What: Carolina at Detroit
When: Thursday, November 21, 7:30pm (TV: FSD)
Before goalies were the size of basketball players and as wide as garage doors, there were little guys in net, like Jimmy Rutherford.
Rutherford was the beleaguered goalie for the Red Wings throughout most of the 1970s, a chilling decade of hockey in Detroit otherwise known as “Darkness with Harkness,” in reference to the terrorism inflicted by first coach, then GM Ned Harkness.
Harkness was only with the Red Wings from 1970-73, but his destruction was felt for years. Kind of like the damage Dick Vitale did to the Pistons’ future in a mere 18 months, from May 1978 to November 1979.
But one of the good things Harkness did was bring Rutherford back, two years after shipping Jimmy to Pittsburgh in 1971 after Rutherford’s rookie season.
Rutherford tended net in 1970-71 for Detroit, then again from 1973-80, certainly earning the league’s version of the Purple Heart in the process.
On countless nights, Rutherford was left hung out to dry by a Swiss cheese defense. yet somehow, Rutherford still holds the Red Wings record with three consecutive shutouts, pitched in the 1975-76 season.
After Rutherford retired, I met him in his new role as hockey executive. He was the GM of the OHL’s expansion Detroit Ambassadors, who would eventually become the Jr. Red Wings (and who would become the Plymouth Whalers).
The cable company I worked for was commissioned to televise a handful of Ambassadors games in their maiden season of 1990-91, on a tape-delay basis. So it was that I met Rutherford over lunch one day in 1990, to discuss the deal.
We forged a relationship, and later that season he allowed me to wear a mike and stand behind the bench during a game against Windsor at Cobo Arena as a de facto assistant coach while a camera guy recorded it all for a special piece for our viewers. More on that night in a future blog post. You won’t want to miss it.
The next season, the team, owned by Pete Karmanos’ Compuware, became the Jr. Red Wings and moved to Joe Louis Arena. It was during that season that GM Rutherford fired coach Andy Weidenbach and took over as coach himself.
We happened to be televising Jimmy’s first game as coach. But there was a hellacious snowstorm that night, and Detroit’s opponents were late to JLA. The game was delayed by over an hour.
I saw Rutherford pacing outside the dressing room as I did some last minute technical specs checking. I sidled over to him.
“You look like a nervous wreck,” I said. “Of all nights for the game to be delayed, eh?”
He gave me a tired smile. “Yeah. I just want to get this over with.”
We spent a few minutes alone, in the hallway, as I tried to give him some encouragement.
“Have a good game,” I said as I headed back to the production truck.
“Thanks. You too,” he said.
I can’t even remember if the Jr. Wings won that night. I bet Jimmy does, though.
Of course, we all know that Rutherford has carved quite a niche in the NHL as an executive with the Carolina Hurricanes, also owned by Karmanos. Jimmy put together the Stanley Cup-winning team of 2006.
A side note: one of Weidenbach’s assistants the night I stood behind the bench was Paul Maurice, who would one day coach the Hurricanes and also the Toronto Maple Leafs.
After Jimmy Rutherford left Detroit and moved to Hartford (Karmanos bought the Whalers and then moved them to Carolina in 1997), we spoke on several occasions. Once, in 1994, he was going to hire me for a job in the organization but couldn’t work me in. That was fine. It was an honor to be considered.