LOS ANGELES – Whether it be an in-game video tribute, an ovation from the fans or simply a few handshakes with security guards, Darryl Sutter insists whatever awaits him at Staples Center Thursday will be taken in stride.
“I’m pretty much a middle-of-the-road, neutral guy,” said Sutter, when asked about his return to the city in which he led the Kings to two Stanley Cups.
“Don’t get too high, too low.”
Surely, no one expected the Jolly Rancher to get all misty-eyed about, well, anything.
Those who know him best know exactly what will be on his mind when he returns as an opposing coach for the first time since being fired by the Kings in 2017.
“Knowing him, it’s probably getting the win,” said Trevor Lewis, who won Cups with Sutter in 2012 and 2014.
“We have a lot of memories there – won two times there – so, a lot of good relationships.”
Sutter spent six years in Los Angeles, taking the Kings to their first Cup in franchise history, his first year at the helm.
He’ll be happy to reconnect with the four cornerstones of that Kings team that are still there, namely Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown.
But he admits there are many more smiling faces he’s looking forward to seeing.
“I’ve been in the building several times since I coached there, and the best part, for me, is for sure the behind-the-scenes people,” said Sutter, the NHL’s 16th winningest coach.
“You know, early mornings, late nights, people you see a lot of or that you’re there with a lot. That’s what sticks out more than anything. That’s still the best part about being in the National Hockey League, is going to these places and seeing a lot of people, including the fans.”
Will the Cup banners bring back memories?
“Darn rights,” he replied.
“That’s what it’s about. I’ve been lucky to be in four of those finals. And some of the conference finals were better than the finals, to be quite honest. It’s the same thing when you go back to it here, too. That team in 2004 doesn’t get recognized enough for what they did here. All you hear about is the one year (1989). We should recognize that a lot more. That team won the conference final and went to the Stanley Cup final. That’s what it’s about.
“I know what it’s like to lose in the finals and the price you pay to get there. It’s tremendous fun. Unless you’ve been there and done that, you can’t explain it. And to be able to do it more than once, it’s even more special. And you talk about going back to L.A., being able to do it, to win it, in that building is unique because of what it was like.”
It made him a local hero, much like he is in Calgary, where he’s in the midst of turning the franchise’s fortunes around once again.
His Flames are the talk of the NHL, sitting atop the Western Conference with a 13-4-5 record no one saw coming.
They’re doing it with much the same style of play the Kings employed en route to Sutter’s only two Cup triumphs.
“We want to be a good checking team like we were in L.A., we want to have the puck more than the other team,” said Lewis.
“So, it’s pretty similar in those ways.”
Sutter holds steadfast there’s only one way to be successful as a team: be hard to play against.
“You have to have an identity, it’s really simple,” said Sutter.
“I mean, we’re trying to get the respect back in the league and an identity back. I watched this team on TV enough, and they had to change the way they played. When I came here, it’s true — they were too slow of a team. The way the league had changed, they played too slow. It wasn’t how fast the players skated. It was just they didn’t play at the pace that is necessary the way the league is, especially out here.
“I mean, the best teams (in the Pacific Division) are still Edmonton and Las Vegas, and there’s good reason. They’re big, fast teams. It’s not based on one player. It’s based on how your team has to play. And we’re still working with that. We have guys here that we have to get them up to that. If they tail off or they don’t play or they don’t play as much, that’s why. I can live with mistakes and everything, but you have to play a certain way to be successful in this league. And it bears fruit all the time.”
Milan Lucic never won a Cup with the Kings but got a taste of Sutter’s style during a one-year stint with the Kings, five years before reuniting with the coach in Calgary last season.
“I think it will be fun for him because he obviously has some great memories in L.A., not just from accomplishing what he accomplished from a team standpoint, but also what it was like for him and his family,” said Lucic, who will almost certainly start Thursday’s game on the All The Kings’ Men Line alongside Lewis and Brad Richardson.
“Chris, his son, was a huge part of that culture and that fan base and that whole South Bay area where the guys live. I think he’s looking forward to it and I think it will mean a lot to him.
“But when he’s into game day mode, he’s in game day mode, so he’ll definitely be fired up for that game.”