Sports

Kings find their comfort zone under Sutter

Kings coach Darryl Sutter gives instructions from the bench during the second period of Game 7 against the Blackhawks on Sunday. KEVIN SULLIVAN, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The Kings seem to have taken on the personality of their coach, Darryl Sutter. Yes, he has one.

Sutter, a man of few words, can also be defined by a few. Discipline. Preparation. Honesty. Consistency. Work. Work. Work. Sutter is, without contradiction, the most simple and most complex coach in the NHL.

In 2 1/2 years on the job, Sutter has led the Kings to two Stanley Cup Final appearances, and they’re on the doorstep of a second championship in three seasons. The Kings and New York Rangers play Game 1 of the Final on Wednesday night at Staples Center.

“He sets the tone,” General Manager Dean Lombardi said Monday. ''The beauty of Darryl, though, is despite that, he’s fully cognizant that players win. He never loses sight of the fact that he can lead them and set the tone, but they have to execute. I think the players, in the end, really appreciate that.”

Sutter will be behind the bench for Game 1, either standing with his arms crossed or leaning forward with one foot on the bench, his face creased with a deep frown. Win, lose or double overtime, it’s always the same.

So when the Kings trail 2-0 early in a game, as they did Sunday night against Chicago in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final, Sutter doesn’t go into rant-and-rave mode. He doesn’t tether players to the bench or throw up his hands in exasperation. He just wants them to keep working, and working, and working.

Sutter’s belief system is such that he will never panic. He trusts that his players will find their way sooner or later. The Kings did Sunday, when they rallied from three deficits to beat the Blackhawks, 5-4, in overtime.

“I don't really get hooked into my own emotion during the game,” Sutter said. “I get hooked into the players' emotions. That's what my job is. Not to yell, scream, holler, all that stuff.”

Where does that belief come from? Sutter, who played eight seasons as a winger for Chicago in the 1980s, has an almost slavish devotion to preparation. During these playoffs, he regularly has given the team days off from practice, but trusts that they will get themselves physically ready, and he keeps them mentally ready.

After a victory, he will stress his dissatisfaction about parts of the game. After a loss, he tells players how good they were. He’s fond of subtle, verbal jabs, such as telling his guys that Chicago’s Jonathan Toews is “the best player in the world.” Does he believe all of it? No, but he’s trying to keep the Kings sharp.

“He's just a motivator,” defenseman Willie Mitchell said recently. “He's a guy who tries to get the best out of his players. He'll do whatever possible to get it. I always say he kind of keeps us comfortably uncomfortable.”

Among those who know him only from the TV screen, Sutter might be the most ill-perceived person in hockey. Start with the fact that when he’s not coaching, he’s a full-time rancher in rural Alberta.

Fans know him as the bitter-beer-faced curmudgeon who grunts, scowls and mumbles his way through media briefings. He does it to protect his players. He doesn’t mind being the subject of media scrutiny, because he’s confident enough to absorb it. And he doesn’t take kindly to “outsiders” criticizing his guys.

“I think what gets lost,” Lombardi said, “is that his outward demeanor – or whatever the perception is – is so far removed from how much he is a players’ coach. Does it come out in press conferences? Probably not.”

But stick around after them. Sutter will sneer at a reporter’s question, then pat the same reporter on the shoulder on the way out the door. He will find out that a media member suffered a death in the family and, unprompted, email his condolences during the middle of the playoffs.

Sutter is a doting grandfather and, in general, a family guy, a man who quit his job as Chicago’s coach in 1995 because his then-young son – born with Down Syndrome – had reached a critical development stage.

It’s not that Sutter’s public “face” is an act, and it’s not to say that Sutter is just a big softie. He’s a demanding coach, and while he rarely yells at players, one piercing glare is enough to make any player’s heart race. Sutter is just as demanding on captain Dustin Brown as he is on rookie Tanner Pearson.

“I think you just try to be fair and honest to the group,” Sutter said. “It's not always good for the player because (sometimes) it's based on ice time. It's always what is best for the group. As long as everybody understands that, there's no problem.”

It’s that consistency that has helped the Kings win three seven-game series on the way to the Cup Final, and on Sunday, Sutter allowed himself a rare moment of personal enjoyment.

Asked, after the game, if beating the Blackhawks meant anything extra-special to him, Sutter said, “Yeah. Lived here a long time. Not just a coach and a player. My family was raised here.” Sutter essentially lived in Chicago from 1980-95, as a player and coach.

Contact the writer: rhammond@ocregister.com

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