Penguins GM Jim Rutherford focusing on ‘big picture’ as he awaits hockey’s return

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Jim Rutherford, like many other Pittsburghers, found himself in front of the TV on Wednesday morning watching a replay of Game 6 of the 1991 Stanley Cup final, when Mario Lemieux and the Penguins lifted the first of their five Cups.

“It’s not something I was planning on doing at this time of the year,” the Penguins general manager said a couple hours later on a conference call. “But … to go back and watch it again this morning, it was a lot of fun watching those guys.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic reached North America and the sports world shut down, the Penguins were gearing up for a playoff run. They hit a rough patch in February. But they still looked to be good enough for aging cornerstones Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang to get a good shot at another Cup.

But that would-be playoff run was stalled, perhaps permanently, two weeks ago while the Penguins were in Columbus. The NHL followed the lead of the NBA and suspended its season in the hopes of finishing it in the coming months.

Since the Penguins flew back to Pittsburgh that day, March 12, Rutherford has been “locked down” at home with his wife, young son and two dogs.

In his first public comments since the NHL season was suspended, Rutherford said he is focused on “the big picture,” not the disappointment of seeing one of the last opportunities for Crosby and Co. potentially going down the drain.

“I view the big picture as the priority now,” he said. “The most important thing to me is that everybody follows the guidelines, they stay safe and they stay healthy. Obviously, my priority is my family. But also the Penguins family is very important to me — all the workers, all our fans and our whole community. … It’s something that nobody thought was coming. And we have to adjust to it. But we live in a great country. And we live in a great, great city (where) people have gone through tough times. And we’ll pull through this together.

“Hopefully, people follow the guidelines. Because if we follow the guidelines from the government and the doctors and the CDC and the people that understand this better than us, then we can get back to a normal life sooner than later.”

Being at home with his loved ones the past 13 days has led to reflection for the 71-year-old, who had a humble upbringing in Beeton, Ontario. He spoke about the “admiration and the respect” he has for his parents, who are deceased.

“We just spent a lot of time at home. We were just around the house, really, a lot. My family lived from check to check. We didn’t have very much. And so we didn’t do extra things. We ate the same dinner, the same food, for three nights in a row and things like that,” he said. “Those are the things we’re doing now.”

Like Rutherford, the rest of the Penguins organization is also self-quarantining. That includes the players. The NHL on Tuesday told Rutherford and his fellow GM that everyone within NHL clubs should continue to sit tight until April 6.

Rutherford said that, to the best of his knowledge, no one from the Penguins has experienced COVID-19 symptoms or have been tested for the coronavirus.

The Hall of Fame GM said most players initially wanted to wait things out here in Pittsburgh, thinking they would have access to UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex and face-to-face interaction with team doctors, coaches and staff.

But once the NHL said on March 16 that it would follow a directive from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that said there should be no large gatherings for 60 days, some scattered to their hometowns and other locales.

The team’s strength and conditioning staff and trainers have since coordinated with players to create custom workouts using whatever equipment the players have in their respective homes. The NHL has advised players to avoid exercising in public gyms or skating at local rinks. The team facility is off limits.

“We want them staying at home. We want them to follow the guidelines and stay quarantined,” Rutherford said. “Here’s what you can do to work out at home and be prepared that if, by chance, we play again, you’re not going to be behind.”

The front office and coaching staff is trying to stay busy, too, especially with this offseason likely presenting new challenges due to an altered schedule.

The NHL on Wednesday announced the postponements of the NHL scouting combine, the league’s awards show and the 2020 draft, which all had been originally scheduled for June. The league’s statement said that the location, timing and format of the draft will be announced when details are finalized.

“We have a lot of time on our hands, so we continue to work. We signed the two college free agents that we’re excited about in (Drew) O’Connor and (Cam) Lee,” Rutherford said. “And each different department head still plays the same role in their communications. So I’m aware of what everybody is doing.”

Rutherford said he talks to coach Mike Sullivan about the situation every day. He chats with Penguins president and CEO David Morehouse most days, too.

“We’re just trying to be prepared for when we start and be able to deal with whatever the scenario is. I could probably go through 10 different scenarios that are possibilities,” he said. “I’m certainly ready to work on any playoff format the (league) decides we’re going to have and when that’s going to be.”

While it sure doesn’t sound like Rutherford is confident the Cup will be awarded this year, he said the Penguins are “going for it” if the season does resume. In that event, he thinks the time off could prove beneficial for his veteran team.

“Prior to us stopping play, we had run into a period where we were overusing guys in certain areas because of injuries and it started to catch up with us,” he said. “We didn’t have that same energy and juice that we had in the first half of the season. So I would suggest that it would be to our benefit.”

In the meantime, as the Penguins wait for the league to give them the green light to get back to work, he said the greater good is the priority. Rutherford, who took a pay cut to ensure financial stability for other members of the organization, is proud of the way both the Penguins and their city are rallying together.

“It’s been a time of uncertainty, but the one thing I’m not surprised about is how the Pittsburgh community has come together and how the Penguins have also been in the community and very generous in different ways,” he said.

Hopefully sooner than later, we can all worry about hockey games again.

“To our fans, I look forward to seeing you soon safe and healthy and to be excited to get hockey back at some point in time in our lives,” Rutherford said.


The league announced Wednesday afternoon that the 2020 NHL scouting combine, NHL Awards and the NHL draft have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The combine was originally set for June 1-6. The NHL Awards were scheduled for June 18, while the draft was planned for June 26-27. The location, format and timing of the draft will be announced at a later date.


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