“O-M-G,” was Jim Rutherford’s reaction when he answered the phone Tuesday afternoon.
On the other end of the phone were Lanny MacDonald and John Davidson from the Hall of Fame selection committee. Rutherford knew right away why they were calling.
“I got a phone call a couple hours ago, it was probably the most humbling experience I’ve had in my hockey career,” Rutherford admitted in a tone of voice befitting of a man whose life work was just recognized as worthy of the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Builders’ category. “I really didn’t know what to say. I’m not really sure how to put this all into words.”
Rutherford is one of four active GMs with three Stanley Cup championships. He’s rubbed elbows and beaten the best in the game. But the first memories and thoughts were of his family. And his beginnings.
“I think the memories go all the way back to you as a kid, and your mom and your dad, and my family. You know, when it all starts, you don’t know where it’s going,” Rutherford said. “I went through all of the stages as a hockey player and now as a manager. I’ve had some good fortune and met a lot of great people and I’ve had the good fortune of having a lot of great players to help me get to the success of winning championships which ultimately gets you to the Hall of Fame.”
“But the first thoughts are when you put your first pair of skates on and your mom and dad stand there. That was my first thought.”
The Penguins 70-year old GM is one of the most plainspoken, forthright dealers in the NHL. When asked where he goes from here–after winning Stanley Cups and being named to the Hall of Fame, Rutherford deadpanned.
“Probably back to my office to change this team like I’ve been trying to do for two months,” he said likely in jest but not entirely. “I still have the desire to win.”
Rutherford first became an NHL GM with the Hartford Whalers in 1994. Prior to that, he met former Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos who was looking for an NHL team to purchase. Rutherford was running a goalie camp and Karmanos was impressed. He wanted Rutherford to come along for the ride.
After a few years as a junior hockey executive, Rutherford’s ride began in Hartford. A few years later, it moved to Carolina, but they didn’t yet have a home arena. So the team played 70 miles away.
Rutherford called that, “adversity.”
Rutherford built Carolina which won the Eastern Conference in 2002 then his and the organization’s first Stanley Cup in 2006.
The humbled Penguins executive recounted the days of building Carolina and accepting retirement before Penguins President David Morehouse called in the summer of 2014.
“After meeting with Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux and (Morehouse), and it was just a good meeting,” he said. “And I knew with everything they said, I could win a Cup,” he said.
Rutherford also recounted his first move as Penguins GM, then caught himself with a little wry smile.
“The first change was bringing in (Patric) Hornqvist for (James) Neal. You know, (Neal) was a guy who scored a lot of goals here and was a popular player but I really felt the culture needed to be changed.”
“I think we just heard that a few months ago,” Rutherford could only smile at the statement which was too dripping in present-day comparison to ignore.
Rutherford was the 17th person with Penguins ties to become a Hall of Famer and the second GM. Current Penguins scout Craig Patrick was inducted into the Builders’ category when he was the Penguins GM in 2001.
Pittsburgh has become home for the Penguins newest Hall of Famer.
“It’s been a great experience. Pittsburgh is home now. We’ll probably have a house here forever.”
It’s been a wild ride since the summer of 2014 when Rutherford was pushed aside in Carolina for Ron Francis (also a Hall of Famer with deep Penguins ties), then hired in Pittsburgh amidst a bit of fury and backlash from an already unhappy fanbase.
So, two Stanley Cups later, Jim Rutherford will also reside forever in Toronto, surrounded by his heroes and contemporaries in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony is Nov. 18.