EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – The Los Angeles Kings weren’t immediately sweet on the Jolly Rancher.
When coach Darryl Sutter took over in December after Terry Murray’s firing, his doleful facial expressions and that low-pitched, gravelly voice bedeviled the Kings. They couldn’t figure out when Sutter was joking, when he was being serious—or even what the heck he wanted sometimes.
“I couldn’t understand anything he was saying when he first came,” Kings defenceman Drew Doughty said. “I always made sure when drills were happening to be at the back of the line.”
The Kings have decoded Sutter by now, and the coach has unraveled most of the problems that nearly wrecked their season. In his fourth NHL coaching stop, Sutter might have done his finest work yet, putting Los Angeles on the verge of a second-round sweep of powerful St. Louis in Game 4 on Sunday.
Everybody in hockey knows Sutter is the third of seven brothers from Viking, Alberta, about 75 miles east of the Edmonton suburbs that claim Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. Sutter got his nickname—the Jolly Rancher—during his tenure as coach and general manager of the Calgary Flames, a brilliant bit of Canadian sarcasm about the coach’s serious approach to most everything, but also that perpetually scrunched-up face that looks like he’s always sucking on sour candy.
Sutter might be a bit out of place in other parts of glitzy L.A., but he’s right at home around the Kings’ training complex, a few miles away from the house he’s renting from Murray in Manhattan Beach. The Kings’ surge is some of his most impressive work in a life spent in hockey as a player, coach and executive.
The Kings are one win away from their first trip to the conference finals since 1993, and Sutter’s players say he did much of the groundwork for their revitalized season.
Once they figured him out, that is.
“The first few weeks, it was hard to understand,” captain Dustin Brown said. “Now he barely has to say anything to get through practice. We pretty much know what we’re doing. He communicates pretty well with us. The first couple of weeks, there was a lot of practices we didn’t know what we were doing.”
Sutter rejects any notion of credit for the Kings’ 7-1 run through the post-season, saying he’s “just along for the ride” and refusing to get excited about what the longtime also-rans have accomplished, noting they’re still one difficult win away from even getting halfway to raising the Stanley Cup.
But Sutter seems quietly proud he was able to reach the Kings, drawing a stellar late-season run out of a talented team that hadn’t figured out the mental tenacity necessary to win big game.
“It’s a misconception that guys yell and holler,” said Sutter, whose voice rarely goes above a conversational growl. “The only reason you holler is because the crowd is loud. I think that’s a dinosaur. The best coaches I’ve played for and worked with are straight-up, straight shooters, and they would look at you and tell you the truth.”
He’s still a bit scary to the 22-year-old Doughty, who got a tongue-lashing in the first round when he got caught checking out a television in between periods of the Kings’ only post-season loss last month.
“I kind of wait for him to smile after he says whatever he has to say,” Doughty said. “I don’t want to be laughing when he’s serious.”
Sutter said he took the Los Angeles job as a favour to general manager Dean Lombardi, the old friend who hired him in San Jose, in a last-ditch attempt to save the Kings’ season and possibly Lombardi’s own job. Murray was fired after Los Angeles’ talented roster couldn’t manage to score goals or win games, stumbling badly near midseason.
The Kings needed a while to get on Sutter’s wavelength, but they’ve been a better team ever since.
“Darryl brings a different style of coaching, definitely more intensity, more in-your-face attitude,” defenceman Matt Greene said. “I think some guys needed somebody to get in their face.”
Greene describes Sutter and Murray as “polar opposites,” saying Murray often allowed players to figure out their own solutions to problems. Nobody could solve the Kings’ scoring woes before Murray’s firing, and Sutter’s team didn’t figure it out for another couple of months until Jeff Carter arrived at the trade deadline.
“He pushes the right buttons,” Brown said. “One problem we had as a team before he got here was getting emotionally attached to a game. He brought that emotional level up. … Sometimes he’s hard to read. He jokes around a lot, and then he can flip it around and be pretty serious. It’s a good balance.”