Aw-Shucks Attitude a Cover for Sutter

Last time I checked, the Kings weren’t scoring, writers were saying that their defense-first attitude wasn’t working, and a coach called Murray was being fired. Off I went to Mexico City for Christmas, and along the way, learned that Murray was being replaced by one of the most dour men in all of sports, Darryl Sutter.

I predicted what made sense to me—that Sutter would come in and put an end to the Hollywood distractions that the sunshine and glamour of being young and rich can impart and make the guys who play for the Kings believe that they’re actually in Canada, where hockey matters more than anything and to play poorly is to live with shame.

The team would then win, but it would be no fun, at least, not for the players under Sutter’s farm-hardened thumb. Fans, however, would finally get the team they have been demanding for decades, and perhaps, the Stanley Cup they so long for.

I was wrong on almost every count, except that Sutter has had success, which it seemed apparent he would given his record up the road in San Jose in the early part of the 2000s.

His attitude, for one, is not the soul-crushing thing that it appeared to be (looking from a distance, because Calgary is about 1600 miles from LA). In fact, his approach is light and fun, or it has been in the early days. “Easy,” you’re probably thinking, “when you come in and win.” Sutter’s early record was 5 wins and 3 OT points in eight games.

Many think, however, that when success recedes, things will change. Sutter, speaking after his team lost a frustrating 1-0 game to the Columbus Blue Jackets, statistically the worst team in the league (though they exit the game with the same number of goals for as the LA team), said that’s not the case. When asked if he’d change his approach, he said, “I don’t think so, I mean, I’ve told them to play hard. We did everything we wanted to do, except score on the power play, so I think you can’t beat them up over that.”

But the team still isn’t scoring, obvious by the tally of Saturday’s game. What gives? Nobody knows. Even on the power play, the Kings are useless. Columbus gave them nine chances, including Samuel Pahlsson taking two different penalties against two different Kings on one play and Grant Clitsome, who had scored the game’s only goal at about 11 minutes of the second, putting a puck over the glass to give the Kings a final stab with about a minute and a half left in the game.

Nothing the Kings did worked, though they directed 31 shots at Curtis Sanford. They also had 20 blocked, a nod to the defense of the Jackets.

This is the first loss Sutter has had to face, and he took forever getting into the press room after the game. Two jokes were told while we waited. “He’s out looking for his power play,” was one. “I told you I’d coach this team until we lost” the other.

The coach came into the room with a purposeful stride, then stood and waited for questions, looking at the microphone in front of him. When he spoke, it was hard to pick out the words at times.

Sutter’s got a low rumble for a voice, and he’s maybe the most shy person ever to have held a position as prominent as coach of an NHL team. He gives the sense of the country bumpkin in a Mark Twain novel having stumbled into the big city by accident, his speech punctuated with “right?” at the end of most sentences, when there are complete sentences. Sometimes, his answers are just fragments.

When asked about the power play, he said, “You know what? You’ve got to just keep banging away. It ain’t about being fancy or [pause] keep… keep trying to score goals, keep trying… I think we can still do better, kids on the point shootin’, uh, especially Johnny [Jack Johnson] just hope he can hit the net more.” The statement goes on, but you get the idea. And those ellipses are not subtractions, but rather more pauses. There’s no polish at all.

It’s a ruse. The guy is anything but what his words might make him out to be. Listen carefully to the content of what he says, and his full awareness of what’s happening with his team is clear. For instance, when asked about goalie Jonathan Quick’s performance, he talked about not being willing to criticize him, and then said, “Hell, we’ve played three 1-0 games in the last two weeks, that’s gotta be, you don’t question any of those. Next game, we’ll be ready.”

When the follow-up came asking whether he’s concerned about all of these one-goal contests, he said, “What do you do, right? There’s quite a lot of teams in the league that wish they had 1-0 games.” If there were more inflection, you might take this for anger, but there’s not enough emphasis for that.

Rather, Sutter, take him for what he is, is a hockey guy through and through. And by refusing to answer what are essentially ill thought-out questions, he has subtly fired a shot across the bow of the local press corps. When things like “do you like the intensity today?” come, he just ignores the question and redirects to a specific point about the game. He’ll cite numbers, like who has scored lately, and what kinds of policy directives are being made by the league. Commenting on the number of penalties given out Saturday, for instance, he said, “Watching other games this afternoon, there’s lots of penalties called in the games, all of them played today. I don’t know if [inaudible] has been sent a letter or what.”

What to take from this? Thing is, even when Sutter does get around to explaining what’s going on with the team, it’s going to be all one can do to understand him, but for those with the patience to do it, the reward will be hockey sense like what hasn’t been seen in this town for a long time.

Kings Notes

Dustin Penner was scratched right before the game, with speculation being that “upper body injury” was a way to allow him to save face. Not so. The coach reported that he’s got back trouble, and could barely walk this morning.

For those of you Hollywood watchers Pat Sajak was there, looking sharp in a black jacket.

I’ve finally joined the Twitter horde. Please follow me @growinguphockey

And buy the new book, My Country Is Hockey, whether you’re Canadian or American!

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