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 Kings may play their home games at Staples Center, but their youth-hockey souls live at the Toyota Sports Center, a low building with three “sheets” (ice rinks) that sits under a Green Line stop amid a yawning stretch of office parks and data storage places just south of LAX. It was there that I met with Sutter.

The Kings’ PR people had told me that if I wanted to interview Sutter, it was best to catch him before camp started, when he might be in a more expansive mood. So on a Monday afternoon before the Kings regulars showed up for physicals, we spent nearly two hours in the glassed-in bar and grill above the Kings’ practice ice in El Segundo, as Top 40 played over the speaker system and mothers watched their daughters train at figure skating.

Sutter, who usually wears a business suit or track outfit, had made a disarming entrance. He was in shorts. I soon began to sense that his rhetorical rhythms—a brief answer followed by silence—weren’t so much brusque as an indication he might still be puzzling out a question. He’s the guy at a party who gives a first impression of being aloof when the real issue is that he just doesn’t know you.

Early on I asked Sutter—who scored 40 goals his second season with the Chicago Blackhawks and was otherwise known, in hockey parlance, as an opponent who got “under your skin”—whether he thought he could play in today’s speeded-up NHL. “Oh, easy,” he said. When I asked him why he was so confident, he characterized two things he possesses—the capability to exert maximum effort and the determination to will one’s teammates to victory—as gifts. “How do you think the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup?” he asked. “Just because they have all this skill or because they have great heart? You can go around town—talk to the other sports teams, talk to their coaches or talk to their managers—and they’ll tell you how much skill they have. But until they’ve won a championship, they will question whether they have great leadership or great desire.”

This was a month before the Dodgers and Angels, with superstars in their lineups, would suffer outsize collapses in the play-offs, illustrating the very issues Sutter had just spelled out for me. Like those teams, the Kings have superstars making tens of millions, but theirs are willing to sacrifice individual stats in exchange for trophies. Was this some culture unique to hockey or was it Sutter who got them to see the light? It is difficult for a fan, outside the orbit of the ever more corporate and buttoned-down team atmosphere, to evaluate what any coach is doing. How can one know whether the credit (or blame) belongs to the athletes or the man in charge? At the very least, I suggested to Sutter, he is a terrific motivator.

“Not really,” he replied. OK, I rephrased, you’re a better-than-average motivator? “I don’t know,” he said.

Sutter had just returned to L.A. from Viking—a four-hour flight. He rents a house in Manhattan Beach, where many of the Kings’ players live, turning the South Bay beaches into a kind of intimate hamlet away from the fray of the city. Sometimes his wife, Wanda, and his 21-year-old son, Christopher, who was born with Down syndrome, come to stay, but mostly he’s on his own. “When I come here, I’m only here for one reason—trying to win games,” he said. “And now to win championships.” I asked him whether he’s gotten to know the city at all. The answer, other than Staples and Dodger Stadium, was no. “I don’t live in Los Angeles; I live in Manhattan Beach,” he said.

Head coach Darryl Sutter celebrates the double-overtime win in that same game, which earned the Kings their second NHL Stanley Cup championship in three years. Photograph by Dave Sandford/AP Photo

When Sutter took over as coach, he immediately emphasized that the Kings had to play fast and hard—everything in the interest of pace. The team was last in the league in scoring, so Sutter staged 5-on-0 rushes in practice; the Kings’ two young goalies, Quick and Jonathan Bernier, were besieged by pucks. Sutter knew his skill players from his grinders, but everyone was expected to pull full freight. As Sutter put it, borrowing a baseball analogy, “There’s nothing that says you have to bat second and I have to bat third. That’s not our sport.”

To create maximum effort up and down the lineup, Sutter cut shift length—the amount of time any player spends on the ice—from nearly a minute to 40 seconds. “If you stayed out there a little longer, he’d make sure that you skipped a shift, or he wouldn’t go back to you,” said Jamie Kompon, an assistant coach who’d started with the Kings in 2006 and stayed on after Sutter was hired. “He’d bark at you, too.” What Sutter was barking, Kompon said, was “shift length, shift length” over and over.

“It was something we had to change when I came here,” Sutter told me, explaining why you change players, even your best ones, before their maximum energy wanes on each shift. “The star player was overextending his shift length.” Meaning Kopitar? I asked. “I’m not saying one; I’m saying the star player. Lots of guys are looked on as star players.”

This brand of bench management, as it’s called, would pay off, but it would take a while. The Kings were one game over .500 when Sutter took the top job, on December 22, 2011. They finished the regular season 12 games over the break-even mark, still goal starved and nobody’s pick to win the Stanley Cup as the lowest-seeded team in the west. Thanks in part to Sutter’s 40-seconds-of-hell approach, however, they were surging to the top of the league, according to advanced new statistics that were beginning to measure the effectiveness of a team’s offense not just by the number of shots on goal but by the number of shots overall, including the ones that were blocked or missed the net entirely. The new metrics purported to illuminate what could happen as much as what had.

Suddenly puck possession time mattered, and as the 2012 play-offs unfolded, Sutter’s Kings were proving very good at that. Of course it helped that Lombardi, at the trade deadline, had picked up center Jeff Carter, a high-priced player who had yet to realize his potential. Carter exploded on cue in the play-offs just as Quick showcased his big-game grit along with his crazy-yoga approach to playing goalie (Quick spreads his legs in a full frontal split to take away the lower half of the net while the rest of his body—torso, shoulders, arms—springs up to fend off all shots). In the heat of a game this presents shooters with a challenge that leaves little margin for error: Aim high and hope the puck finds a wormhole between the crossbar and the upper half of Quick’s defenses, not to mention the tangle of other players crashing the net.

