When all was said and done, Darryl Sutter remained Darryl Sutter right up until the very end… and even beyond.
Just days removed from being fired in Los Angeles, he was back in a very familiar setting – about an hour outside of downtown, watching the Kings AHL affiliate in Ontario. Unlike previous visits, which provided the dual purpose of scouting potential future players and watching his son, this trip was all about the latter. Trailing 3-2 late in the third period, Brett delivered too; scoring the game-tying goal. Perhaps true to the theme of the week, there was no happy ending, though. The Reign would go on to a 4-3 shootout loss, and soon thereafter, we caught up with Sutter.
Right out of the gates, we wanted to know if he was disappointed with how his tenure came to a close with the Kings.
“It’s not really the end of it,” he said, which was somewhat confusing. “Last year wasn’t disappointing; it was a 100-point year. You know what, they have a new General Manager and want new coaches; good luck, all the best.”
Experts say there are five stages to grief and/or loss, beginning with Stage 1: Denial. Next, things morph into Stage 2: Anger.
“The team just had the best six years in their illustrious career and everybody should be immensely… I was hired by Dean Lombardi, not by anybody else,” LA’s former coach would go on to say.
While Sutter certainly helped bring respectability to the Kings franchise, and permanently raised the level of expectation, he also alienated many, including several prominent members of the Kings locker room and management.
Several sources have told us, Lombardi wanted to terminate Sutter in the summer of 2015, following the Kings missing the playoffs. However, AEG owner Phil Anschutz wasn’t on board with the plan and the two decided to let Sutter ride out the final year of his contract (the 2015-16 season) – feeling he had earned that respect and it was worth seeing what would happen the following campaign. When the Kings were bounced from the playoffs in round one about 12 months later, it made for some fairly strained times in Los Angeles. Lombardi and his management team – along with ownership – wrestled with the decision of what to do next with Sutter. Eventually, he was offered a contract extension.
While there are several layers of interesting tidbits in this portion of the narrative, one curious element has always been our understanding that there was some sort of a handshake deal between Sutter and Lombardi. Call it a Gentleman’s Agreement, used in-part to coax him out of retirement in 2011; whereby Lombardi would never fire Sutter. It would be the coach who could write his own script when it eventually came time for him to step away from behind the Kings bench.
“You have to remember, in our business,” Sutter began, when we asked about the existence of such an agreement between him and Lombardi. “That really has nothing to do with it. Dean didn’t fire me. They brought in a new General Manager. If I was the new General Manager, I would hire a new coach. I was a General Manager [in Calgary] too. Los Angeles is a great organization and hopefully they get the opportunity to win another championship sometime.”
Not content with that reply, we tried asking the question again – did such a deal exist?
“I couldn’t tell you,” he said, reverting back into coach form; as if we had just asked who his starting goaltender was going to be that evening.
Regardless, of how the firing went down, has he had any time to process what went wrong since the Cup victory in 2014, missing the playoffs twice in three years, or maybe even just went wrong with this year’s team?
“Yeah,” he remarked without any hesitation. “Jonathan Quick got hurt. Tyler Toffoli got hurt. Everybody talks about scoring, but you have to remember – this team scored more goals this year than they did the first year they won the Cup. It’s just that our goals went down the last two years. We lost two or three guys who are good goal scorers. You just don’t replace them. Part of winning Stanley Cups is, don’t plug kids in because you don’t draft high enough. When you win Cups, you’re picking late.”
There is a lot to detangle in there, some of which we’ll get to in later articles. For now, note this – the loss of Quick this season cannot be measured in purely stats. He is one of the most competitive guys inside the locker room and is a true leader among the current group of players. Add in what Matt Greene brings to that room, and two key guys were not there to help support Anze Kopitar during what could easily be described as a transitional leadership year. Don’t underestimate how much that impacted what you saw on the ice, and more importantly, what was going on behind closed doors to get them ready for each game.
Toffoli’s time out of the lineup most definitely took goals off the board. However, the team’s scoring issues were deeper rooted; so much so that there isn’t a concise way to summarize that topic. And, yes, they did win two Stanley Cups using Sutter’s defensive-first approach.
Circling back to the topic at hand, many saw last year’s contract extension as Sutter winning again. This wasn’t about a final score flashing on a scoreboard or a trophy being raised. Instead, he was going to finally put his ultimate stamp on the team. Dustin Brown would no longer be captain, as the two had long been feuding privately – largely over disagreements regarding Brown’s performance on the ice. Publicly, both tried to play nice last summer, talking extensively about their relationship and trying to find some common ground.
Like so many things surrounding the Kings in recent times, Sutter’s firing wasn’t a singular issue. It wasn’t about a lack of scoring. It wasn’t about Brown. It wasn’t about losing the room.
