Oh, you could just feel the love. It washed over them, bathed them, like a steady downpour of acid rain.
“I’m not being harsh,’’ said Brent Sutter, with flat, stark candour. “I’m not being an a--. It’s not that this group doesn’t care. They care.
“But we will not accept mediocrity.’’
As assistant coach Ryan McGill worked the felt marker diagramming drills on a wipe-board set against the glass on one side of the rink on Monday morning, the big boss stood all the way across the ice from his players, his face set permanently on scowl.
Almost as if he dared venture close enough to the objects of his ire, he might bust a blood vessel or be seized by the irresistible impulse to do a Homer Simpson-strangling-Bart imitation on the nearest Calgary Flame.
Meticulous, impassioned and rigid, Sutter has never been mistaken for Captain Stubing, but Monday the highly paid help got an unsettling peek at his Captain Bligh. It’s a wonder one or two them aren’t hanging from the highest yardarm in the British Fleet for their mutinous efforts of the past few days.
Plainly irked by his team’s practice habits, Sutter looked like a guy whose car warranty had expired two days before and he awoke one morning to find his transmission shot. As if he might blow a gasket, or heave.
In the wake of consecutive home losses, and in advance of a harrowing stretch of 13 games of 17 away from the Pengrowth Saddledome, the unhappy coach submitted his charges to an hour and 15 minutes chock-a-block full of extra sprints and compete-drills.
An hour and 15 minutes of deadened legs, burning lungs, chastened egos.
There were no showy eruptions, no attention-seeking tantrums, but black crepe still hung thickly over proceedings, regardless. There was a definite air of “Or else!” permeating the building. Sutter, on slow boil, stopped drills and ordered them done again. He punished laxness or deafness in following orders with up-and-down sprints. He set them off to battle each other hammer and tong, as if to rekindle neglected competitive juices.
His glower could’ve stopped a clock.
Up top in a private box, a fairly handy man with a lash in his day, brother Darryl, the general manager, looked impassively (but appreciatively, no doubt) on.
“We knew it was coming,’’ conceded centre Craig Conroy. “(Sunday) we just wondered how bad it would be. Brent wasn’t happy Saturday. With good reason. So we expected a long practice today. A hard practice. You know, it was a good practice, too. Not fun. Not easy But it’s nothing we didn’t deserve.
“And not something we really want to repeat.
“It reminded me of some of the practices Darryl used to put us through when he was mad.
“Brent wanted something done. When he didn’t get what he wanted, when we messed up, he skated us and then made us do it again. If we still were executing poorly, he skated us again and then made us do it again. After a while, we finally figured it out.
“The message was pretty clear. You guys saw. He doesn’t want 15 minutes of effort. Or 20 minutes of effort. It’s time to start winning games. He wants our compete level up. If we’re not going to work hard in games, he’s going to make us work harder in practice.
“He let us know how he felt.’’
To start the 10:30 a.m. practice, Sutter lined the players up at one end of the ice and read the riot act. Things only got worse from there.
“This,’’ he declared, “has nothing to do with systems. Our work ethic has to be better. If you’re not engaged, nothing works. If you don’t do things right in practice, you won’t do them right in games.
“Today we had a very, very high compete level.’’
In a cowed locker-room afterwards, a media type toting a recorder asked defenceman Robyn Regehr what exactly needed to be fixed in order to brighten Sutter’s mood a smidge.
“How much tape,’’ he replied, “do you have?’’
“Our penalty-killing at home has hurt us. We’re still giving up too many goals against. There are a lot of things we have to work on.’’
And the practice?
“I’ve had thousands of practices. You compete in all of them. Sure he worked us hard. But he shouldn’t have to do that. As a player, you should be ready to go. He only wants things to be done a certain way. That shouldn’t be too much to ask.’’
The 3-1 loss to the always-dangerous but uncharacteristically fragile Detroit Red Wings on Saturday was particularly galling. After staking themselves to a 1-0 lead, the locals, too soft on the puck nearly all the way through the batting order, created precious little in the way of offensive impetus. Outside of the indefatigable Rene Bourque, their best players were anything but. Captain Jarome Iginla, in particular, continues to struggle mightily in trying to free himself while still working within Sutter’s well-defined structure.
Two-thirds of the top line — Iginla and left winger Curtis Glencross (Conroy emerging unscathed) — came in for a post-game scalding by the coach on Saturday night. With time to cool down, 40 hours later, Sutter only reiterated that dissatisfaction.
“It’s all part of showing leadership,’’ he declared. “But sometimes they need to be shown the way. And that’s our job as coaches.’’
The head coach’s job was obvious Monday. He holds no special relish in taking out the hickory switch and hauling the naughty, indolent kids out back of the woodshed for a thrashing. But there are times when discipline is the only tangible means of communication.
“Practice,’’ he explained, “isn’t for lollygagging. It isn’t a place just to come and put in time. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not a guy who likes average practices. They mean average games. Average teams.
“We don’t want to be an average team.’’
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