Players reintroduced to coach's all-in approach

ERIC FRANCIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

Tossing the puck towards the faceoff dot like a lion tamer would hurl raw meat, Brent Sutter ordered two of his most ferocious beasts to do battle.

With players lined up along the centre ice circle to provide a makeshift cage, Dion Phaneuf and Brian McGrattan were summoned to the middle where they collided with considerable force.

With instructions to simply fight for the puck, the two scraped and clawed while Sutter barked at them three times to "battle."

Following a series of violent cross-checks to one another's backs, their 30-second war had ended with McGrattan doubled over in exhaustion and Phaneuf checking his beak for blood.

Without hesitation another puck was hurled into the circle for another two teammates to clash over.

And so it went.

After squandering leads in consecutive home losses, Sutter followed up a day off with the type of practice yesterday that was, quite frankly, three or four years overdue for the Flames.

True to his word, he'd finally bring accountability to a team of underachievers. Sutter drove his point home with a relentless series of drills aimed at pushing the players past their comfort zone.

It opened with the troops lined up along the goal-line as Sutter gave a lengthy speech outlining his thoughts on their work ethic and compete levels before starting the first set of wind sprints.

It closed almost 90 minutes later with more of the same.

In between came endless one-on-one skirmishes, ranging from end-to-end breakaway battles to simple dump-ins that saw two players scrap for the puck until the whistle was blown.

The former had players hurtling full-steam towards the goalies and the latter produced board-rattling hits.

The angry tone set by an angry coach put an end to the typical banter and laughter that generally peppers Flames skates.

At one point, with a handful of players in each corner, Sutter punctuated a sprint drill with an eerie silence in which only the players' heavy breathing was audible.

Uncertain of what was coming next -- but fearing the worst -- they waited for the next bombshell.

And then, more skating.

"We just lost two games, and we haven't played well in two games, so obviously I'm not happy," said an agitated Sutter, who challenged McGrattan's physicality at one point by stopping practice to ask how much he weighs.

"It has nothing to do with systems -- what we're asking for is simple. It requires a work ethic and commitment level that's high. Until that happens, we'll continue to be what we've been. It's unacceptable. I'm not going to accept mediocrity.

"I'm not going to allow the team to be average."

Not even dating back to Darryl Sutter's reign has the team been put through such a rigorous, aggressive session.

That said, Craig Conroy braced for the worst following Sutter's post-game reaction to Saturday's 3-1 loss to the visiting Detroit Red Wings.

"We knew it was coming," said Conroy, suddenly devoid of his perma-grin.

"When we lined up, he pretty much laid it down -- 'We're not working, and we're gonna work.' We said sharpen up, and we didn't, and so we skated, then skated again and then again ... then we finally started to get it. We did it to ourselves.

"It's a wakeup call, and we've got to respond now."

Pity the Dallas Stars who are sure to host an ornery bunch tomorrow night.

"I'm looking forward to getting out there," said Conroy, stopping himself after flashing the only smile in the room.

"I don't enjoy hitting my teammates that much."

Others, somehow managed to find joy in the pain.

"Guys getting a chance to knock one another around," Robyn Regehr said, "sometimes it can be therapeutic."

ERIC.FRANCIS@SUNMEDIA.CA


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