Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Straight Shooter Rutherford Hard To Root Against

Doubtless Jimmy Rutherford will once again be pacing a hallway, somewhere in Carolina's ice arena, staring at the floor, tomorrow night. It's how I caught him years ago -- 14 and some change -- as a rookie coach of the Detroit Junior Red Wings. But the stakes will be slightly higher Wednesday night. For Rutherford, the old Red Wings goalie during the "Darkness With Harkness" 1970's, is on the verge of winning his first Stanley Cup -- as GM of the Hurricanes, who are up 3-1 in their Finals series with Edmonton.

In December 1991, Rutherford, then the GM of the Ontario Hockey League's Jr. Wings, fired coach Andy Weidenbach and took over the coaching reins himself. He'd never coached before. I was directing Jr. Wings games on television in those days, and one of our broadcasts just happened to be the night Rutherford was to make his coaching debut.

Rutherford today: Carolina's slick GM

But there was a snowstorm that evening, and the bus carrying the Jr. Wings' opponents was late due to the bad weather. So Rutherford's coaching debut would be delayed about 90 minutes. I spotted him outside his team's dressing room, pacing, arms folded, staring at the floor.

"What a night for this to happen, huh?," I said, trying to soothe his nerves. Rutherford was always a fan of our broadcasts, and he and I had struck up a professional, courteous relationship.

He looked at me and gave me a weak smile. "I just want to get the game started," he said.

We chatted for a bit longer. Inside, his players were dressed, taped, and anxiously awaiting their turn on the ice.

"Good luck," I said, and bid him farewell.

The other team showed up, finally, the game started -- finally, and the Jr. Wings won. "Roach," as his teammates called him when he was a stub of a goaltender, was 1-0 as a head coach.

About the only time I rooted against Rutherford was when the Red Wings faced his Hurricanes in the 2002 Finals. But Roach, as straight a shooter as you'll find in pro sports, would have understood.

There was a time when Rutherford was the tormented goalie for a terrible team. Sometime in the mid-70's, his team playing like a sieve in front of him, Rutherford suffered from nightmares. He would awaken in the middle of the night, in a cold sweat, dreaming of pucks coming at him. Honest to God.

Rutherford as a tormented Red Wings goalie

Everywhere he went as an NHL goalie, it seemed, there was a losing team in front of him. And as a 5'8" goalie, he wasn't the protoptypical, big guy you see now with equipment the size of the Michelin Man. But yet Rutherford persevered to the tune of 13 NHL seasons.

When I first met him, in the summer of 1990, he was a mild-mannered, unassuming guy who spoke softly but with that definitive Canadian accent. We discussed how many games we would broadcast -- the team was called the Ambassadors back then and played their first season at Cobo Arena -- and other business items. Later that first season, Rutherford let me get miked up and stand behind the Ambassadors' bench and be accompanied by a cameraman, for a special feature. I was a quasi-coach that night. It nearly got me killed.

The Windsor Spitfires were in town, coached by Brad "Motor City Smitty" Smith, a former Red Wings tough guy. A Detroit player purposely ran the Spits' goalie late in the blowout loss, and Smith went ballistic. He spotted me on the bench after the game and assumed I was an assistant. He walked all the way around Cobo to come after me, or anyone associated with the Ambassadors. Fortunately I blended in with the crowd. Smith ranted and raved outside the Detroit dressing room before being led away by police. As he left, he saw me again and screamed some obscenities. His eyes were wild.

After the game, I saw Rutherford.

"Of all nights for something like this to happen," I said, a precursor to my remark the night of his coaching debut.

He grinned. "Oh, he'll be alright," Rutherford said about Smith. Of course, it wasn't Smith's well-being that I was concerned about.

But Rutherford had let me stand behind the bench, just as I had asked. Alongside me, a rookie assistant -- a real one -- was Paul Maurice. In 2002, Maurice would coach the Hurricanes against the Red Wings for the Stanley Cup. Today, he is set to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Roach played for them, too.

No comments: