ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - Brent Sutter looked out the window of his flight here Thursday and saw the sun-splashed green-quilted plateaus below with clear rivers and lakes, and the endless string of church-steeple villages, all framed by snow-capped Swiss Alps.
“Looks like perfect playoff hockey weather,” he deadpanned of the postcard scenes in every direction.
Welcome to B. Sutter’s World Hockey Championship Camp & Former Player Reunion.
Sutter seldom shows much excitement. But the coach of Team Canada at the world hockey championships couldn’t hide it in dozens of directions.
“There’s 10 or 11 guys I’ve coached or worked with. It’s going to be fun,” said the coach. Sutter arrived here Thursday to be in position to greet members of his team arriving Friday, with plans to take them to nearby Kloten for a late-afternoon practice.
Actually it’s nine guys he coached. And one guy he worked with.
The one guy he worked with is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
And that’s going to be one of the coolest things about Sutter coaching Canada at the world championships this year in Helsinki — finally getting a chance to coach the kid they now call ‘The Nuge’ but answered to the nickname ‘Hoppy’ when he was a Red Deer Rebel.
“I’m excited about it,” said Sutter.
Sutter, when he retired after playing 1,111 NHL regular season games, knew what he wanted to do.
He became owner, GM and coach of the Red Deer Rebels, built a financially successful franchise and coached a team to a Memorial Cup championship in 2001.
But because he chose to coach the Calgary Flames these past three seasons, Sutter missed the chance to coach the one and only first-overall draft pick in his junior team’s history.
Sutter was very hands-on in Red Deer, picking Nugent-Hopkins in the bantam draft.
“I allowed my scouts to go through it all. The reason I’ve been able to coach in the NHL is that I allow my people to do their jobs. But in this case it came down to me,” Sutter remembered after lunch Thursday, as he awaited the arrival of Team Canada general manager Kevin Lowe on a later flight.
“It was pretty even up. So I said ‘Then my vote is going to decide this and we’re going to pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. I want the best player in the country and I think he’s going to end up going in the first two or three in the NHL entry draft.’
“I knew there was a good chance we were only going to have him for two years, that he could be in the NHL when he was 18, but you want to have a player like that.”
Sutter said he’s had a solid relationship with Nugent-Hopkins.
“I’ve sat down and talked to him a lot and went on the ice with him a few times. I’m pretty close to him.”
Before catching his plane, Nugent-Hopkins said he can’t wait, either.
“I know him pretty well. When I was in Red Deer for my birthday, I saw him then. It was really good to talk to him.
“It’ll be cool to be coached by him and different to play for him. I’m sure looking forward to it.”
Also headed here for the reunion are former Rebels Dion Phaneuf and Cam Ward.
“Cam is like our kid. I knew him and his father so well,” said Sutter of the Sherwood Park product who won the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes, defeating the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup Final.
You’d think it might be a little awkward, with Phaneuf having been traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs from the Calgary Flames when Sutter was coach. But it isn’t.
“I wasn’t involved in trading Dion. That was Darryl and the owners’ decision,” he said of his brother, who was general manager of the Flames at the time.
“I didn’t have any input.”
Jay Bowmeester, of course, played for him with the Flames as well.
Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Andrew Ladd played for Sutter on his 2005 world junior gold medal team.
“You remember, I didn’t have Perry and Getzlaf playing together. I had Ladd and Getzlaf, because they were playing together for the Calgary Hitmen,” he reminded.
Devan Dubnyk was back-up netminder for the 2006 world junior gold.
John Taveres and Luke Schenn performed on his 2006 Canada-Russia Super Series team.
In all, Sutter went 19-0-1 with those three teams.
“I think it’s a huge advantage to have 10 guys who I’ve coached and I know. They know the way I’m going to want them to play,” said the coach who could have had a real alpine picnic here if Sidney Crosby (2005) and Jonathan Toews had joined up.
“I’ve talked to all the players about the way I want the team to play,” said Sutter, who had Chicago Blackhawks Duncan Keith and Patrick Sharpe as well as San Jose Sharks Marc-Edouard Vlasic join up while he was en route, leaving only one forward and a third-string goalie to be named.
(Ryan Murray, the only draft eligible player to make the world junior team, and Adam Mitchell, of Mannheim in the German League, will be used in the two pre-tournament games in Switzerland to fill spots of first-round playoff additions prior to the team heading to Helsinki for the tournament).
“I wanted to make sure they’d all be showing up in the right mindset. With our first two games against Slovakia and the U.S.A., we have to be able to start the tournament going,” he said.
And Sutter promises a go-go game from Canada in this tournament.
“We’ve got lots of guys who can score. We’ll have lots of offence. I can’t take the type of players we’ll have this year out of their element.”
This time he will play Perry and Getzlaf together.
“I’ll start with them and Eberle and Hoppy,” he said.
“Jeff Skinner and Tavares were pretty good together last year. And I’ll start Marc Methot and Luke Schenn. They were a pretty good pair together.”
How about his former Flames Phaneuf and Bouwmeester?
“I don’t think they’re a very good pair,” he said.
“When you have proven pairings like we have, you want to get a feel for keeping them together, a least to start with,” he said of a pre-tournament game 130 kilometres south of here in Fribourg Sunday.
“Canadian players have proved in the past that they can become a team quickly.”
Hang around with Sutter, waiting for his players to show up, and you can tell how pumped he is.
“I want it to be a good experience for everyone and I want everybody coming here to play good hockey and win.
“It’s such a great group of players,” he said, adding the feeling is a little like the group that he had in 2005 at the world junior, which included Crosby.
“In 2005 I knew we had a great team if it came together as a team and became a team.
“This is a young team with all kinds of NHL experience and all kinds of international experience.”
Canada has three 2010 Olympic champions (Keith, Getzlaf, Perry) and five 30-goal scorers this season (Sharp, Perry, Tavares, Eberle, Kane).
“These guys are all top players on their teams.”
Sutter doesn’t pretend he’s not excited.
“I’m thrilled. I can’t tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to this since everything went down in Calgary,” said the coach, who split with the Flames by mutual agreement.
“Since Kevin Lowe and staff gave me this job, it’s been all I can think about.”
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