Luke DeCock

Rutherford gets name on Stanley Cup again … and last word

General manager Jim Rutherford of the Pittsburgh Penguins lifts the Stanley Cup after the Penguins won Game 6 of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final 3-1 over the San Jose Sharks.
General manager Jim Rutherford of the Pittsburgh Penguins lifts the Stanley Cup after the Penguins won Game 6 of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final 3-1 over the San Jose Sharks. NHLI via Getty Images

For Jim Rutherford, the biggest difference between this Stanley Cup and the one he won with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 is that he was actually able to enjoy winning it this time.

Ten years ago, Rutherford was only 11 days removed from being hospitalized for a kidney stone between Games 2 and 3 of the finals. The Hurricanes left their general manager behind when they stopped to refuel in Iowa on their way to Edmonton. By the time they finished off the Oilers at home in Game 7, Rutherford was still pretty far from recovered, not that it stopped him from lifting the Cup over his head on the PNC Arena ice.

“I was told if we won I wasn’t supposed to lift the Cup,” Rutherford said. “It didn’t matter who told me that. I was lifting the Cup that night. Dougie Weight felt the same way, and he did the same thing.”

There were no such issues earlier this month when Rutherford and the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup in San Jose Calif., closing out the Sharks in six games. Two years and six days after he ended a six-week retirement to join the Penguins, Rutherford was back on top of the hockey world – and, not long after, won the NHL’s general manager of the year award, which didn’t exist back in 2006.

He also got to shove Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos’ words back down his throat, having suffered through his former employer’s public and unprovoked criticism a year ago of the trade that brought Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh as well as the first-round picks Rutherford traded for immediate help. “You can’t blame me for the Kessel signing (sic),” Karmanos said, only for Kessel’s goal-scoring to make the difference for the Penguins.

People ask me, ‘Does this one feel better than the other one?’ No, it doesn’t. It was just as exciting in Carolina as it has been in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford

Karmanos’ ridicule of someone with whom he had worked so closely for decades was tacky at the time and even more embarrassing now that Rutherford is laughing last and the Hurricanes’ playoff drought continues.

Still, Rutherford’s departure worked out for both him and the Hurricanes. Ron Francis is pursuing the kind of top-to-bottom restocking of talent that Rutherford wasn’t inclined to undertake – Francis has used three first-round picks on defensemen in three drafts; in 17 drafts, Rutherford took five in the first round – while Rutherford was able to take over a contending but chronically underachieving roster and nudge it in a championship direction in only two seasons.

The midseason coaching change to hard-nosed Mike Sullivan was reminiscent of Rutherford’s decision to replace Peter Laviolette with Paul Maurice in 2009, while his trades, particularly for Anaheim’s wrecking-ball winger Carl Hagelin, were echoes of the acquisition of Weight and Mark Recchi in 2006.

“Winning the second one felt the same way as winning the first one,” Rutherford said. “Winning a championship at any level is really special. After I had time to digest it, I think about the fact I was able to win it with two different teams in two different cities and that feels pretty good, that part of it. People ask me, ‘Does this one feel better than the other one?’ No, it doesn’t. It was just as exciting in Carolina as it has been in Pittsburgh.”

Rutherford was never a Hall of Fame-caliber goaltender, but it’s possible steering two very different teams to the Stanley Cup could someday get him in as a general manager; at the least, he should join Francis and Rod Brind’Amour in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

Especially as North Carolina remains his home despite his newfound success elsewhere, and Rutherford will be back here soon, spending the summer at TPC Wakefield Plantation. His team may be different, but his address is the same, even as his name goes on the Stanley Cup for a second time.

Luke DeCock: 919-812-7195, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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