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Jim Rutherford’s Legacy? Champion, Father To Triangle Hockey

Jim Rutherford has hinted that this could be his final season as general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes. If so, he leaves behind a mixed bag of on-ice results and a legacy as the father to Triangle hockey.

Bruce Bennett

If this is the end of Jim Rutherford’s two decade-long reign as the general manager of the Hartford Whalers and Carolina Hurricanes, it's an unfitting end to a spectacular run.

Was it spectacular on the ice? Sometimes, especially when Rutherford built the 2006 Stanley Cup champions at a moment when the franchise’s future — coming out of the wiped out 2004-05 lockout year — was most in doubt. More often than not it wasn't, especially of late with a fifth-straight campaign outside of the postseason looming.

But all the frustrating losing streaks, failed draft picks and frequent on-ice disappointments can't possibly outweigh all of Rutherford’s accomplishments as the face of hockey in North Carolina.

Simply put, it's very possible that without Rutherford — who ran the team with owner Peter Karmanos mostly watching from afar in Detroit — the Hurricanes could have gone the way of the Atlanta Thrashers, or at least struggled as much as the Coyotes or Panthers. Instead, the team is a model for how to survive in the Sunbelt.

How did Rutherford do it? Two trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, including 2006’s title, go a long way. But it's really been the family atmosphere that Rutherford has cultivated that imprinted the Hurricanes as a significant part of a college-heavy sports landscape.

Many would argue that Rutherford’s all-in-the-family mentality has held back the team on the ice. Rutherford has never been shy about bringing back a familiar face, whether it was two-time coach Paul Maurice, recycled players like Erik Cole, Matt Cullen and Aaron Ward, or former-players-turned-coaches/executives such as Ron Francis, Glen Wesley, Rod Brind`Amour, Jeff Daniels or Cory Stillman. The results of those moves are mixed, with the most important assessment — Francis’ grooming as Rutherford’s likely replacement — well off in the distance.

But where Rutherford’s family-first mentality shines brightest is off the ice. Consider this: What do you think Rutherford’s reaction would have been to former Hurricanes and current Jets captain Andrew Ladd missing a game for the birth of his second child? My guess is he would have been front and center in supporting his player in the face of unjustified criticism.

Furthermore, Rutherford not only nurtured a family atmosphere inside the walls of PNC Arena, but it extended to the fans filling the parking lots for pregame tailgating and beyond. I know of several stories of Rutherford personally calling a frustrated season ticket holder or taking a moment to speak face-to-face with a fan at a team-sponsored event.

The Hurricanes’ welcoming reach goes even further under Rutherford’s watch. That starts with the Kids ’N Community Foundation, the charitable wing of the franchise run so masterfully by executive director Doug Warf that has awarded more than $11.5 million to non-profit youth organizations since its establishment in 1997. The team’s support of the military, local first responders, teachers and youth hockey is just a small part of the community outreach efforts that have made the franchise a part of the Triangle’s fabric.

The team and Rutherford have been rewarded with loyalty from their fans. That includes raucous playoff games that surprised observers all around the NHL and a 2011 NHL All-Star Weekend that was an unmitigated success — not an easy task when part of it was the NHL’s failed foray into comic books.

That fan loyalty has worn thin of late, mostly because there are a new legion of fans — many of them young — who haven't yet experienced a playoff game in Raleigh, and a base of hardcore season ticket holders who are thirsting for a taste of the postseason again.

Rutherford’s trust of those surrounding him — the Hurricanes family he built here in Raleigh — ultimately led the franchise’s struggles the past half decade. The team’s drafting has been hit or miss, leading to some amazing finds but too few steady contributors. Many of his best executive moments in recent years have involved the clean-up of previous mistakes — a couple that come to mind are the Tomas Kaberle signing, an absolute disaster only washed away by a shrewd trade with Montreal, and the drafting and subsequent trading of first-rounder Philippe Paradis that landed Jiri Tlusty from Toronto.

But his ultimate belief was in the team’s fans and supporters in the Triangle. Rutherford knew all along that it would take more than winning to succeed in the South, because even a base built on victories can crumble if there isn't more of a foundation to prop it up during hard times.

Right now, the Hurricanes have fallen on hard times. Rutherford’s likely final move as general manager will be entrusting the team and the franchise he built to the man he brought to Raleigh nearly 16 years ago to teach the Triangle about how hockey is played the right way, on and off the ice. If Francis — one of the most respected men to ever play the game — is indeed taking the reins from Rutherford, he will certainly be able to handle it with the class and dignity Rutherford did. But he will need to prove that he’s capable of shaking off the on-ice struggles that have plagued the franchise of late, setting a course for continued success in the community and off the ice and more wins on it.

Rutherford will forever be remembered in the NHL history books as a general manager who built a champion from the ground up — a claim that not many recent Cup-winning executives not named Ken Holland can claim — but also as one who was unable to make his team a contender every year. He will also be remembered for being on the right side of many issues, most notably player safety.

But his biggest accomplishment is the family he worked hardest to bring and keep together: the fans. All along, Rutherford knew that the people who fill the arena, buy merchandise, and scour the internet, television and radio for news about their team are the heartbeat of a franchise. Rutherford helped mold that fan base day by day, win or loss.

If he steps away after this season, he leaves behind a legion of people who have embraced the Hurricanes as their team. A family of Caniacs.

Take a bow, Jim Rutherford: It's a legacy worth being proud of.