Penguins GM prepares for emotional series against Carolina
For almost two decades, Raleigh was Jim Rutherford’s home.
He was the architect of the 2006 Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes and played a vital role in turning Raleigh into a hockey town, controlling the hockey and business portions of the team’s operation.
This weekend, Rutherford comes face-to-face with his old franchise for the first time, finishing with a trip to PNC Arena on Saturday.
“The games are about the players, not the manager,” Rutherford said.
A moment later, he displayed a hint of a smile.
This isn’t just another trip to North Carolina, and he knows it.
“I try not to think about it,” he said. “I expect that going back into that building, my emotions will get going a little bit more than normal.”
Rutherford became the general manager of the Hurricanes when they still were the Hartford Whalers in June 1994. He became one of hockey’s most respected general managers during the next two decades. His Hurricanes reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2002 before claiming a title in 2006.
After reaching the 2009 Eastern Conference final — the Hurricanes were swept by the Penguins that spring — Carolina went into a downward spiral, failing to reach the postseason since. Rutherford was replaced by former Penguins star Ron Francis as GM earlier this year.
Ready to move on from a high- profile role — Rutherford owned a small portion of the Hurricanes and remained an advisor at the time of the general manager switch — the 65-year-old Rutherford could not resist when the Penguins came calling.
But he remains close with many in Raleigh and feels no animosity toward the Hurricanes, even if that organization had decided Francis was the man to lead it forward.
“I was treated terrific there from the owner to the players, to fellow workers and the fans,” Rutherford said. “I have a lot of friends there. Not one regret. Not one hard feeling.”
Rutherford keeps track of his old team. The Hurricanes are struggling this season and appear destined to compete in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes rather than the playoffs.
“It (losing) would happen to any team,” Rutherford said. “They had a lot of key injuries. (The Hurricanes) had injuries over the last three or four years there. Just a run of bad luck. But they’ve got players back now, and they’re playing a lot better.”
Rutherford has some players, too.
Guys named Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury. The Penguins likely are the most talented team Rutherford has overseen.
“You know how this game goes,” he said. “Moods go as days and games go. But yeah, I like what our team has done.”
He said he probably will be emotional, first when he sees the Hurricanes in his new city Friday and especially Saturday night when Rutherford returns to the south.
Rutherford, though, has maintained his sense of humor.
“I call Ronnie once a week to see if I can get a player or two,” he said.
Then he smiled again.
“I stay in touch,” he said. “Not on a regular basis, but you know, a lot of those people are very close friends of mine.”