PENTICTON, BC – Daryl Sutter eschews the Calgary Flames’ cozy viewing area with tables, chairs and snacks, preferring to lean on a raised rail in one corner of the South Okanagan recreation center.
One foot up on the bottom rail, his arms folded on the top rail, he watches the budding Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers like a man at a cattle auction. Quietly, cheer for kids who come from a farm, or from an upper town like Viking or Shaunavon, a breed that disappears in these leagues as the price of a small game of hockey and the advent of expensive academies slowly limit families like Lou and Grace Sutter’s NHL participation.
“These are the kids you attract,” he smiles. “Small-town children, the unconstrained men.”
For an Alberta guy, training at the Battle of Alberta last spring was special—even if it didn’t fit into the Calgary Flames. But Sutter has never been the “us and them” guy when it comes to Flames and Oilers, and he loved it when people in town stopped him to chat about their first playoff fight in 31 years.
“There was a time when people talked about one (the team) but not the other, and there was a time when they didn’t talk about either. We were there, he said, raising an eyebrow and pushing the Edmonton guy.” And then being able to play with each other was very unique and special, which doesn’t happen often. Everyone goes, ‘Okay, wait until next year,’ but they might not play each other for another long. Our department is getting stronger.”
So while we’re on the subject, what went wrong last spring for Flames, Darryl, in that five-game ouster at the hands of the Oilers?
“We didn’t match that very well,” he says. “Once Chris Tanev was injured, I think our young pair, Noah (Hanifin) and Rasmus (Anderson), had a lot to contend with. Shelley (Oliver Killington) and Zed (Nikita Zadorov) both played with a separated shoulder and broken ribs, Tani was out… I started with short strokes, and that’s what happens in playoffs, as I progress.”
“The top of your squad has to be really healthy – that’s how good teams win,” he adds. It wasn’t what went wrong? “Not at all. I mean, this is a hockey game.”
Leon also watched Drysittel accumulate 15 points in five games while limping with a sprained ankle.
“These kids were banged up too,” he said of the Oilers family. “But the difference is that their higher end was better than ours. Seriously.”
Much of Sutter’s “top end” town left this summer when Johnny Goudreau and Matthew Tkachuk moved in. You get the feeling that Sutter didn’t spend much time crying on his pillow as he left.
“I was not surprised or disappointed,” he said. “The guys have career years, they’re players with no strings attached, and they go. It’s not like we disbanded the band. All the guys that came in had career years (last year).”
The beauty of the work done by Flames General Manager Brad Treliving is that it essentially saved the Battle of Alberta. With Gaudreau walking in and Tkachuk stating he won’t sign, Flames’ roster who couldn’t handle Edmonton last spring could be further exhausted.
But the consensus among the hockey players assembled here in Penticton is that while Calgary may not be a regular-season team of 111 again, Nazim Qadri, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mackenzie Wiggard are making Flames a stronger opponent in the playoff.
There’s only one problem, of course, about coming up with this theory with Flames’ head coach.
“You have to do it,” Sutter said. “All experts choose these guys, or these people…. You know, you have to make the qualifications.”
Come on, Daryl.
We all know the Oilers’ road to success will pass through Calgary. And that the flames won’t get anywhere unless they figure out how to deal with Conor McDavid and Leon Drysitl.
“Absolutely irrelevant,” Sutter spits.
How is that?
“Because I know how to win, it’s not about defeating one team. Edmonton beat Calgary last year, but did that help them win the Stanley Cup? You have to get past the best team in your conference at the end of the day. That’s how you win a championship.”
He adds, “To win trophies, you need two goalkeepers, the top four defenders – and one of them has to be a clerk. And then you have to be great halfway. The last thing that comes is to win.” “If you say we had a really good season last year, yes, we did. We have earned some respect again in terms of how you have to play to be successful.
“But the way you win trophies is, you have to do playoffs over and over again.”
And go to Edmonton – or the other way around – over and over again.
We can only hope that last spring was the beginning of something, and not just for once.