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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

L.A.'s unlikely leading man

Kings coach Darryl Sutter is the antithesis of what Tinseltown expects from its sports heroes

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LOS ANGELES -- The face of Hollywood's hockey revolution looks like a closed fist.

The most powerful voice of Tinseltown's growing hockey chorus is an indiscernible mumble.

The biggest name on the Southern California's coolest sports powerhouse is one that many people around town still can't correctly pronounce.

It's Darryl Sutter, as in "butter," but doesn't spread quite so sweetly or easily.

The coach of the Kings is the antithesis of the glamour vibe that Los Angeles expects from its sports coaches. He doesn't flow like Doc Rivers. Nobody is calling him anything cutesy like Darryl Hockey. He would consider Pete Carroll's "Always compete" mantra as too wordy. One gets the feeling if he were ever introduced to Zen, he would make him a healthy scratch for being too soft.

During games Sutter is that squinting, scowling guy behind the bench. After games he is that terse and sometimes surly conductor of painful televised news conferences filled with sarcastic answers, dismissive stares, and awkward silences.

As the Kings embark on their second Stanley Cup final in three years this week against the New York Rangers, with the sport still struggling to gain a foothold among the casual area sports fans, Darryl Sutter would seem to be the worst possible salesman at the worst possible time.

Except, see, he's perfect. He's sold a beaten-down Kings franchise on a championship culture. He's sold their long-suffering fans on championship fun. And, in his best move yet, he's sold the public on the incorrect notion that he's a jerk.

It's Darryl Sutter, as in rudder, which he has considered his job description for this once unsteady team.

Sutter gets dirty so his players can stay clean. He becomes a villain so his players can look like angels. He bats away questions during uncomfortable news conferences so his players won't later face those same pitches.

He fights away what he considers intrusions into his team so his players can play in peace.

The players love his act so much they have actually watched those news conferences in the dressing room, howling with each clipped verb and muddled explanation.

"They are definitely interesting, we just laugh at some of the things he says," said Mike Richards. "We can tell he cares about the players, he knows what we're going through, he knows what it takes to create success."

The players know that every arrow invited by Sutter is one less blow they have to absorb.

"He takes the attention off us and lets us play our game," said Tyler Toffoli.

It was a disappointment during Tuesday's Stanley Cup media day that Sutter didn't have a chance to strut his stuff. He shared his news conference with Dean Lombardi, the Kings' more talkative general manager.

Sutter was only asked seven questions. There was none of his double-talk fun that was once parodied on Saturday Night Live. There was none of the mumbling that has led to local radio shows running gags with Sutter imitators or providing Sutter translations.

Afterward, your brave correspondent tentatively approached Sutter as he left the stage.

Even at age 55, he appears strong enough to knock your block off. Yet when the topic of his cantankerous news conferences was broached, his handshake was firm, and there was actually a bit of a twinkle in his eye.

"In every sport, there are coaches who want to sell it," Sutter said. "I don't have to sell it."

Wait a minute, but this is Hollywood, this place is about entertainment, the Kings need glamour and glitz and...

"They had that, it didn't work," he said, referring to the days of Wayne Gretzky and Bruce McNall. "This does work. Look around. We're playing hockey in June. Think about it."

Yes, of course, but as the face of a franchise that is constantly fighting for attention, shouldn't you...

"Who do you think the best coach in the NBA is?" Sutter asked. "It's that guy in San Antonio. Gregg Popovich. And how does he act? It's not about sitting there selling yourself, you don't have to do that."

The difference between the two coaches is that Popovich has been around long enough to be considered a lovable curmudgeon. Despite being just three wins from leading a team to its second Stanley Cup championship in three years, Sutter is still surprising people with what is perceived as his rudeness. Not that he cares, he says, as long as his players are publicly protected.

"This whole thing is about the players," he said. "They take public criticism from everywhere else, they should never take it from the coach. Everything stays inside the locker-room. This is all about the locker-room."

So he never talks about injuries, rarely talks about individuals, and never offers any glimpse into what Jake Muzzin says is, "his softer side."

Every Kings home game, there is a young man whose aisle dancing is shown on the Staples Center cameras. Even some Kings diehards might not know that the dancer is Sutter's son, 21-year-old Christopher, who suffers from a form of Down syndrome.

Even fewer probably know that in 1995, after Sutter coached the Chicago Blackhawks to the conference final, he suddenly quit the game to move back to his Alberta ranch to help care for then-toddler Christopher for nearly two years. Today, Sutter cites watching Christopher hold the Stanley Cup as the highlight of their championship season.

Sutter's "softer" side also shows in notes he will send to friends struggling with family losses, long talks he will have with strangers who never even recognize him, and the way he once welcomed Times photographer Robert Gauthier to his Alberta farm for a weekend assignment after Gauthier showed up at sunrise as promised.

"Yeah, at times, he can be intimidating," said Muzzin of Sutter. "But you always know where you stand."

Presently, they are the only Los Angeles winter-sports team still standing, with a chance to win more championships in three years than the Dodgers have won in 26 years. Like him or not, right now Darryl Sutter doesn't need to say a word.

-- Los Angeles Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 8, 2014 A1

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