The Kings compiled a 16-4 play-off record in winning their first title. Figuratively they smacked the heavily favored Vancouver Canucks in the mouth in the first round, clinching the series on the road in overtime. For the franchise this achievement alone was monumental. Though expectations had risen under Lombardi, the Kings hadn’t advanced past the first round of the play-offs since 2001. After the Canucks, the Kings, newly emboldened, tore through three more teams, starting each series by sweeping the first two games on the road.

Typically, by mid-May, the hockey season is a vague memory in L.A. During the conference finals, the local NBC affiliate, Channel 4, accidentally threw the NBA’s Sacramento Kings logo onto the air. About a month later the Staples Center crowd chanted down the final seconds of the Cup-clinching game, a 6-1 pasting of the New Jersey Devils.

While many asked what the Kings’ first Cup in 45 years would do for the sport’s popularity in L.A., the hockey world buzzed about whether Lombardi could keep the Kings’ roster intact in a salary-cap era, which has mitigated any one team’s ability to dominate the league year to year (the last Stanley Cup champion to repeat was Detroit in 1997 and ’98).

Quick takes the Stanley Cup trophy on a victory lap. Photograph by Louis Lobez/CSM

To that end, it is the Kings’ second Cup in three years that seems to have put the sport—i.e., Canada—on notice and propped up Lombardi as the canny architect and Sutter as a master in-game tactician. Repeatedly experts cited his bench management during the 2014 play-offs, which were widely considered the most exciting in years. Many coaches will change up line combinations as a season progresses, but Sutter was doing it deep into the play-offs, in the moment, when the stakes couldn’t have been higher. As an assistant with the Blackhawks, Kompon saw this from the enemy’s side. “His line combinations—they were never the same. He was always trying to find the combination that was going to get him the best result,” Kompon said. “I know that he had to work a heck of a lot harder to find out the recipe for success for this Cup than he did the last Cup.”

In the bar and grill at the Toyota Center, I kept asking about Sutter’s mastery of bench management until he finally took out a piece of paper and a pencil and drew a three-column diagram. The left column was for left wingers, the right for right wingers, and the middle for his centers, which is where the Kings are strongest: Kopitar, Carter, Jarret Stoll, and Mike Richards. “Our center men are dominant players. I’m getting them guys out there,” Sutter said. Then he tapped his pencil on the wingers on either side. “How these guys play,” he said pointedly, “is based on how they play.”

More and more, Sutter has been asked to say something about the Kings’ performance. Instead he tends to squint at the press as if into a low sun setting on the horizon.

Reporter: “Seemed like your third line had a great game tonight.”

Sutter: “Who is that?”

Reporter: “The Stoll, Williams, King line.”

Sutter: “Yep. They were good.”

Observers have spun this as Darryl being weird Darryl, manipulating the attention and pressure away from his players. There have been YouTube homages and spoofs. When I asked about his play-off press conferences, he sounded protective, not defensive. “Usually I gotta go into them right from spending some time with guys who’ve just had the shit beat out of them,” Sutter said, referring to what must be a jarring transition for any coach after a game. “You want to protect your players always,” he added. “So I’m gonna do everything I can to make sure that it’s clear sailing for them.”

If that includes not getting the word out about a team that has never been more popular in L.A., so be it. Alone among local head coaches, Sutter has never called in to a sports talk-radio show as coach of the L.A. Kings.

When it comes to media relations, Sutter is not entirely tone deaf. Lisa Dillman, who covers the Kings day-to-day for the Los Angeles Times, told me that when her mother died last spring, Sutter sent her a condolence e-mail. Columnist Helene Elliott, Dillman’s colleague, said of Sutter: “He never lies.”

This is said about Sutter a lot, by current and former players. Yes, he can be a hard-ass, and yes, you hate him some days, and yes, he mumbles, so it’s not always clear what he’s asking of you. But ultimately you know where you stand.

“He has a good feel for who is on their game and who is not,” said Justin Williams, the 33-year-old winger who scored many crucial goals in the play-offs last season. “When you’re not on your game, he’s gonna give you a chance to get it going a little bit and let you know. Your ice time is managed accordingly.”

Andrew Ference, a defenseman now with the Edmonton Oilers, played for the 2003-04 Calgary team that Sutter took to the Stanley Cup Finals as coach. As the Flames’ GM in 2007, Sutter traded Ference to Boston without so much as speaking to him, Ference said. And yet the player still sings Sutter’s praises. “What he’s saying, he really believes in,” Ference said. “He’s got a very ironclad set of rules to live by. He’s not just this shallow character. He’s an extremely smart man. Anyone who spends time and has gotten to know him sees through the cowboy facade.”

So how long will Sutter stay in L.A.? No sooner had this season started than one of his key players, defenseman Slava Voynov, was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence involving his wife. The Kings publicly backed the NHL’s decision to suspend Voynov indefinitely, but the incident has shaken the organization and its roster.

Sutter told me he doesn’t have an agent, and Lombardi indicated the two haven’t gotten into contract extension talks. Sutter has quit coaching before, back when Christopher, who is his third child, was born. At the time Sutter was in his midthirties and in his first NHL head coaching job with a strong Chicago Blackhawks team. His desire for his son to have the stability of a present father and the rhythms of farm life trumped his love for the game. He walked away and took his family back to Viking.

“I don’t have to coach,” Sutter told me. He then repeated this statement two more times.

Paul Brownfield is a writer based in New York City. This is his first article for Los AngelesThis feature originally appears in the Decempter 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.

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