The hockey players in LA mostly say the right things: “We’ve got to work hard. This is a great place to play. We love the fans here.” And it’s probably all true, on one level.
But the fact is, they can walk their dogs or go to the movies without causing a stir in this town. Sure, they might be recognized, but star sightings happen all the time, and in Los Angeles, hockey players aren’t stars, except to a few devoted fans. They’re just guys from somewhere else who play the third most-important sport in town after the Dodgers and the Lakers.
What that means is that despite what they say, there’s really not a lot of pressure. There aren’t the dozens of reporters at every practice that you see in Toronto. There aren’t the four pages of newspaper coverage every day, all year long that’s in Montreal or Vancouver.
Fact is, it’s easy to play hockey here, because not that many people care. It’s true that those who do care care a lot, and that they know the game. Listen to the post-game talk radio show after the Kings’ home contests, and you’ll hear fans as informed as any in the league. But there aren’t a hundred thousand of them, or a million. So playing the game here is a relatively low-pressure affair.
At least until today. Because with the hiring of new coach Darryl Sutter, that all changes, and from moment one, the proverbial poop is going to hit the fan. This guy doesn’t just bring a winning record with him. He brings a take-no-crap attitude, both in terms of how he’s going to ask his guys to play the game and in how he will treat them.
There’s not going to be any more fun-in-the-sun attitude, big-time money distractions, and aspiring starlets hanging around as eye candy. Well, it’s LA, so actually, there will be all of these things. But Sutter’s not going to let anyone be distracted by them, as might happen to a young person with a few million bucks in his bank account. (Not saying it’s ever been proved to be a problem, but focus is what’s needed, and he’ll bring that.)
In short, the showbiz aspect of being a professional athlete in one of the richest cities in the world is, as of right now, O-V-E-R, and anyone who doesn’t like it, well, they’re as likely to find themselves in Edmonton as in North Carolina as fast as their limo driver can get them to LAX to fly there, one-way.
What Sutter brings with him is old-time hockey, which causes scars on the face and doesn’t let you stop until you’re about ready to puke. It’s not the kind of pretty, stylish game that the Oilers of old played, or the free-flowing whirl of a game in Washington. It’s the kind of hockey that someone like Bobby Clark played to get him the heck out of Flin Flon, Manitoba, where the single greatest aspiration was to finish school and then work in the mines.
It’s the kind of hockey that tough men have always played, the kind that causes havoc on the ice and sees the game bore into the soul of everyone who wears the uniform of his team, all day, all night, all the time.
It’s hockey as it’s played in the remote corners of Canada, places like Brandon, Manitoba, home of the Wheat Kings. It’s the kind of hockey that allows a guy who was drafted in the 11th round to make it in Red Deer, Alberta and then go on the play over 400 games in Chicago, which is what Sutter himself did.
This is not going to be fun for the players he inherits from Terry Murray, himself an effective and successful coach and a truly gentlemanly person.
Nope, not fun. Downright miserable at times. But it’s what LA’s got to do, because this is it. If this doesn’t work, if the team Lombardi has capably put together, which features guys with potential–Richards, Brown, Kopitar, Williams, Doughty–but who haven’t made it work, will have to be blown up and begun again.
The GM knows there are no half measures now. It’s all or nothing. That’s why he didn’t hire another mild-mannered guy, or someone with potential but no experience, or someone who is going to out-think the players the way Andy Murray would.
Instead, he went right to the gut with the knee, Thai-boxing style. And it did some damage. But it’s what might just get this team going, finally.
This is the impressive record of Sutter, as cited in the Kings’ press release of yesterday:
“The 53-year-old Sutter has a career head coaching record of 409-320-131 in 860 regular season games. He’s tied for 27th among all-time NHL head coaches in games (seventh among active coaches) and is tied for 24th all-time among NHL head coaches in wins (seventh among active coaches). Sutter’s teams have eclipsed the 40-win mark four times, 100 points twice and his clubs have finished in first place three times. He is also only one of nine head coaches in NHL history to lead three different teams to 100 wins. Only Scotty Bowman and Ron Wilson have coached four different teams to 100 wins.”
“Sutter’s teams have qualified for the postseason 10 of his 11 seasons. He led Calgary to Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals and Chicago to the 1995 Western Conference Finals. Overall he has a 47-54 record in 101 career postseason games. He’s tied for 19th all-time among NHL head coaches in playoff games (fifth among active coaches) and is tied for 24th all-time among NHL head coaches in playoff wins (tied for sixth among active coaches).”