"Two out of three ain't bad" -- Meat Loaf, from the classic album Bat Out of Hell
The way Jay Feaster and the Flames (good name for a band, eh?) saw it last Christmas, they'd have to take the Meat Loaf route the rest of the way if they were to have any chance of making the playoffs.
"Our coach (Brent Sutter) put out a challenge to our team before a December 23 game in Dallas," Feaster says from a hotel room in that very city where his Flames were to battle the Stars on Wednesday night. "It was: 'Let's win two out of three from here on out. Just focus on three-game blocks at a time.' Since he put that challenge out there, our record is 21-6-6. When you take it out of the realm of 'Boy, look at all these teams we're chasing and have to climb over', that new outlook kind of made it seem less daunting in the bigger picture. Let's just look at now as a three-game playoff, and you have to win two out of three."
A note of interest: During the NHL's far out days of the 1970s -- 1976 to '79 to be precise, back when Meat Loaf ruled the airwaves -- all but the league's four division-winning playoff teams had to fight it out in scary best-of-three postseason series in order to advance from the first round.
Anyway, so there the Flames were after Wednesday's 4-3 win, in fifth place in the getting-into-Harvard-is-easier-than-this Western Conference. Three months ago, they were considered old, tired and in need of a full overhaul. But it turned out that maybe all that was needed in Calgary was a change near the top of the masthead. While Feaster the general manager is first to credit his coach for the new recipe for success, is it any coincidence that the big turnaround happened right after Darryl Sutter resigned on Dec. 28? It's not to those who have worked with Feaster in the past, including former NHL coach Bob Hartley, who called him a "very smart and very honest man. People who have underestimated him have been sorry later on."
Those who may be singing Brenda Lee's I'm Sorry now around Feaster could be the many teams that passed up hiring him in the two-plus years he was out of a job after he resigned from the chaos that was Tampa Bay in 2008. Just four years after helping lead the Lightning -- the Lightning -- to the Stanley Cup, Feaster found himself GM of a franchise that had two new owners (Len Barrie and Oren Koules) whose theme song for running a hockey team might be summed up as Talking Heads' Burning Down the House. Barrie and Koules fought with each other, hired and fired buddies at will (see: Barry Melrose), and insisted on making major personnel moves without any consideration of Feaster's input.
"There was a tremendous amount of turmoil," Feaster says of his final season (2007-08) in Tampa. "Even as the team was in the process of being sold (to Barrie and Koules), the two potential new owners were very, very active throughout the season -- at the trade deadline, at the draft. It was a very difficult situation."
With the Cup not very far down on his resume, Feaster thought he might have a buyer's market in which to choose a new team to manage. Sure, some bad trades were officially made under his recent watch in Tampa, but did anyone really think that he -- and not the bumbling new would-be owners -- would have traded Brad Richards for peanuts at the 2007 deadline? Did anyone in their right mind really think that Feaster wanted to trade Dan Boyle -- who he had just signed to a six-year, $40 million contract in Feb. of 2008 -- to San Jose five months later in what proved a disastrous deal?
Feaster thought it would be plain to everyone in the know, but judging by the silence of his telephone for more than two years, maybe it wasn't. He let it be known that he wanted to get back into general managing as soon as possible, but the phone stayed silent. He was reduced to doing such things as blogging for The Hockey News and maybe making the token appearance on a radio show to offer his two cents on whatever might be going on somewhere else. A lot of nights were spent in press boxes around the league, answering the same question: "What are you doing now?"
"I started thinking, maybe this isn't meant to be," he says. "I thought about maybe going back into law, putting my law degree (Georgetown, Class of '87, Cum Laude) back to use and getting out of the game. And then this came along, and it's been tremendous."
"This" was a call last summer from Flames president Ken King, who wondered if Feaster might be interested in an assistant GM job under Darryl Sutter. Some thought it a fool's errand, as everybody in hockey knew that Darryl ran the show from top to bottom in Calgary and wasn't exactly known as someone who consulted others much for advice on hockey matters. Plus, how would Sutter's own brother react to a guy who some people no doubt would think was just itching for Darryl to fail so he could take his job? But as someone who used to test new rollercoasters as part of his job defending the Hershey Entertainment and Resorts Co. in liability insurance matters, Feaster was up for the new ride.
Feaster quickly proved to Brent that his top priority was to help Darryl and everybody else who was wearing a Flames crest to succeed. He was just happy to be back in the management suites, doing whatever he could. It sure beat blogging. But there were far too many "(Your Team Here) Douses Flames" headlines as Christmas neared, this after a chaotic, non-playoff season that saw Darryl Sutter make some strange moves, including the trade of star defenseman Dion Phaneuf to Toronto for seemingly mediocre role players.
There were reports of internal dissension on the Flames, including some that characterized the Sutter brothers' relationship as frosty and dysfunctional. Though Darryl officially resigned, it was widely reported in Calgary that he wasn't given much of an alternative by the Flames' frustrated ownership. In stepped Feaster, and the "(Your Team Here) Burned by Flames" headlines are back.
Feaster resisted the hockey media's largely unanimous call to blow up the aging roster and start over, and has since seen the big-name and formerly underachieving core of Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff, Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Tanguay, Olli Jokinen and others regain solid form. Even the high-energy, always-positive 48-year-old Feaster seems a bit surprised at what the Flames have pulled off in less than three months.
"What these guys have done is just unbelievable," he says. "It's a great credit to the players and Brent and the whole staff. I made it clear to Brent right away when I took the new job that I wanted him coaching this team, and that I believed in him."
The one subject that Feaster treads carefully around is Darryl.
Feaster took over for Rick Dudley in Tampa Bay in 2002 after four years of serving as his assistant, leaving Dudley feeling betrayed. It took a while, but Feaster says he now has a great relationship with Dudley and hopes to have the same some day with Darryl Sutter. But for now he admits: "We have not spoken since things went the way they did. I intend to, but it's just something where I haven't had the conversation yet. It's difficult, and I went through it in Tampa, with a manager who said, 'You didn't support me.' I trust that Darryl and I are going to have a great relationship again, but it takes a little time. It takes time to sit back and look at it objectively, and to realize that I had nothing to do with ownership's decision to make a change."
Of the reported tension between the Sutter brothers toward the end, Feaster says: "I don't know that it was so much not getting along as it was because Darryl comes from a coaching background. It makes for a different dynamic with the general manager and the coach, when the manager is a former coach. I think that's one of the things that's changed, because that's not my background. I'm not going to be sitting there telling Brent what I think he should be doing from a coaching standpoint."
One locker room thing that Feaster did insist upon when taking over, however, was changing the postgame music atmosphere. Instead of, well, nothing, he wanted some loud, fun tunes to fill the room on victory nights and for players to look like they'd just, you know, enjoyed themselves out there. During the Lightning's run to the Cup in '04, Feaster was known to come into the room after playoff wins, do a little wild boogie to the music, and fill the room with a loud "Yeaaahhhh" with veins bulging from his pudgy red face.
Kind of like that Meat Loaf guy in those far-out '70s.
So break out that vintage piece of 1977 vinyl, the one with the motorcycle bursting out of the cemetery on the cover, drop the needle on Side A, Song 1 and sing along with Jay Feaster and the Flames as they march on what once seemed to be a wildly far-off playoff berth.