It was simply time and everybody knew it. Heck, perhaps it could have even been predicted.
Sutter spent five-plus seasons coaching in Chicago. He spent five-plus seasons behind the bench in San Jose. His five-plus seasons in Calgary included time spent as coach and General Manager.
Guess how long he was in Los Angeles.
You already know; five-plus seasons.
“We talked the next day [after the season ended],” Sutter said, when we asked how quickly he knew his fate as the Kings bench-boss. “I talked to [Luc] Robitaille, [Rob] Blake, then over the last couple of days, Mr. Anschutz and Dan Beckerman [CEO of AEG].”
It doesn’t even sound like there was much bargaining, which usually doesn’t come until Stage 3 anyway.
Were there any conversations about him staying on or was it immediately a notification of his services no longer being needed?
“You’d have to talk to them,” he said quickly, and it was obvious he was ready for the next question.
Let’s forget Step 4: Depression. Maybe we can be optimists here and put a new spin on things.
Besides the two Stanley Cups, what are a few of your favorite memories in Los Angeles?
“I don’t look at it like that,” he quipped, in true Darryl Sutter form, appearing to twist an easy question into something more complex. “We went to Conference Finals, we had a 100-point season. It’s really quite spectacular. Other than two or three years when Wayne Gretzky was in Los Angeles, the best five or six years have been the last five or six. That’s pretty cool.”
He even bucked the trend when asked about the possibility of coaching again. Many close to the situation believe he’s coached his last NHL game. Sutter once had talked about never wanting to come back, and the fact he did so was only because of his relationship with Lombardi. Having worked together in San Jose, yet never really winning anything, they had some unfinished business of sorts.
Today is different. He’s rewritten any concerns about his legacy. Any doubts surrounding his greatness have long-been erased via the two Stanley Cups he helped bring to Los Angeles. His status as one of the legendary coaches of the game is firmly intact.
How about it then, what does the future hold – will he coach again or is this the end?
“I wasn’t really looking for…” Sutter remarked, likely referring to when Lombardi called him up in 2011. “I’m not going out soliciting. I have one of the best records in the history of the National Hockey League. If somebody is getting ready to win, that’s what they do; you hire really good coaches when you’re getting ready to win. Until you’re doing that, you don’t.”
Speaking of the last time he wasn’t really looking for a job…
At a December 2011 press conference, following Lombardi formally introducing Sutter to local media, we chatted with the then-GM off to the side, in one of his typical informal scrums after those type of gatherings. This was often where he shared the most valuable nuggets of information and pure quotes that were pure gems; way better stuff than he usually provided when the cameras were on. That particular afternoon, at a hotel conference room, just blocks from the team’s training facility in El Segundo, the most memorable moment of our conversation came in the form of Lombardi emphatically repeating that Sutter was not the man most believed he was. Further, Lombardi implored us to ignore what had previously heard or read about the new Kings coach. Be patient with him, Lombardi instructed; over time, you will see how different he truly is compared to the way most people paint him publicly. That was the advice.
In our dealings with him, Sutter, in fact, turned out to be both while coaching in Los Angeles. He was the overly-driven, maniacal task master who had an insane library of hockey knowledge at his constant fingertips. He was also surly if he didn’t like your question, to the point of being downright rude. Conversely, he was funny – very funny, in fact – and usually when you least expected it. He was quirky. He was shy. He was socially awkward. And he was patient, especially one-one-one. Some of the best moments with him are the ones that shouldn’t really be publicly shared. They are the little taps he would give or the little winks he would offer. One thing became apparent with each passing interaction. He wasn’t the man who was ran out of Calgary. He was much, much more complex.
And the perfect epitome of Sutter, the man who always kept us on our toes, may have been the beginning of our final interaction. He made eye contact from 20-feet across the room, then proceed to make a beeline over, with a huge smile. Opening pleasantries, which could have easily been awkward, were some of the kindest words we’ve shared. He extended his hand and genuinely asked how things were going, coming from a place of caring, not just idle chit-chat.
Eventually, we recorded an interview, gathering his thoughts, as shared above. Moments later, he exited a side door of Citizen’s Business Bank Arena, and as he passed a small group of fans waiting for several of the Reign players, one of them yelled out, ‘We still love you, Darryl’ – to which he quickly replied, ‘Peace.’
Yes, coach. Peace.
Love you or loath you, or some combination of both, we are approaching Stage 5: Acceptance as one. After all, everybody needs to eventually get there on this issue, right?
Peace to you. Peace to Chris (who some would argue was the lone highlight at Staples Center many nights the past few months). Peace to the entire Sutter family back home in Alberta; they have all given so much to the game we love.
Peace out, Darryl.
It was a memorable ride.
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