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Monday, March 22, 2004
Updated: May 5, 12:13 AM ET
Different styles lead Sutter, Wilson to same place

By George Johnson
Special to ESPN.com

It's no secret he can be put-offish, gruff, flinty. His totalitarian authority flies in the face of the get-in-touch with your feelings, turn-of-the-century professional sports.

After falling victim to a house cleaning in San Jose, Darryl Sutter has resurrected Calgary's passion for the Flames.
He simply refuses to play amateur psychologist or wet-nurse to the million-dollar narcissists in his care. His communication skills have been described as somewhat, uh, wanting. He's curt, blunt, manipulative, lacking in the most rudimentary sort of window-dressing.

He's also exactly what a self-cannibalizing franchise needed.

When dues-paying members of the NHL Broadcasters' Association sit down to fill in their Jack Adams ballots for NHL coach of the year, the name of Calgary Flames leader Darryl Sutter, vanquished coach of the San Jose Sharks, should be on every list.

So, too, Ron Wilson, the man chosen to replace Sutter, the winningest-ever coach in the Silicon Valley.

Oh, there are other exceedingly worthy Adams candidates. Look at the marvelous job John Tortorella has done with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He could be the favorite. If his injury-gutted team can somehow limp into the postseason, Andy Murray of the Los Angeles Kings should certainly be in the mix. So too Barry Trtoz, who has the Nashville Predators on the cusp of their first playoff appearance.

But by any measure, Sutter and Wilson are an intriguing pair. The differences in them, for openers. Wilson can seem haughty, glib, sometimes acerbic; he's U.S.-college trained, eminently quotable, a clothes-horse. Sutter can be distant, abrupt; he comes from famous, almost royal, Western Canadian stock, his postgame speeches to the media never need editing, and he's more into horses without clothes.

What these two men have in common is uncommon results. Not much of anything was expected of either the Flames, seven consecutive years out of the playoffs, or the rebuilding Sharks this season.

Just goes to show.

Calgary is threatening not only to post its first 40-win season in 11 years, but could shave a remarkable 40 goals off it's franchise record for lowest total surrendered and conceivably crack the top four in the West to secure home-ice advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs.

San Jose, meanwhile, sits atop the Pacific Division and is threatening to eclipse its franchise record for wins in a season (44 in 2001-02). Wilson has taken a team in transition, shown the shrewdness to allow what had until this season been a talented young supporting crew to assume the mantles of leadership in the dressing room and on the ice, and the results have been sensational.

The Sharks have undergone a substantial makeover since Sutter -- undermined by the holdouts of goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and defenseman Brad Stuart -- was fired early last season. Veterans Owen Nolan, Marcus Ragnarsson and Bryan Marchment were traded. General manager Dean Lombardi got whacked, too, and was eventually replaced by Doug Wilson. Over the summer, Teemu Selanne and Adam Graves were allowed to walk away.

JACK ADAMS AWARD
From NHL.com:

The Jack Adams Award is an annual award presented by the National Hockey League Broadcasters' Association to the NHL coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team's success. The winner is selected in a poll among members of the NHL Broadcasters' Association at the end of the regular season.

The award was presented by the NHL Broadcasters' Association in 1974 to commemorate the late Jack Adams, former coach and general manager of the Detroit Red Wings. His lifetime dedication to hockey has served as an inspiration to all who aspire to further the game.

The NHL awards ceremony will be held June 10 in Toronto and will be broadcast on ESPN2.
It took time for the Sharks to find their feet again, to create a new identity.

"What we had to see was the emergence of new leaders,'' says Wilson. "Marco Sturm. Patrick Marleau. Brad Stuart. Scott Hannan. They'd always had secondary roles before. What we had to find out was: How would they handle things when the heat was on? Obviously, they've responded brilliantly.

"I've always heard the knock about myself: He can't coach young teams. Well, how would anybody know? I've never had a young team before. In Anaheim, it might've been a new team, but it wasn't young. Washington was one of the oldest teams in the league during my time there.

"I don't know anything about developing kids? Hey, I've raised two daughters. We've had three rookies on defense pretty much all season and they've done great."

