Builder Of Cup Champion 'Canes No Stranger To Change
By Shawn Conley

Glancing around the office of Jim Rutherford, president and general manager of the National Hockey League’s Carolina Hurricanes, the first thing that catches your eye is how neat it is.  Everything, from the desk to the bookshelves covered with hockey memorabilia, appears to be organized. 

      This environment belies the chaos and upheaval that Rutherford has become accustomed to during his NHL career. Only the pictures on the walls that document the evolutions of the Detroit Red Wings and Hartford Whalers uniforms hint at the change that has been a large part of his life.
           In a typical week, Rutherford juggles the concerns of the Hurricanes with those of the R.B.C. Center, the team’s home arena, and is in constant contact with the most integral people in his organization, the NHL and the local business community. Rutherford is quick to point out, though, that nothing is really typical about life with an NHL franchise.      




“Some days,” Rutherford says, “I’m working strictly arena things, some days strictly on Hurricanes stuff, some strictly on the players.  I couldn’t even tell you what my week is going to be.” 
He likes to describe his role in the business as one of an overseer. “My role,” Rutherford says, “is to give the company the proper direction, and if that breaks down, to fix it.”  Most of his “fixing” has been directed towards clearing up the hockey fan in the South’s misconceptions about a traditionally northern sport.  While “southern” and “hockey” used to be a contradiction of terms, the success of the Hurricanes last season and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Cup win in  2004, have helped to dispel that notion.
     At 57, Rutherford himself could be considered at odds with the NHL’s image. At 5’ 8’’ and peering through glasses beneath a head of brown hair peppered with, he is nowhere near being the tall, muscular player so prevalent in pro hockey.  Even his peers, who are aware of his history and achievements, have been known to describe as “diminutive.”
     While he admits that the uncertainty of life in the NHL can be frustrating, dealing with all the change has been enjoyable so far. “I like to describe my job as not being fun,” Rutherford says, “But I like it because it’s a great challenge and I think that’s what life is made of, it’s made of challenges.” This love of challenges manifested itself early in his life.
       Born in Beeton, Ont., Rutherford was no different from any other Canadian kid: He played hockey.  Selected by the Detroit in the first round of the 1969 amateur draft, he spent 13 seasons the Red Wings, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Los Angeles Kings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, all the while deflecting criticism and questions about his size and ability to handle the physical side of the game. He retired in 1983 after appearing in 457 games and recording 14 shutouts.
Rutherford’s quiet commitment to his team and his ability to fight through the challenges earned him the respect of friends and foes alike. His quiet demeanor has also served him well in the front office of the Hurricanes as he oversaw the relocation of the team from Hartford, Conn., to Raleigh. Rutherford has enjoyed his front row seat as his team captured the hearts of hundreds of thousands of hearts in NASCAR Country. 
     “Well, the main thing is we have a lot more stability.” Rutherford says. “We moved
the team from Hartford to here in four months.  That’s a process that should take anywhere from 18-24 months, so that was hectic.  We were in Greensboro and that made it difficult on everybody.”
As the GM of a team that had missed the playoffs in their last five seasons in Hartford, Rutherford is used to being in a difficult position – and surviving. In his 13th season with the Hurricanes, Rutherford is the longest tenured GM in franchise history and the fifth-longest currently in the NHL.
“Unfortunately in professional sports,” says Rutherford, “the ultimate decision maker doesn’t view things or evaluate things necessarily the way they should.  So many coaches get terminated thinking that that’s gonna’ fix the teams problems, and I wouldn’t think maybe five percent of the time coaches get changed the team changes.  To evaluate somebody’s job properly you have to gather a lot more information than the performance of the product.”
     Rutherford credits his staying power in the front office to his smooth transition from player to manager and his relationship with Peter Karmanos Jr., the owner of the Hurricanes. “Part of my longevity,” he says, “is when I started with (Karmanos) when I retired; I learned the business side from him.  Well, I already had the hockey side but I started out in the grass roots and we’ve had a long relationship.”
