Rutherford takes long path from goaltender to GM



Jim Rutherford was 22 years old with just 29 games of experience as an NHL goaltender when he arrived in Pittsburgh for the 1971-72 season to this reception from new teammate and forward Duane Rupp:

"The year prior to him coming, I happened to get lucky and score a hat trick against him when he played in Detroit, so I was, like, 'How are we going to get any goals now that you're on our team?' "

It was all in good fun, of course. Hockey players being hockey players.

Rutherford was early in a playing career that lasted into the early 1980s, but those also were the formative years for someone who was destined to spend all of his working life in hockey.

Friday, Rutherford, 65, was introduced as the Penguins general manager, replacing Ray Shero, who was fired three weeks earlier.

"With goalies, when they're not playing, they really get to analyze the game a lot," said another Penguins teammate from the early 1970s, defenseman Dave Burrows.

"He's one of those guys who could remember everything about the game. I wasn't one of those guys, but Jimmy would talk after a game about a play that would happen this way or that way. That's a gift.

"He was so keen about the game, on and off the ice, that it came as no surprise that he became a GM. He's perfectly suited to it."

For the past 30 or so years, Rutherford's was tied to Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos Jr. Rutherford was the Hartford/Carolina general manager for 20 years -- including a Stanley Cup in 2006 -- before stepping aside in April and into what the Hurricanes called "president in an advisory role," with former Penguins star Ron Francis taking over as general manager.

"Jim's my best friend, and I'm very happy for him," Karmanos told the Raleigh News & Observer. "He has been the face of the Hurricanes, and we will miss him. The fact we've built such an exceptional organization is a testament to how good he was at his job.

"Jim did a wonderful job mentoring Ronnie. That's why teams like Pittsburgh wanted him to come, to mentor some of their young people for that position. There are not many teams he would have talked to."

Rutherford indicated that he expected to groom one of three prominent members of his new staff -- associate general manager Jason Botterill and assistant general managers Tom Fitzgerald and Bill Guerin -- to take over.

"Certainly, if he was around here, he would have been a guy that I talked to and leaned on with his experience," Francis said. "I'm happy for him. It's a good opportunity for him, something he wanted to do. I wish him well in all the games, except when they play us."

Even if Rutherford's role had been reduced lately, his absence already was felt at PNC Arena.

"It wasn't an easy day," said Hurricanes senior director of communications Mike Sundheim, who started with the club as an intern in 1999 and credited Rutherford for assisting his upward mobility.

"He was well liked. He's a really loyal guy and took care of the people who worked for him. Tough when he had to be, but always honest with you."

Rutherford also leaves the Hurricanes without the staff there finding out whether his "tell" was real.

"Urban legend around the office is he would walk around with a putter when he was about to make a big deal," Sundheim said. "If you asked him about it, he would be like, 'What putter?' "

Rutherford had two years remaining on his contract with Carolina, and he has an ownership stake in the Hurricanes that he will need to give up. The Penguins, however, offer him a fresh start after a run of five years when Carolina missed the playoffs after getting swept in the 2009 Eastern Conference final by the Penguins, who were on their way to a Stanley Cup.

"The stress level he had been feeling the past three or four years ... I was worried about him," Karmanos said. "And I told him when we play Pittsburgh I plan to sit and talk to him, and, if I think he's getting stressed out again, I'll let him know, as a friend. He's going back into the pressure-cooker."

Rutherford's reputation does not seem to reflect someone who shows stress.

"I remember talking to Ray [Shero] about Jim when they did the Jordan Staal deal," Guerin said of a blockbuster trade on draft day in June 2012 in which the Penguins dealt Staal to the Hurricanes for center Brandon Sutter, defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin and the eighth overall pick in that draft that was used to select defenseman Derrick Pouliot.

"Ray said that he's a very easy guy to deal with, good to deal with, fair," Guerin said. "That's what I've gotten so far. He's a straight shooter."

Penguins winger Craig Adams concurs. Adams was on Carolina's 2006 Cup team.

"He was always up front and honest with me -- a lot like Ray Shero in that way, someone you can talk to," Adams said of Rutherford. "You're not always going to agree with what he says, but you appreciate him being honest.

"It was tough to see a guy like Ray Shero go because he was that kind of guy, too. To be able to get a guy like [Rutherford], it's good to see."

As a player, Rutherford, who had 157 wins and 14 shutouts in 457 NHL appearances, dealt with stress in a couple of ways.

One was with humor.

"Him and Les Binkley were the two goalies. They were both always kind of keeping things active in the room," Rupp recalled. "Keeping things on a happy note, not letting things get to the guys."

Burrows was Rutherford's road roommate with the Penguins in the early 1970s. He saw the humor -- and the game face.

"He was one of my best friends back then, just a really good guy," Burrows said. "Jimmy had a great sense of humor, all except on game days. He didn't say a word on game days. I just knew. I wouldn't talk to him the morning of games. He wouldn't have talked to me anyway."

Rutherford was a first-round draft choice of Detroit's in 1969. The Penguins claimed him in June 1971 off intra-league drafts, similar to the waiver wire of later years. He was with the Penguins until he was traded back to Detroit along with Jack Lynch for defenseman Ron Stackhouse during the 1973-74 season.

Jack Riley, who was the general manager for most of Rutherford's time with the Penguins, remembered Rutherford playing well against Chicago in the first round of the 1972 playoffs, even though the Blackhawks swept the Penguins.

"He was a pretty good goalie," Riley said. "He was very small, and I just thought his size was against him, but he moved pretty well. Had a good glove hand."

The Penguins were less than 10 years into their NHL life then, and the city looked a lot different.

"A lot of things have changed," Rutherford said.

"The one thing that hasn't changed in Pittsburgh -- I always see this when I visit Pittsburgh, and that's why I'm excited about being back -- is the people are great. The people are very friendly. That's the thing I remembered from long ago when I played here."

He got into management by as director of hockey operations for Compuware Sports Corp. in 1983, the same year he finished his playing career. Compuware in 1984 bought the junior Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League, with Rutherford serving as general manager.

Rutherford helped Windsor reach the 1988 Memorial Cup final, and, in 1989, spearheaded Compuware's campaign to bring an OHL club to Detroit, the first in the league in the United States.

He was the OHL's Executive of the Year in 1987 and 1988, and in 2009 he was named the executive on the OHL's all-time team. His days as an NHL general manager date to June 28, 1994, when he was named GM and president of the Hartford Whalers, who moved to Carolina in 1997.

Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.


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