PENTICTON, B.C. — Darryl Sutter eschews the comfy, curtained-off Calgary Flames team viewing area with tables, chairs and snacks, preferring to lean on the rail high in a corner of the South Okanagan Entertainment Centre.
One foot up on the bottom rail, arms folded on the top rail, he’s watching the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers rookies like a guy at a livestock auction. Quietly, he cheers for the kids who come off a farm, or from a flyover town like Viking or Shaunavon, a disappearing breed at these tournaments as the price of minor hockey and the advent of expensive academies slowly limits families like Lou and Grace Sutter's from NHL participation.
"Those are the kids you pull for," he smiles. "The small-town kids, and the guys who weren’t drafted."
For a guy who is Alberta through and through, coaching in last spring’s Battle of Alberta was special — even if it didn’t go the way of the Calgary Flames. But Sutter never has been an "us and them" guy when it comes to the Flames and Oilers, and he loved it when folks in town stopped him to chat about the first playoff Battle in 31 years.
"There was a time when people talked about one (team) but not the other, and there was a time when they didn’t talk about either. We’ve been there," he says, raising an eyebrow and nudging the guy from Edmonton. "Just to get us both back in and then be able to play each other was so unique and special, and it doesn't happen very often. Everyone goes, 'Well, wait ’til next year,' but you might not play each other for another long time. Our division is getting stronger."
So, while we’re on the topic, what went wrong last spring for the Flames, Darryl, in that five-game ouster at the hands of the Oilers?
"We didn’t match up that well," he says, matter-of-factly. "Once Chris Tanev got hurt I think our young pair, Noah (Hanifin) and Rasmus (Andersson), that was a lot to take on. Shilly (Oliver Kylington) and Z (Nikita Zadorov) both played with a separated shoulder and broken ribs, Tanny was out… You’re down to the short strokes, and that’s what happens in the playoffs, the further you go."
"The top of your lineup has got to be really healthy — that’s how good teams win," he adds. "It wasn’t 'what went wrong?' at all. I mean, that’s playoff hockey."
He also watched Leon Draisaitl pile up 15 points in five games while limping around on a high ankle sprain.
"Those kids were banged up too," he said of the Oilers. "But the difference is that their top end was better than ours. Seriously."
A big chunk of Sutter’s “top end” left town this summer when Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk moved on. You get the feeling that Sutter didn’t spend a lot of time crying into his pillow over the departures.
"I wasn’t surprised or disappointed," he said. "Guys have career years, they’re unrestricted players, and they go. It’s not like we broke up the band. All the guys who came in had career years (last year)."
The beauty of the job done by Flames general manager Brad Treliving is that he basically saved the Battle of Alberta. With Gaudreau walking and Tkachuk stating he would not sign, a Flames roster that simply could not handle Edmonton last spring could have been even further depleted.
But the consensus among hockey folks gathered here in Penticton is that, though Calgary may not be a 111-point regular season team again, Nazem Kadri, Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar make the Flames a more formidable playoff opponent.
There is only one problem, of course, about broaching that theory with the Flames head coach.
"You gotta make it," Sutter said. “All the experts pick these guys, or these guys…. You know, you’ve got to make the playoffs."
Come on, Darryl.
We all know that the Oilers path to success is going to go through Calgary. And that the Flames aren’t going to get anywhere unless they figure out how to handle Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
"Totally irrelevant," spits Sutter.
"Because I know how to win, and it's not about beating one team. Edmonton beat Calgary last year, but did it help them win Stanley Cup? You have to get through the best team in your conference at the end of the day. That’s how you win a championship."
"To win championships, you need goaltending, top-four defencemen — and one has to be a stud. And then you've got to be great down the middle. The last thing that comes is winning," he adds. "If you say we had a really good season last year, yeah, we did. We gained some respectability back in terms of how you have to play to be successful.
"But the way you win championships is, you have to make the playoffs over and over and over."
And get by Edmonton — or vice versa — over, and over and over.
We can only hope last spring was the start of something, not just a one-off.