Photo credit:Stockton Heat
Can Ryan Huska finally give the Calgary Flames coaching stability?
By Ryan Pike8 months ago
Since 2000, the Calgary Flames have had a lot of different people operate as head coach. When Ryan Huska is unveiled as the club’s bench boss this coming week, he’ll be the 13th different person to coach games for the club – counting himself and Darryl Sutter, who each had two stints, only once. And his hiring represents the 12th coaching change in that span.
Can Huska finally bring some stability to a spot that’s been in a constant churn since 2000?
Brian Sutter entered the 2000s as the Flames’ bench boss, serving out the final seson of a three-year deal that began in 1997-98. Following a third consecutive season without a playoff appearance, new club president Ron Bremner cleared house: general manager Al Coates was fired and the coaching staff were told their contracts wouldn’t be renewed.
After taking over as GM just before the 2000 NHL Draft, Craig Button looked for the next coach of the Flames. He believed he found a great coach for an up-and-coming team in Don Hay, who was looking to a return to the NHL after a season as head coach in Phoenix and brief stops in Calgary and Anaheim as assistants. But Hay was the hot coach in the Western Hockey League at the time, and he was the coach that had led Jarome Iginla to two Memorial Cups and a World Junior gold medal. It made so much sense.
It didn’t work. Hay wasn’t able to translate his junior prowess to the NHL, and he was fired by Button just 68 games into the season (with the Flames posting a 23-38-13-4 record). The misfire in hiring Hay set off two decades of coaching changes.
After Hay didn’t work out, the Flames turned to assistant coach Greg Gilbert – who had spent the previous four season as head coach with the AHL’s Worcester IceCats – first on an interim basis, then as the permanent bench boss. Gilbert’s tenure lasted parts of three seasons and was really uneven. The team struggled at the end of 2000-01 and performed decently in 2001-02, but the team got off to a rough start to 2002-03 and Gilbert began feuding with top centre Marc Savard (who wasn’t playing the way Gilbert wanted him to).
Button traded Savard to Atlanta on Nov. 15, 2002. Just over two weeks later, on Dec. 3, the Flames fired Gilbert, ending up losing both their player and their coach in the process.
While Button conducted his head coaching search in 2002, management team member Al MacNeil subbed in as interim coach. (He had previously coached the Flames between 1979 and 1982.)
Darryl Sutter was fired by San Jose as head coach on Dec. 1, 2002 and was hired by the Flames on Dec. 28, 2002. He coached for the remainder of 2002-03 and then two additional seasons, straddling the 2004-05 lockout. Sutter added GM duties at the end of the 2002-03 season and led the Flames to a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2003-04, but he stepped down as head coach following the 2005-06 season to focus on his GM responsibilities.
For the second time in five years, the Flames promoted a coach from within, making assistant coach Jim Playfair (Sutter’s right-hand man) the new bench boss. Playfair’s tenure lasted a single season, as he was demoted to associate coach and replaced by Mike Keenan after a disappointing playoffs.
Playfair was a first-time NHL coach helming a veteran-laden team that had championship aspirations. So Sutter brought in Keenan, who had led the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup in 1994. Surely this would produce better results!
The Flames made the post-season in both of Keenan’s seasons as head coach, but were eliminated in the first round in both playoff appearances. Keenan was dismissed following their second exit.
On June 9, 2009, Brent Sutter stepped down as head coach of the New Jersey Devils for family reasons. Two weeks later, his brother, Darryl, hired him as head coach of the Flames. Sutter coached the Flames for three seasons, missing the playoffs in each season as the Flames’ aging core began to decline.
Darryl resigned as GM just after Christmas 2010 – at the press conference after his departure, Ken King noted that Darryl quit because King asked him to. Brent played out the remainder of his contract under new GM Jay Feaster, but his deal was not renewed when it expired in 2012.
Looking for a coach to get his team on track – and maximize Jarome Iginla’s potentially final stab at a Cup with Calgary – Feaster hired Bob Hartley, an old friend who he had worked with during their time with the AHL’s Hershey Bears. Feaster acknowledged Hartley’s fate was tied with his, joking that if he fired Hartley, he should ask Hartley to help him pack.
Ironically, Hartley out-lasted Feaster in Calgary; newly-minted president of hockey operations Brian Burke dismissed Feaster in December 2013. Hartley coached the Flames to a playoff berth and a series victory in 2015 and won the Jack Adams Award that season. He was retained for a season by new GM Brad Treliving, but dismissed following a disappointing 2015-16 campaign.
Wanting an up-and-coming, progressive coach to guide his team as they moved out of their rebuild and into maturity, Treliving hired Glen Gulutzan, a Vancouver Canucks assistant (who had also briefly coached in Dallas). Gulutzan was behind the bench for two seasons: 2016-17, when things went really well and they made the playoffs, and 2018-19, when they missed the playoffs and Gulutzan infamously chucked a stick into the empty stands during a practice out of frustration. Gulutzan was dismissed after season’s end.
Oh man, another that started out really well and then… became much less so. Treliving and Bill Peters bonded over their similar views of the game during the 2016 World Championships – both were part of Team Canada – but Peters had a job with Carolina at that point and so Treliving hired Gulutzan. By 2018, Carolina had a new owner and had a new GM, and so Peters resigned and left the Hurricanes… and was hired by the Flames three days later.
Everything went well for Peters in 2018-19 and the Flames won the division, finished second overall, and then were demolished by Colorado in the first round of the playoffs. The following season saw the Flames get out to a disappointing start under Peters before allegations of unprofessional conduct from Akim Aliu led to a gigantic scandal and Peters resigning from the Flames in mid-November.
With their head coach out amidst a scandal just 28 games into the 2019-20 season, the Flames were in a pickle. They opted to elevate associate coach Geoff Ward to interim coach – based on comments from Brad Treliving, it’s possible that they kicked tires on a Darryl Sutter return around this time, too – and so Ward coached the remainder of 2019-20, with the Flames enjoying a nice turnaround and sitting around the playoff picture when the pandemic cut the season short, and was elevated to head coach for 2020-21.
The Flames got off to a tough start in the pandemic-shortened bubble season and Ward was dismissed after 24 games in favour of a Sutter return.
Sutter was hired during a pandemic and was on his farm at the time, so Huska ran the bench for two games while Sutter went through the COVID-19 protocol procedures needed to join the club.
With the Flames needing a turn-around, they turned to the coach they used to set a culture nearly 20 years prior: Sutter. And like every other recent coach, the first year for Sutter was excellent, with a division win and a dramatic playoff victory over Dallas. But the second year was… well, it was bad. Quite bad. And so he was dismissed at the end of the season.
Recently, every new Flames coach has a good first season. The team seems to always respond to a new face with a slightly new variation on the messaging. But they also seem to tune out the coach in season 2, and as a result it’s always diminishing returns after the opening season.
Solving that particular riddle may be the biggest challenge for Huska in his new role.
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