     To learn the fundamentals of the business of hockey, Rutherford had to return to the minor leagues. “It was a big learning curve,” he recalls, “but I did it over a long period of time. Being a player is like being the top salesman in your company. Usually, when the
person becomes the top salesman in his company then they want to become the manager.  It doesn’t necessarily work.  He’s a great salesman but he doesn’t necessarily know how
to manage. It’s the same thing for a player.”
     Re-learning hockey on the management side was not an easy experience for an ex-goaltender. “What I did when I retired,” he recalls, “that transition was tough enough because you’re a player all your life and you have that transition period of adjusting to a new, different lifestyle.  But (then) my management learning curve started.  I took 10 years through the learning process of being a manager from being a player until I came back to this level.”
      Rutherford and Karmanos think they have built a dominant franchise in the southern market. “The vision that we had, Mr. Karmanos and myself,” he says, “is what we’re seeing today.  We felt it would take about five years in this market before we could start
to really see where the franchise was going.” 
     Working with a lean, pre-New NHL budget that was dwarfed by those of established teams such as the Detroit, Rutherford resisted making trades to try to upgrade the ’Canes. Instead, he developed players through the draft. Along the way, he quietly became someone people in the hockey industry listen to. 
     “I am a person of few words,” Rutherford admits, “but what I say is from my heart and usually pretty well thought out so when I speak at (general managers’) meetings
people listen pretty close.”
     After the Hurricanes took a run at the Stanley Cup in 2002, The Hockey News voted Rutherford Executive of the Year. Then, the Sporting News voted him NHL Executive of the Year during last season’s playoffs.
     That doesn’t mean that everyone always agrees with him.  Many fans and hockey analyst question unexpected trades and other player moves by the team, such as the recent deal that sent Josef Vasicek to the Nashville Predators for Scott Walker, or the reacquisition of Shane Willis, David Tanabe and Jesse Boulerice during the offseason. Dealing with criticism from people outside the organization is something that Rutherford just had to find a way to deal with.
     “I handle it very easily,” says Rutherford, “because I don’t listen to any of it.  I don’t take e-mails. I don’t read the newspaper. I don’t listen to (or) watch the sports talk shows.
“That can be very dangerous. You start listening to all those people that are all wrapped up in their emotions without enough information to make the proper decisions.”
Rutherford also distances himself from his players. “I have very little contact with the players,” he admits. “I only talk to them when I have something to say.  I’m not one to be hanging around the players.  They know when they play well, and if they play bad long enough they know they are going to end up talking to me.”
      Keeping up with players’ performance, whether they are in the Hurricanes’ system or with another organization, is critical to the club’s success.
     “The fun part of the job is watching the players develop,” Rutherford says. “We bring a player here and a lot of people think that player should be a good player right away.  I have a plan for those players and it’s stretched out over time, and just watching the players develop over time like the Bates Battaglias and the Eric Coles, and then there’s guys like Vasicek. We saw him years ago.”
Players who exceed expectations delight Rutherford the most. “Jesse Boulerice,” Rutherford recalls, “you know, I watched him as a junior and I knew he had a chance based on the role he played, how tough he was, that he might have a chance to play at this level.  I did not see him being as good a player as he is, that he could hold his own.  To see him do something I didn’t think he was gonna’ be able to do, just stuff like that is fun for me.”
    When he isn’t juggling the concerns of the Hurricanes, their Florida Everblades (ECHL) farm team and Karmanos’s OHL franchise, the Plymouth (Mich.) Whalers, Rutherford plays golf with his wife, Leslie, and serves on the boards of organizations such as the Special Olympics of North Carolina and the Tournament Player’s Club at Wakefield.
     He also enjoys keeping up with his daughter, Andrea, a teacher in Springfield, Mass.  Even though she is miles away, Rutherford knows she follows the team and her father’s career as closely as if she were in North Carolina.
Benefits, monetary and intangible, have come Rutherford’s way as a result of the Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup championship last season.
     “The thing that I enjoy most,” he says, “is when I phone somebody and ask for somebody, and they say he’s not in today, and they ask who’s calling, and I say Jim Rutherford, they say ‘Oh let me check, maybe he is in.’ ”
     






 
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