Is Darryl Sutter the best coach in Calgary Flames history?
Photo credit:© Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
By Ryan Pike7 months ago
Calgary Flames history was made on Wednesday evening in Winnipeg. Darryl Sutter served as head coach for his 401st regular season game with the Flames, officially passing Hockey Hall of Fame inductee “Badger” Bob Johnson for most games served with the Flames.
Sutter hitting the milestone invites the question: is he the best head coach the Flames have ever had?
For me, the conversation regarding the best Flames coach ever is a two-horse race between Sutter and Johnson for their combination of longevity and success. The similarities and differences between Sutter and Johnson are actually pretty fascinating.
A celebrated collegiate coach from his time with the University of Wisconsin Badgers – the team that gave the coach his nickname – Johnson was recruited by then-Flames general manager Cliff Fletcher to take over for Al MacNeil in 1982, feeling that the team needed a different voice behind the bench to get to the next level.
After 19 seasons in the NCAA with College College and Wisconsin, Johnson was looking for a new challenge and joined the Flames. He immediately instituted a ton of changes, including making training camp much closer to what it is now – rather than using it as time for players to get into game shape, he expected them to show up like that, a big departure at the time.
Johnson served for five seasons with the Flames, making the playoffs each season and winning five playoff rounds during his tenure. Three of the five playoff round victories came during the 1986 campaign that saw the Flames advance to their first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history, eventually losing in five games to the Montreal Canadiens. Following the 1986-87 season, Johnson and the Flames parted ways, with Johnson joining USA Hockey as the organization’s president.
Johnson was lured back to the NHL in 1990, taking the helm of the Pittsburgh Penguins and leading them to a Stanley Cup – his first as a head coach and their first as an organization. However, Johnson was soon beset by health complications and was diagnosed with brain cancer the following summer, and he passed away in November 1991. The Penguins dedicated their 1991-92 season, and their second Stanley Cup win that season, to Johnson’s memory.
While Johnson never played professionally and went into coaching after playing college hockey, Sutter was part of a gigantic hockey family and was one of six brothers to play in the NHL. Sutter played for eight seasons in the NHL, all with Chicago, and served as captain during five of those seasons.
Upon retiring from playing in 1987, Sutter went into coaching. After a couple seasons in the International Hockey League and a couple more spent as an assistant coach in Chicago, he became head coach for the first time with the Blackhawks in 1992. The 2022-23 season is Sutter’s 20th as an NHL head coach.
Sutter’s time with the Flames has been split over two tenures, and includes two instances of joining the club mid-season to mop up after another coach – for Greg Gilbert in 2002-03 and for Geoff Ward in 2020-21. After both hirings, Sutter went about establishing a new team culture, similar to what Johnson did in 1982. Like Johnson, Sutter’s arrival was soon followed by post-season success.
The 2022-23 season is just Sutter’s fourth full season as Flames head coach. He led the Flames to a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2004, and regular season division titles in 2006 and 2022. Barring a miraculous post-season run, the 2022-23 season will be the first full season where a Sutter-coached Flames club doesn’t hang a banner of some kind.
Which of the two was the better coach for the team? You could argue that they were both the right guys for where the Flames were in the franchise’s development; Johnson helped boost an up-and-coming team into a powerhouse in the early-to-mid ’80s, while Sutter helped revitalize a franchise that had lost its swagger in a lot of ways. Which of the two you prefer is probably a reflection of your preference in coaching style.
Who is the best Flames head coach in club history? Let us know what you think in the comments or on social media!
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