The Ice Age of Coach Darryl Sutter

The L.A. Kings have remade themselves into a championship team. Coach Darryl Sutter’s philosophy? Speak softly (or hardly at all) and whack a big stick

The drills all involved end-zone  breakouts, offensive-zone entries, and crisp cross-ice feeds: the ingrained choreography of attack. Flanked near the glass, right winger Marian Gaborik whizzed by on a 3-on-2 entry with his linemates Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar, his stride leaving fumes. Hockey is a violent contact sport that resembles a freeway speeding north and south. In today’s National Hockey League, players don’t so much enter the game as merge onto it, hopping off the bench for shifts that aren’t supposed to last even a minute. On teams that are in sync, the puck is like a hand grenade after the pin’s been pulled. Get it, get rid of it. Don’t think, know the system.

Darryl Sutter’s system emphasizes pace—move the puck when you have it, be “quick to close” on the opponent when you don’t. The head coach of L.A.’s championship hockey team, the Kings, also applies the Darwinian principle he learned five decades ago as one of seven boys growing up on a hardscrabble farm in rural western Canada: The strong will survive; the weak won’t.

To attend the Kings’ training camp this past September was to sense this credo in its incubation stage. Fans who filled the bleachers at Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo watched the drudgery of drills with an excitement that belied the repetition. All of 11 weeks had passed since the 2013-14 season had ended with the Stanley Cup being paraded around Staples Center ice. The 2015 NHL play-offs were seven months away, and the talk, not entirely premature, was of a repeat. Not that the famously taciturn Sutter was saying anything to feed such a perception. As he stood on the ice observing drills, the loudest sound he made was with his stick, swinging it against the boards—two rhythmic whacks—to indicate each shift change.

The Kings’ overlords—general manager Dean Lombardi, Sutter and his assistants, John Stevens and Davis Payne—preach work, togetherness, and the collective over the individual, sort of like a kibbutz on ice. Instead of a loose spring training vibe that signals the fresh romance of a new season, however, there was a surly air of bother emanating from the dressing room, and it seemed to start at the top with the ineffable 56-year-old Sutter.

Sutter is a solidly built man with a fine shock of gray-white hair and a nose that can appear to overhang his upper lip like the eaves of a roof. He took over as head coach three years ago this month, and he has since turned the Kings into a play-off monster, winning two Stanley Cups with a franchise that had hardly won anything. The play-offs, too, forced Sutter to star in his own postgame one-man show as the prairie oddball whose twisted facial expressions and baritone haiku-like answers to reporters’ queries offer few clues about what he thinks or feels. Sutter’s silences are beyond intimidating. At first blush they can be a bit strange. And thank goodness, because the colorful men who once led this city’s treasured sports teams are gone.

The gonest of the gone is Phil Jackson—aka “Phil,” aka “the guru.” For Los Angeles Jackson was more than a bringer of championships; he gave us books to read and seemed to care about our spiritual growth. He left in 2011 and then, last year, as the Lakers were amassing the most losses in team history, he lingered just offstage as the obsessed fans’ deus ex machina. This lasted into March, when Jackson announced, in his smoldering FM DJ’s voice, that he had found employment making the New York Knicks relevant again.

Before Jackson, of course, we had Pete Carroll, who put excitement and pizzazz into the USC football program before leaving for the NFL ahead of NCAA sanctions. As championship coaches go, Carroll has done more for Seattle, where his Sea-hawks won the 2014 Super Bowl, than for L.A., where he now seems like the equivalent of a Tinder hookup—fleeting and best forgotten.

Today none of the other coaches in town is any bigger, as personalities, than the results they produce. The Clippers’ Doc Rivers, the Dodgers’ Don Mattingly, and UCLA football coach Jim Mora, to name three, have been “successful,” as it goes, but hardly transcendent. Into this void has stepped Sutter, the 24th head coach in Kings history and, by the way, the only coach giving L.A. what it wants right now on a reliable basis—championships. Sutter is from Viking, Alberta, a place where it can snow two-thirds of the year. He is also part of a never-to-be-broken sports record: Six of the seven Sutter brothers (Brian, Duane, Brent, twins Rich and Ron, and Darryl himself) played in the NHL.

Those six left home—a two-bedroom house on 1,400 acres—as soon as they were old enough to play for junior teams. The plan was not to return to the farm before you’d played in the NHL at least until you turned 30. Knee problems dictated that Darryl, the third eldest, made it only to 29, the shortest playing career of any Sutter. He still has the scars, though, that prove he earned his keep. In 1984, when Darryl was a forward with the Chicago Blackhawks, he took a puck to the face that broke his nose, cheekbone, and left orbital bone, which in turn caused his eye to fall into his sinus cavity. Thirty years later that eye sits on a piece of plastic and wiring, and if you pinch him on the cheek, he won’t feel it. “It’s kind of weird, actually,” Sutter said, explaining that the nerve damage means he feels only “a tingle” when he bites his lip.

Injuries—even ones as severe as Sutter’s—don’t set you apart in hockey. The idea of sacrifice, particularly playing through extreme physical pain, is woven into the warrior culture of the sport. So Sutter surprised me when he said he had disappointed his mother after high school by turning down college scholarships to several Ivy League schools in order to play in the junior leagues and then professional hockey in Japan. Lombardi, the Kings’ GM, had told me Sutter passed on an offer of a full ride from Princeton; when I asked Sutter, he said that Harvard and Yale had recruited him as well. “I had years in high school where the only B I got was in physical education,” he said. That he passed up an Ivy League education reveals something fundamental about the man Kings fans are relying on to keep them in trophies: He is a lot more than what he appears to be. It is for outsiders to write him off as an incomprehensible, Fargo-esque character. The players swear by Sutter just as Sutter stands by them—a chemistry that means he gets the most out of his roster on more nights than he doesn’t. They are, you know, a team.

Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick makes a save against the New York Rangers in game five of the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals. Photograph by Mark J. Terrill/AP

One day after practice, I asked Kings captain Dustin Brown, who has been with the team his entire 11-year career, if he could remember how many head coaches he played for before Sutter. “Let me think here,” Brown began. He finally named all five of them, navigating a gantlet of interims and guys named Murray (two past coaches had this surname).

The Kings were founded in 1967 as part of an expansion beyond the so-called Original Six teams: the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, and Boston Bruins. Coaching stability first arrived with Bob Pulford; in 1975, he led the Kings to a record 105 regular-season points. But his owner, Jack Kent Cooke, broke up Pulford’s team, trading for the rights to Detroit’s Marcel Dionne. And thus a pattern of quick fixes was born.

Dionne, who would become a Kings legend, was unquestionably a great goal scorer, but he was small, with a French-Canadian accent in a town indifferent to his sport. I attended my first Kings game on November 24, 1979, a 4-4 tie with the New York Islanders. That was the year Cooke had sold the Kings—as well as the other properties he owned: the Lakers, the Forum—to Dr. Jerry Buss, kicking off what might be called the boogie nights period of L.A. hockey.

Like sex, hockey is an activity best enjoyed live. I don’t believe Dr. Buss ever said this, but the entourage of women in his private box said it for him. The fans seemed to understand what was up. Once, during a game, the puck slid slowly and harmlessly toward Kings goalie Mario Lessard, who stopped it at the last second. “She must have been great last night, Lessard!” a fan behind me heckled. Other than that, here’s all you need to know about the Kings of the 1980s: In one decade the team had eight head coaches. The most memorable, if not the best, was Don Perry, who had the bashed-in face of a journeyman boxer and was behind the bench when the Kings erased a 5-0 third-period deficit in the 1982 “Miracle on Manchester” play-off game.

Finally, at the end of the decade, word came: The Muhammad of hockey, Wayne Gretzky, had married a Hollywood actress and was open to moving closer to the Pacific. Relocation fees from Edmonton, where Gretzky had won four Stanley Cups with the Oilers, would be covered by the Kings’ new owner, Bruce McNall. A rare-coin collector, McNall would ultimately serve prison time for defrauding a host of banks, but he spent money with panache, buying not just Gretzky but various of his teammates. The Kings made a Cup final in 1993, and Gretzky became the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer the next season. Yet by 1996, the year Gretzky was traded to St. Louis for parts, the Kings were losing again and McNall had pleaded guilty to several felonies. The team in turn had been bought out of bankruptcy by the out-of-town billionaire Philip Anschutz and local developer Ed Roski.

No fan would have said so at the time, but becoming a facet of Anschutz’s budding downtown real estate empire was possibly the best thing that ever happened to the Kings. The team was used as a pawn in the development of Staples Center and L.A. Live. But in a pro sport that doesn’t generate nearly the amount of TV revenue for team owners that, say, football does, it helped that AEG, Anschutz’s company, could get by without the extra ticket revenue that pours in when you make the play-offs. Which was good, because they often didn’t.

In the NHL—where you play 82 regular-season games, from October to April, at which point more than half of the league’s 30 teams qualify for the postseason—not making the play-offs is embarrassing. Between 2000 and 2010, the Kings went through only four head coaches. The first one named Murray (Andy: 1999-2006) is actually the winningest coach in Kings history, which likely says more about the Kings than it does about Murray. The second Murray (Terry, no relation: 2008-2011) is credited with instilling the defensive structure that would help yield the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.

Two kids on the team, meanwhile, were blossoming: Anze Kopitar and, more unexpected-ly, Jonathan Quick. Both were draft-day steals by general manager (and former Kings great) Dave Taylor, who was fired in 2006 for repeatedly failing to make the play-offs. When the new GM, Dean Lombardi, traded up to draft Drew Doughty with the number two pick overall two years later, the Kings suddenly had a future at the three most important positions in hockey—goalie, center, and defense-man. Now Lombardi made bold moves, trading talented youth here or signing a free agent veteran there, knowing the roster finally had a through line.

But the players still didn’t have their coach, exactly. Three months into the 2011-12 season—when the Kings, supposedly a team on the verge, were sitting outside of a play-off spot, mired in a four-game losing streak—Lombardi fired Terry Murray and called Sutter. The two men had worked together ten years before, during a six-year rise and fall with the San Jose Sharks. Sutter had then moved on to what became a humbling period with the Calgary Flames, three years as coach and seven as GM. When Lombardi reached him by phone, he was home in Viking, working his 500 head of cattle, settling back into the rhythms of farm life: breeding in May, calving in March.

Sutter hadn’t been out of hockey for even a year. He would later say he’d been shoveling manure in his barn the day Lombardi called, and at first he turned down the Kings offer. Undoubtedly Lombardi talked up his roster. Undoubtedly Sutter already knew what the Kings had. For a person who puts as much stock in trust as Sutter does, he wasn’t going to leave the farm for just any job, with any GM, but in the underachieving Kings he saw more depth than he’d ever had in Calgary. What the Kings needed was to be pushed in the way that Sutter knows how to push. Basically Sutter’s system came down to, Go fast or get off the ice.