Rutherford's signature moment
Posted April 27
Updated April 28
At 2 p.m, on Jan. 23, 2000, the phone rang in the Pittsburgh hotel room of Rod Brind'Amour. Even before answering the phone, the future hall of fame center, had a feeling what -- or whom -- was on the other end.
"It's the kiss of death if your phone rings in the afternoon -- especially on the road," Brind'Amour said.
On the other end was Paul Maurice, the not-yet-33-year-old head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, telling one of the most popular players in a Philadelphia Flyers uniform that he was now a member of a new organization.
"I, literally, had just a toothbrush," Brind'Amour recalled.
It was the single most important transaction in Hurricanes history, engineered by Jim Rutherford, the president and general manager whose tenure running the day-to-day operations of the franchise came to an end officially today after 20 seasons in charge.
There were other successful trades, many of them critical to the Hurricanes playing for the Stanley Cup in 2002 and winning it in 2006. There were plenty of free agent signings that contributed to the organization's success over the two decades. But, with the Canes locked in a contract dispute with then-captain Keith Primeau, coupled with the fact that club was playing their first season in Raleigh's Entertainment and Sports Arena, things had started to get very testy between the two sides.
While Rutherford stayed above the fray in the dispute and desperately wanted Primeau to be the face of his franchise and the starring attraction in their new home, he also realized that something had to be done. What happened next should have been a sign of Rutherford's genius, but at the time, things were too raw for anyone to realize the magnitude of the simple transaction.
Carolina's captain was dealt to the Flyers for Brind'Amour, one of Philadelphia's alternate captains, who had just returned from a fairly serious ankle injury that kept him out of action for almost the entire season to that point.
It was an afternoon that would forever change the culture of the Carolina Hurricanes, even if Brind'Amour didn't realize it then. Maurice needed Rod in Raleigh for a game the next night, and asked him if he could get on a 4 o'clock flight.
"To hear Paul Maurice tell me I'd been traded was a letdown", said Brind'Amour, who didn't have a wallet, money or even a change of clothes with him for what was supposed to only be a one-day trip to play the Penguins before heading back to Philly. "You'd like to think that your organization would be the first to tell you, and that still sits badly with me."
Brind'Amour would later learn just how different, and important, the change of scenery could be to his career.
"The first game was against Montreal and I looked around and there were, like, 8,000 fans", Brind'Amour recalled, likening it to a practice from his Philadelphia days. "I was used to playing in a different atmosphere. We were sold out every game, and I was starting to wonder what I'd gotten myself into."
But the beauty of Rutherford's genius -- and to be honest, something that has come back to haunt him at times -- was his genuine concern for the people who play the games and wear the sweaters. It was never just about the player, but also the father, the husband and the son to Rutherford.
It was that element of the budding relationship that drew Brind'Amour into the family.At a time when Rod wasn't playing well, and contemplating a future change of scenery, it was Rutherford's unwavering support that won him over.
"I wasn't playing well, in fact, I sucked", Brind'Amour said of his first year in Carolina. "But (Rutherford) was so supportive, always encouraging, telling me, 'we want you here,' and that was a huge factor in turning me around."
Still, Brind'Amour was entering into the final year of his contract and there's one thing that all NHL players strive to do -- raise the Stanley Cup. For the five seasons prior, the Flyers were knocking on Lord Stanley's door -- but just knocking. They'd won division championships, played for the Eastern Conference title twice and reached the finals two years before the trade only to be swept aside by the Detroit Red Wings. Brind'Amour wanted -- no, needed -- to get back there again. It was probably going to take more than just the personal support of the organization to seal that deal as Rod headed into free agency at the end of the following year.
In 2001, Brind'Amour's first full season in Carolina, the Hurricanes grabbed the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. With a solid crew, led by Hall of Fame center Ron Francis and franchise-great Glen Wesley, the Canes got ready to meet the New Jersey Devils, the then-model franchise in the Eastern Conference.
The series was going along about as you'd expect with the Devils dominating the first two games in New Jersey by a combined score of 7-1. Then, just a few minutes into the first playoff game in Raleigh's franchise history, the Franchise -- Francis -- was caught with his head down along the near boards by New Jersey captain Scott Stevens. The check knocked Francis out for the rest of the playoffs. In fact, the image of Francis, his mouth piece hanging from his lip like a cigar, staggering back to the bench will forever be burned in the minds of everyone who was in the building that night or watching on television somewhere.
That Carolina would go on to lose the game, 4-0, should not have come as a surprise to anyone. That the Canes would bounce back three nights later, a 3-2 win in overtime, to hold off New Jersey's inevitable advance to the second round probably did.
Behind a goal and two assists from Brind'Amour, not to mention nearly 27 minutes of ice time, the Canes took the series back to the Meadowlands to make the Devils expend just a little more energy. Somehow, somewhere, in the swamps of Jersey, Carolina mustered another 3-2 win, and the series was coming back to Raleigh for Game 6.
Never mind the final score. Never mind that the Hurricanes were soundly beaten, 5-1 by the Devils, who would eventually win the conference but lose in the finals to the Colorado Avalanche. What amazed Brind'Amour was the incredible positivity and supportive from the home fans.
"I've been in losing playoff series' before and they boo you," Brind'Amour said of the normal home crowd reaction --especially in Philadelphia. "But, this crowd was thanking us and I was shocked. It had a lot to do with me wanting to be a part of building it here."
What happened next for Brind'Amour was just economics. He signed a 5-year contract that went a long way to assuring that he'd never play for another franchise. It wasn't his last deal with the Hurricanes. But, it paved the way for so much. With Brind'Amour in the fold, the Hurricanes shocked the world by playing for the Cup in 2002 and winning it four years later. In each case, it was the shrewd maneuvering of Rutherford that provided the firepower.
Coming out of a league-forced lockout of the players in 2005, Rutherford assembled one of the sneakily best teams in the last decade of the sport. With Cory Stillman, Ray Whitney and Matt Cullen added to a forward group that already possessed Brind'Amour, up-and-coming star Eric Staal, explosive power forward Erik Cole and Justin Williams -- a player who, like Rod, arrived in a surprising trade from Philadelphia -- the Canes were faster and more skilled than at any time in their history. Then throw in deadline deals for Mark Recchi and Doug Weight, veterans who added to a remarkable locker room in which any three of 15 players were equipped to wear a letter, and you had the makings of a championship team.
But for Brind'Amour, the signs of good things to come showed up midway through the 2001-02 season, when Rutherford's trading prowess turned talented-yet-enigmatic defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh into defenseman Bret Hedican and defensive-minded center Kevyn Adams. The ever-humble Brind'Amour insists that this might have been Rutherford's best deal, "forget that they were both good players, they were quality people, the kind you want to be around."
Maybe, when you get down to it, that was Rutherford's brilliance, and to a certain extent, his downfall. He cared about people, he liked his players personally, and at times he probably hung on to them too long.
For Brind'Amour, who never envisioned retiring in a Carolina sweater following that surprise afternoon phone call during the winter of 2000, it's almost impossible to separate the executive from the man.
In the end, it seems to me that both share a very similar place in the heart of the team's fans. One is the greatest player in Hurricanes history, likely a future member of Hockey's Hall of Fame. The other, the man most responsible for bringing a Stanley Cup to the Triangle and both are long overdue for induction into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
For Brind'Amour, much like his boss, there's more to this relationship than just hockey.
"I feel like I owe him so much because he brought me here and the memories of winning the cup will be with me forever," Brind'Amour said. "But, it was also the way he supported me personally during some very difficult times that makes it hard to put into words just how important he's been to me."
And, to this organization.