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Brent Sutter sticking to his guns in Calgary

Calgary Flames' head coach Brent Sutter talks about the departure of his brother Darryl Sutter as executivevice-president and general manager of the team in Calgary on Tuesday Dec. 28, 2010. Jay Feaster will take over as acting GM. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal

Larry MacDougal

There is a pragmatism and unswerving business sense about the Sutter clan of Viking, Alta., that might be the least-understood quality of that family's dynamic.

Nowhere did that reality manifest itself better than a couple of years back, when Brent Sutter was hired to coach the New Jersey Devils. Sutter was the owner and operator of the Red Deer Rebels, one of the most successful (and money-making) franchises in the WHL.

When he was finally coaxed into taking his first NHL job, one of his key decisions was who to entrust with the day-to-day operations of his junior team. In the end, he picked his brother, Brian, a former NHL coach who - in one year behind the bench of his junior team - had so little success that Brent eventually replaced him with Jesse Wallin, a former Rebels player.

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No hard feelings, just business.

And that presumably is the same hard-edged pragmatism that will allow Brent to continue on as the Calgary Flames head coach, even after the general manager who hired him - his older brother, Darryl - was shown the door.

Brent Sutter always was a reluctant NHL head coach. He'd had numerous chances to jump to the big leagues after his success piloting successive world junior teams to gold medals. In the documentary outlining Canada's 2010 men's Olympic hockey selection process, executive director Steve Yzerman revealed only two coaches were under consideration for the top job - Mike Babcock and Brent Sutter.

Sutter left the Devils two years into a three-year contract because he didn't want to work in the East any more. When his gig ends, as it inevitably will, he is just as likely to go back running the Red Deer operation and not search for another NHL position.

So when Brent Sutter met with the press less than two hours after his brother stepped down - and people wondered what the dynamic around the family Christmas table would be in the years to come - he made his point in fairly convincing fashion: His job is to be the head coach and until someone tells him differently, he will continue to do his job, no matter who happens to be doing the job of GM.

The Sutters, according to Brent, learned early on to distinguish between family on the one hand and the business of hockey on the other.

That dynamic came into play just this past November, when Darryl Sutter traded his son, Brett, to the Carolina Hurricanes - one of his last major acts as the Calgary GM.

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Darryl stepping down from his post leaves three brothers working for the NHL organization in various capacities: Duane as director of player personnel, Ron as player development coach, and Brent as head coach.

In all, four of the top eight jobs listed under "hockey club personnel" in the Flames media directory were held by Sutters at the start of the year. Oddly, one of the others - director of scouting - belongs to Tod Button, brother of Craig Button, the man Darryl Sutter replaced as Flames GM on April 11, 2003.

Tod Button survived, for seven years and counting, in an organization that jettisoned his own brother - further proof that in the industry of hockey, people can and do separate the job from family ties.

It was something the Flames ownership group did when deciding who would take the fall for the team's 16-18-3 start - Darryl, the architect of the team, who had seven-plus seasons to tinker with its personnel, or Brent, the coach, who was only 119 games into his tenure and was thought to be doing a reasonable job with the players at his disposal?

The problem with the Darryl Sutter era is that it could be separated into two distinct halves. It is easy to overlook the first, which featured the addition of goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff in a one-sided, franchise-altering trade with the San Jose Sharks and a subsequent trip to the 2004 Stanley Cup final (made largely on the strength of Kiprusoff's sensational play). In those heady days, the mantra "In Sutter We Trust" was all the rage in Calgary; his old-school values struck a chord in the province where he was born and raised.

But the NHL ground to a halt after the Flames unexpected playoff run and re-emerged after a 14-month lockout with a hard salary cap, a crackdown on obstruction and no real sense of what would come next.

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In the end, the teams that correctly predicted that the future belonged to young, fast, skilled players - many of them on salary-capped, entry-level contracts - ended up thriving.

Calgary actually had a couple of those commodities early on - defenceman Dion Phaneuf, for one, signed his first pro contract before the lockout and thus had his $850,000 (U.S.) entry-level salary rolled back 24 per cent. With that sort of attractive deal on the books for the first three years coming out of the lockout, the team had extra dollars to lavish on other players.

But eventually, the Flames had to pay for Phaneuf's early successes - and soon backed themselves into a corner by repeatedly overpaying just enough to retain all their core players and land players via free agency. The result was today's aging, capped-out team that has trouble keeping up with some of its free-wheeling, penny-pinching, more-successful adversaries - one of whom (Colorado Avalanche) arrives in town for a game Friday that marks the beginning of GM Jay Feaster's turn at the helm.

Team president Ken King spent much of the press conference announcing Darryl Sutter's departure lauding the work of the former GM, highlighting the early successes and glossing over the grim present.

Sad to say, he only got it half right.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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