THE CULTURE OF WINNING: SUTTER STYLE

by Ron Spence

And, because I’ve never met a dead horse that I didn’t want to kick, at least three times, I’m staying on the subject of the culture of winning.

Larry Robinson briefly referred to winning in Montreal.

There is also a family that personifies winning – the Sutters, from Viking, Alberta.

“If I had to be adopted,” Pat Burns once said, “I’d want to be a Sutter. Those guys have a special mixture.”

Six of the brothers played in the NHL (Brent, Brian, Duane, Darryl, Rich and Ron), and four (Brian, Darryl and Brent, and Duane) became NHL head coaches.

I have talked to Duane Sutter on a few occasions.

He’s the Director of Player Personnel in Calgary. For eleven seasons prior to this, he was either: Head Coach, Assistant Coach, Director of Player Personnel, or scout with the Panthers.

Before Florida, he spent two seasons as a scout for the Blackhawks, before taking over as head coach of their IHL affiliate in Indianapolis, for three years.

Duane explains some of the Sutter qualities:

“It was our overall approach to the game. We hated to lose, and we’re noticed more for our second and third efforts, rather than our first effort, because we weren’t some of the more talented guys in the league. It’s because of the work ethic, and because of the second and third efforts that we get noticed every night.”

“We’re all our own people,” he’s quick to point out. “I think each of us has tried to create our own identity, especially now with us being out of the game.”

If Duane’s schooling was his family and junior hockey, his grad school was the New York Islanders – the Past Masters of the culture of winning. Or, at least they were at one time.

They now have become the apparent successors of the New York Americans.

There was no better hockey environment than Long Island, during the early 1980’s.

Sutter was their first-round pick in 1979 (17th overall). He played on four consecutive Stanley Cup winners, during his 11-year playing career – eight seasons with the Islanders, and three more with the Blackhawks.

Duane explains why the Island was such a positive environment.

First of all, it started at the top – the shrewdness and leadership of GM Bill Torrey, who would later take Duane to Florida.

”They drafted very well in the early part of the Islanders’ franchise,” Duane continues. “They did their homework. They were patient with young kids coming along.”

“It started right from management and coaching, and the depth we had, and the understanding what role you had to play, to carry your weight on the team. And we had the superstars, the big guys to score the big goals, the goaltending. There was an overall great chemistry.”

And the Islanders had one of the best coaches in NHL history, Al Arbour.

“When he walks in the dressing room,” Duane explains, “he has an impact on everyone, whether he’s silent, or chalking out strategy on the board, or whatever. It’s what he brings – the impression he leaves on people. He’s a smart hockey man. He was really good technically, and he knew when to give you a boot in the rear end, and when to pat you on the back.”

Duane later played for another coach, who used his foot more than his hand. “Iron Mike” Keenan was coaching in Chicago, and is now with Duane and the Flames.

“Mike has a lot of different motivation tactics that people don’t agree with,” Duane explains, “He’s a really good technical coach. If you give Mike 120%, he’ll treat you great. If you give less than 120%, then you’re going to have trouble with Mike Keenan. Bottom line, if you look at his winning percentage, he’s won a Stanley Cup. He’s a good bench coach.”

So, what’s the basic principle of a winning culture?

“Number one,” he states, “the coach is only as good as his players, and the players are only as good as their coach. If everyone works together, you’re going to have some kind of success. You have to believe in each other. Money has become a big part of the game, but with teams that win, there’s a really good cohesiveness between the staff and the players.”

One of the ironies Duane learned, was what it takes to win as a player, isn’t necessarily what it takes to win as a coach.

“I’m an awfully intense individual [as a coach], much like when I played the game … I struggled early in my coaching career, in the minors, not winning a lot, but it was a great coaching experience … I believe I have a good understanding of all the strategies that can be used. More the technical side of the game … Probably my biggest downfall [was] poise as far as handling myself in front of the team. I learned a lot from [former Florida coach] Doug [MacLean], because he’s a very poised individual, and he’s short and to the point. [I learned] that a kick in the rear end isn’t always the best way. You’ve got to hand out more pats on the back … There’s always new ways you learn to motivate people”

Which helps, of course, to create the culture of winning.

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