coaches Tuesday.
Darryl said he asked Lamoriello’s permission to hire Brent on June 12 and when asked if the Flames had to pay any compensation to the Devils, he replied no.
This marks the third coaching change in four seasons for the Flames. Mike Keenan was fired on May 23 after two seasons.
Brent coached Canada to back-to-back titles at the world junior hockey championships in 2005 and 2006 and his Rebels were perennially one of the strongest in the Canadian Hockey League when he was coach and general manager of the club.
The Flames underachieved last season with a fourth straight exit in the first round of the playoffs, despite spending up to the US$56.7-million salary cap to build for a long post-season run.
Calgary led the Northwest Division by 13 points in January, but injuries and inconsistent play eroded that cushion and cost Calgary home-ice advantage in the post-season. The Flames finished fifth in the Western Conference with a 46-30-6 record.
Changes expected under Brent next season are a return to defence and a reduction in the workload of goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff. Darryl pointed out after firing Keenan that his team had gone from No. 1 in the league in defence in 2005-06 to 23rd this season.
“Defensive hockey for a coach is the easiest part of the game to teach,” Brent said. “Defensive hockey isn’t just about how you play in your own zone. Defensive hockey is about how you play in the neutral zone, the offensive zone, defensive hockey is about puck possession time. There’s a lot of things involved in it.
“You need everyone committed to doing it. A good defensive team doesn’t mean you can’t be a good team offensively either.”
Brent is expected to get more out of Calgary’s big four: Kiprusoff, captain Jarome Iginla and defencemen Robyn Regehr and Dion Phaneuf.
“When I said it’s a tough group to coach it’s because we have a lot of top players,” Darry said. “You need that strong leadership from your coaching staff.”
Brent’s relationship with Phaneuf is considered an asset. The one-time Norris Trophy nominee dropped to a minus-11 last season. Brent was a major influence on Phaneuf’s development for the NHL as he coached Phaneuf four seasons with the Rebels and at the 2005 world junior championship.
“Do I know Dion? Yes I do,” Brent said. “Have I spent time with Dion since he became a player in the NHL? No I haven’t. We still have that relationship going back to junior hockey.”
Darryl coached the Flames to the Stanley Cup final in 2004, when they lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games. He vacated that position in 2006 and continued as GM. Darryl counted himself among the candidates to coach the team before hiring his brother.
Flames winger Craig Conroy played for Darryl and says he’ll be interested to see if one Sutter’s coaching style is similar to another’s.
“There’s goals to be scored, but I think you’re going to play in your own zone and you’re not going to take a ton of chances where your just going to leave the zone early and do different things,” Conroy said. “If you do, you’re probably not going to play a lot.”
Another unique aspect of Brent’s hiring is his Rebels are rivals of the Calgary Hitmen, who are owned by the Flames. Those interests won’t clash in Flames front office, said Brent.
“As Mr. King says, there’s a Chinese wall,” Brent said with a chuckle.