Those close to the Sharks say that Ron Wilson's willingness to change to suit his new surroundings has been instrumental in the resurgence.

"Have I changed?" the 11-year coaching vet asks. "Of course. We're always changing. Not a person's morals or values or beliefs. Those don't change. But I know I'm more patient now than I was in the past. But that's because I need to be with this type of team. Coaches must adapt to the personnel around them. Look at Scotty Bowman. He couldn't have been successful all those years without changing. And he did it through three or four generations of players. That's amazing.''

Wilson, by the way, is quick to give his predecessor due credit in absentia.

"Oh, this is Darryl's team. No doubt about it. I have nothing but respect for Darryl and what he's done during his career. In fact, we played together in the American Hockey League a long time ago.'' Pause. "A long, LONG time ago.''

(Wilson and Sutter played parts of the 1978-79 and 1979-80 seasons together with the New Brunswick Hawks.)

Sutter, for his part, laughs out loud that anyone would consider the Sharks a surprise entry.

"Nobody believed me but since Day One I've said that's a really good hockey team. They've got maybe the best young core of players in the league. Marco. Patty Marleau. Stewie. And arguably the top 1-2 punch in goal," he said.

"Hey, that's a team with a helluva future.''

I don't know anything about developing kids? Hey, I've raised two daughters. We've had three rookies on defense pretty much all season and they've done great.
Ron Wilson, San Jose Sharks coach
After two head-coaching novices, Don Hay and Greg Gilbert, failed to work out, the Calgary franchise desperately required a skipper with a proven track record. Enter Sutter. The timing and the fit were ideal. He arrived as the highest-paid bench boss in Flames history. When Craig Button was offed as general manager last summer, Sutter put his thumbs in his Wrangler belt loops and moseyed into the void.

The fact that there is one power base, a single omnipotent hockey force, has provided solidity to an often frayed franchise. Jarome Iginla might score the goals and Miikka Kiprusoff might produce the game-saving stops, but never for an instant doubt that Sutter's isn't the face on the organization.

"Guys with the two big jobs, that's a dying breed these days,'' says Flames defenseman Denis Gauthier.

Considering Toronto coach Pat Quinn, Columbus GM Doug MacLean and Rangers GM Glen Sather all relinquished their alter egos in the last year, it's not dying, it's dead.

"One thing about it,'' Gauthier muses, "you never hear of the coach and the GM arguing around here.

"All that low-budget, small-market stuff that was always been said about us ... it doesn't wash anymore. There are no excuses. Darryl doesn't accept them.''

Wilson was so different from Sutter, the only NHL coach many of players in San Jose had played for, that the Sharks' transition period took longer than anticipated -- the firings of Sutter and then Lombardi failed to rattle any cages and they still missed the playoffs. Then, when the boys in teal won only one of their first 10 starts this season, there was little talk of a quick renaissance in San Jose.

But Wilson and the Sharks stayed the course.

"Last year was a write-off,'' Wilson says now. "What I saw here was a very good Eastern Conference team. Big, strong, grinding. But in the West, things are different. We asked ourselves: Could we keep up with Dallas and Detroit and Colorado and L.A. And the answer was no. We needed to be faster, more of a puck pursuit team. Doug and I both agreed on that. So changes were made.''

And the spotty start to this season?

"I think if there had been higher expectations from the beginning, we might've felt more pressure. If everyone is picking you for first and the start is slow, there can be a bit of panic set in. But after last season, nobody was really paying much attention to us. We were tying games, playing okay, but just couldn't get any results.

"I talked to Doug, obviously, and he wasn't worried at all. He was very supportive. He and I both believed in the plan. He'd say: 'We're going in the right direction. Stick with it. Don't worry. It'll work.'"

Obviously, it has.

In San Jose, hockey fever is back after a short hiatus. In Calgary, it's following seven years of suffering.

Full credit, then, is due Ron Wilson and Darryl Sutter, two men linked by timing and circumstance, by mutual respect and consistent success, by the Jack Adams buzz surrounding the jobs they have done this season.

And perhaps, as fate might have it, by a head-to-head confrontation as early as the first round of playoffs.

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.