CALGARY — A few hundred feet from the warmth and comfort of his Red Deer farmhouse is a barn in which Brent Sutter has spent countless nights with one eye closed and another on his stock.
Jumping up from a tiny cot every few hours in the dead of winter to check on a high-stakes calving operation he so passionately oversees to this day, Sutter has spent many an eve wanting to be the first on hand to help if a calf starts coming out tail first.
Yet, it’s here in Calgary, at the rear end of a horrifically ass-backward season that the 47-year-old Flames coach finds himself spending more time worrying than ever.
“I haven’t slept in a long time,” admitted Sutter Tuesday, revealing on a very personal level how much this season has taken out of him.
“This team has been on my mind so much with what’s going on. It’s not fun doing it this way. To be honest it’s brutal, because you do expect more.”
As frustrating as the Flames have been this year for fans, one can only imagine how discouraging — no, downright bedeviling — it has been for a man with a front-row seat on the Flames rollercoaster.
“It’s tough to teach an old dog new tricks,” said Sutter, who left a well-oiled machine in New Jersey to be closer to his family, his ranch, and eventually, work with brother Darryl in Calgary.
“Yet, there needs to be new tricks here because the old way is not working as far as our performance on the ice. There’s too much inconsistency.”
That point was illustrated perfectly on the club’s recent three-game eastern swing, during which the club rolled over and played dead against the Islanders and Bruins before gritting its teeth and taking a bite out of the east-leading Capitals.
It was all part of a pattern of torment that has Sutter — and the rest of the hockey world — puzzled. Especially with a playoff spot on the line.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it — we had a lot of very average players for those first two games,” said Sutter, whose club sits four points back of eighth-place Colorado with six games left.
“Then they decided to crank it up and became a very good team in less than 24 hours. We can’t have that anymore. There has to be urgency and desperation because that’s the situation we’re in.”
Whether the players aren’t prepared on game nights, are too wealthy to care, too discouraged to push back or simply incapable of caring is anyone’s guess. Ultimately it’s Sutter who has to play Dr. Phil every night, trying to figure out how to find — and then push — the right buttons.
“I don’t want to say surprised, because you never want to be surprised by anything, but it’s disappointing that we respond a certain way sometimes,” he said.
“Why does it happen? You sit there and try to figure it out. Yet it happens too often. It’s something that really bothers me because it shouldn’t happen.”
Speaking of his disillusionment on the eve of the Phoenix Coyotes’ final visit to Calgary, Sutter chose his words carefully, as if wanting to make sure an inner rage didn’t surface. After all, there’s still a sliver of playoff hope.
“I don’t want to dwell on it because we can still make something out of it, but the inconsistency, as far as I’m concerned, is unacceptable,” said Sutter, a winner at every coaching stop he’s made, who was unable to compare this to anything he’s ever dealt with before.
“It’s not like it doesn’t get addressed. At some point something’s got to break before it sinks in. I guess the best way to phrase it is you continue to push forward.”
And try to get a few winks in before dealing with the next set of rear ends out of line.