Relationships define Hall of Fame Penguins GM Jim Rutherford
Even after he set all sorts of American Hockey League goaltending records with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in 2014-15 then “graduated” to the NHL roster in 2015-16, Matt Murray didn’t have much of a relationship with Jim Rutherford.
In fact, based on the way Murray detailed it, he had no relationship with the Penguins’ general manager.
At least not until the spring of 2016.
“He’s pretty quiet,” Murray said. “He doesn’t really talk to us for the most part. My first year (in the NHL), we won the (Stanley) Cup and I don’t know if he said a word to me yet. Then after we won the Cup in San Jose, the next morning, getting on the plane, he calls me over with a little smirk on his face. And he just gives me the biggest bear hug I’ve ever had in my life.”
Rutherford will receive recognition for his life’s work as an executive on Monday evening when he is formally inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto in the builders category.
Having been a general manager since 1994, when he assumed that position with the former Hartford Whalers, so much of what defines Rutherford is the relationships he has built during a quarter of a century in a front office role. As a result, his induction will be celebrated by so many around the NHL.
“I feel really nervous about the speech on Monday night,” Rutherford told reporters in Toronto on Friday. “I don’t want to miss anybody and I’ve had a lot of people really help me.”
“I’m really glad that it happened now,” said Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice, who was hired (and fired) twice by Rutherford with the Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes franchise. “He didn’t have to wait for it so that he can share that with his family. They’re all around him. His son is old enough to appreciate it. All the people that are involved in Jim’s life … all the important people are still able to enjoy it with him.”
In addition to family, Rutherford will be joined by several members of the Penguins who will attend the ceremony.
“I’m really grateful,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said after Sunday’s practice. “It’s tough during the season sometimes to have an opportunity to step away from it for a day. For myself personally and our coaching staff to have the opportunity to be a part of Jim’s celebration, it’s a privilege and a thrill for us.”
Rutherford hired Sullivan in the 2015 offseason to take over as head coach of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton then promoted him in December to replace Mike Johnston. After bouncing around the NHL as an assistant coach for the better part of a decade, Sullivan was given his second opportunity to run an NHL bench after only lasting two seasons as the Boston Bruins’ head coach in the mid-2000s.
“He exemplifies what the Hall of Fame stands for,” Sullivan said. “My personal experience with him, I can’t say enough. I can’t share the gratitude I have to him for giving me the opportunity to coach this team and to work with him. He’s a great leader. He provides the coaching staff so much, so many insights and just his calm demeanor. His sense of humor is always appropriate on a daily basis for our group. It’s a privilege to work with him.
“Obviously, when you win Stanley (Cup titles), it certainly galvanizes relationships. It’s hard for me to articulate in words what it’s meant to me personally to work with him, become his friend. I value his friendship more than anything at this point.”
Much like Maurice, Rutherford maintains positive relations with several of his former understudies, including the three fellow general managers who worked under him such as Bill Guerin of the Minnesota Wild, Jason Botterill of the Buffalo Sabres and Ron Francis of the unnamed Seattle expansion franchise.
“Jim and I over the years have become very close,” said Guerin, who worked as an assistant general manager under Rutherford. “It didn’t happen overnight. One of the things I give Jim so much credit for, and it’s one of the things I’ve had in the back of my mind coming to Minnesota, is that Jim came in with an open mind and a brand new staff of people he didn’t know before and I was included in that. And he gave us an opportunity to earn his trust. I’m forever grateful for that. That’s what I’m going through right now. Jim and my relationship has definitely evolved over time and strengthened to where I consider him a very good friend and mentor. I’ve learned a ton from him.”
In comparison to coaches or other executives, Rutherford keeps his relationships with players a bit more at arm’s length.
“I wouldn’t say we’re best friends but we definitely respect each other a lot,” said defenseman Brian Dumoulin, who Rutherford traded from the Hurricanes to the Penguins in 2012 before being reunited in Pittsburgh in 2014. “That’s one thing that I have for him. I know at the end of the day, he’s looking out for our best interests.”
Murray has a bit of a unique rapport with Rutherford as they have each manned the net for this franchise. In a 13-year career as a goaltender, Rutherford spent parts of three seasons with the Penguins during the early 1970s.
“As goalies, there’s always a special bond, I guess you could say, just because it’s such a different position than any other position in the game,” Murray said. “So you can kind of relate to each other. He’s obviously part of that goalie fraternity. At the same time, he’s your boss. It’s a unique relationship for sure. But the fact that he’s a goalie, he can relate to us pretty well. He’s an approachable guy if you ever want to approach him.”
After being gently pushed out of the Hurricanes’ general manager position in 2014 following several non-playoff campaigns, Rutherford was at peace with the prospect of career being over.
But a meeting with the Penguins for their vacant general manager role changed that and so many other things.
“I had pretty much made my mind that I had put enough time in the game and I was going to retire,” Rutherford said. “But then when I came and I had that meeting with the owners, it was like ‘Well, this is a great opportunity. I’m pretty sure I can win a championship here.’ “
Rutherford took the job and led the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cup titles in 2016 and 2017, the first such occasion in the NHL in nearly two decades.
He made the most of his second chance by giving a second (or third or fourth) chance to so many key members of those teams.
“Second chances [aren’t] a bad thing,” Rutherford said on the ice of San Jose’s HP Pavilion on June 12, 2016, following the team’s championship-clinching 3-1 victory against the San Jose Sharks in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final. “Too many times people want to beat up on people that are going through a tough time. You can see when guys get a second chance and they fit into a good situation, that’s better for them. That’s what’s happened to guys here.”
That’s what happened for Jim Rutherford and so many others he provided opportunities to throughout his career in the NHL.
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .