In the midst of one of the most extensive searches since D.B. Cooper, O.J. Simpson’s knife and Carmen Sandiego went missing, Glen Gulutzan was subjected to some rather unorthodox tests by the Calgary Flames.
It started with three lengthy phone calls from Russia, where Flames general manager Brad Treliving was overseeing Team Canada at the world championships.
It then shifted to an exhausting 45-minute hike up Vancouver’s Grouse Mountain Grind with Flames assistant GM Craig Conroy, followed by an intense, six-hour interview under hot lights with team brass where he swears the Flames denied him food and water throughout.
Several more phone calls later, Gulutzan’s six-week dance with the Flames came to an end with a contract offer Thursday to take over the coaching job Bob Hartley was fired from May 3.
“This is a special job – the only job I applied for,” said Gulutzan at a hastily-called press conference Friday, confirming what had been reported several days earlier.
“To be in Canada – I know it’s tougher – but this is the job I wanted. Two or three months ago, somebody had asked me casually, ‘What NHL job would you want to have?’ I said Calgary. And it’s for the people that work here and that was important to me to find the right people.”
The Flames felt the same way, putting personality ahead of all other criteria in a search that took so long three other NHL teams fill their coaching vacancies while Calgary beat the bushes.
“It’s hard to find anybody to say a bad thing about him,” said Treliving, who built a profile of what he was looking for before starting the process and having contacts reach out to people like Jamie Benn, the Sedin twins, Kevin Bieksa, Ryan Kesler, Mike Babcock and John Tortorella who gave Gulutzan nothing but rave reviews.
“What kept coming back to me was the person. They’d say, ‘I’d trust him with my kids,’ and that’s a real starting point for me. The more time I spent with him the more clear it was he’s a perfect fit for us and vice versa. This guy was impressive. He’s as smart as anyone I’ve been around. His ability to drive players. Ultimately, at the end of the day from my perspective, the most important quality for a coach is to maximize the ability each player has, and the team has.”
Gulutzan’s ability to connect with people was evident at his introduction Friday and will be clear when he flies out to start building relationships with franchise cornerstones like Johnny Gaudreau and T.J Brodie. Next week, on his way to Buffalo, he’ll meet other leaders like Mark Giordano, Sam Bennett, Sean Monahan and Matt Stajan in Toronto.
“When you build trust and you build relationships, you get something that’s long-lasting and you create an emotional bank account with players,” explained the former Saskatoon Blades captain who worked on a teaching degree before embarking on a minor-pro career as a player.
“When you need to make a withdrawal from that account, and you have a good bank account, you can withdraw from that account. If you need to push or prod or yell or maximize…whatever it is you’re going to do with those players, if you have a good base, if you have a good trust, you can push them a long way and they will play better.
“Everyone needs to have value. That’s what a team is. If I need to take from the team, I can take it as long as I’ve established that touch.”
Treliving certainly did what he could to test Gulutzan’s mettle and dig down to what he’s all about with some unorthodox techniques they laughed about Friday.
“They wanted to test me physically,” laughed the 44-year-old fitness fanatic who looks more like 25.
“I flew to Calgary twice – both times they got me up at 5 a.m. to test me to see if I could make the plane. I made it.
“Then Brad chatted to me for five-and-a-half hours on the phone and then six straight hours (at the Saddledome). They only gave me a glass of water from noon to six and then flew me back to Vancouver. Through the interview process I’m pretty prepared already for the start of the season now.”
There’s synergy to the hire that goes beyond hockey as Gulutzan is married to a Calgarian, has in-laws and two sisters living there and kind of cut his teeth in the NHL with Calgary 13 years ago when, as GM/coach of the ECHL club in Vegas, he called Darryl Sutter to hook his team up as an affiliate.
Seven years in Vegas followed by two successful years in the AHL with Texas led to his hiring as the head coach in Dallas in 2011, where he was let go after going seven games over .500 over two seasons. He was a victim then of an ownership change that saw Tom Gaglardi come in with a desire to simply clean house, firing GM Joe Nieuwendyk and Gulutzan. Over the course of the next three years as an assistant in Vancouver, he’s realized how valuable every year is in the world’s top league.
“When you’re a head coach it’s a trial by fire,” said Gulutzan, who grew up in Hudson Bay, Sask., and is thus part of the NHL’s coaching mafia from Saskatchewan.
“I could write a long list of what I know I did well; I could write a list of what I would change. At the end of the day the biggest thing is experience. That was the one thing I felt I didn’t have when I was in Dallas. Five years later you build up that base and you get to know the league. That was important to me. To run your own bench, run your own staff, put your own ideas, that’s where I get the juice from.”
The organization will soon add another assistant coach to focus on special teams alongside holdover Martin Gelinas.
Gultzan insisted he’ll continue to count heavily on the Flames blueliners to create offence, employ a bit more of a puck possession approach and build upon the work ethic Bob Hartley helped instill.
And he’ll attempt to be a coach/psychologist/psychiatrist for 23 players – a gig far tougher than anything the Flames put him through the last month and a half.