It’s a question that has been on the minds of Penguins fans since Jim Rutherford abruptly resigned seven games into the 2020-21 season. It’s also one the team’s former general manager has been considering himself more and more lately.
“I guess, if I give a short answer to it, everybody is gonna keep asking more questions, and that’s not something I want,” Rutherford was telling me by phone on Thursday from Vancouver, where he’s now the Canucks’ president of hockey operations, a job he’s held since Dec. 10, 2021. “But I do think at some point I should say something about it.”
It didn’t take long for Rutherford to get there, as he continued the conversation by peeling the curtain back on a decision that shook PPG Paints Arena and led to Ron Hextall taking over as general manager and the Penguins hiring Brian Burke to be their president of hockey operations.
The first thing to understand, Rutherford said, was COVID-19. Given his age — he turned 73 in February — Rutherford worried about the ramifications of the virus, so he, his wife, Leslie, and son, James, hardly left the house once the pandemic started.
That took a toll. Confined to his home office, Rutherford didn’t let his work suffer, but he said his “mental toughness” became a problem. Pressures inherent to the job — things he’d either internalize or shake off — gnawed at him. Rutherford said he didn’t feel at all like himself.
“I don’t want to suggest I had mental health issues,” Rutherford said. “The way I would describe it is I wasn’t mentally as strong as I should have been to be myself and continue to do that job. I was starting to react to things differently than I normally would, which led to where I got to.”
There have been all sorts of theories tossed out there about Rutherford’s strange disappearance. A big trade involving Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang that he wasn’t allowed to make. The firing of his longtime assistant Jason Karmanos. Even Rutherford wanting to shift into a role like the one Burke eventually got.
“See, exactly what I said — it’s gonna lead to more questions,” Rutherford responded when I asked whether he and former Penguins president/CEO David Morehouse ever butted heads. “Now, it’s already led to another question. But it did not have anything to do with Morehouse.”
It’s also not something Rutherford plans on discussing again. COVID-19 caused a change. Rutherford reacted. As far as he’s concerned, this is the one and only time he’ll address it.