by Jas Faulkner, senior correspondent – Nashville, Tennessee USA
errata: Stick taps to Joseph Houk, who told me the Suters’ rink is actually located in Middleton, WI!
Twenty is a magic number…
The significance of the number twenty crosses centuries, borders, cultures and disciplines. There are scores* of references to twenty throughout the arts, letters and sciences** In mathematics, 20 is the basis for vigesimal numbering systems. It is the smallest primitive abundant number. For Rubik’s Cube fanatics, it is “God’s Number”, the algorithm used to compute the smallest amount of half turns needed to solve the puzzle. A glance at the periodic table of elements reveals that twenty is the atomic number of calcium. Physicists view it as the third magic number. The number twenty goes right down to our basic building blocks as physical beings. It’s the the number of proteinogenic amino acids in our standard genetic code. Kabbalists assign the value of 20 to the Hebrew letter resh. If you want twenty ounces of coffee, barristas at Starbucks will hand you a cup bearing the pidgin Italian moniker, Venti . Want to dial Egypt? Hit two-oh for their international dial code. In sports, twenty has graced the backs of a number of Hall of Famers, causing ten MLB teams, two NFL teams, the Portland Trailblazers and the Los Angeles Kings*** to retire the number. In other corners of the NHL, one name is associated with the number twenty: Suter.
The Shadow Man at The Miracle
The 20 on the 1980 Team USA sweater, the one belonging to the “Miracle On Ice” team, was worn by
Wisconsin-born Robert Allen Suter. He is the least recognised and yet arguably the most influential of the Suter clan when it comes to hockey. The rink and development complex he owns and operates in Madison, WI is instrumental in sharpening the skills of players who will go on to distinguished careers at all levels of play from varsity to NCAA to the NHL. Possessed of a wicked, dry wit and gentlemanly calm, Bob Suter is an entrepeneur, coach and teacher, he is the hockey veteran who expresses quiet amusement at being mistaken for his brother and the proud dad who can be seen cheering for his son, Ryan. All of this seems like a lifetime and a half removed from Bob Suter the defenseman.
Footage of Suter in action reveals a player who was tough and smart on the ice. His fearlessness in the face of much bigger opponents was balanced by his ability to employ hockey smarts at the speed of a top-tier forward on a freshly zambonied rink. Moving from varsity all-star to a member of the 1977 NCAA champion University of Wisconsin Badgers, Suter was known primarily for his aggressive play. He caught the eye of scouts who were looking to build an Olympic team that could be taken seriously as contenders at the upcoming games in Lake Placid, New York. By this time, he had signed a contract with the Tulsa Oilers, but was released to play for Team USA.
Bob Suter would go on to sign with the Los Angeles Kings and the Minnesota North Stars. While under contract for Minnesota, he spent the entire season playing for the Stars’ farm team, the South Stars, in Nashville, Tennessee. Even though he had distinguished himself on the ice in some prestigious arenas, he never played a single NHL game. Following his retirement as a player in 1982, Suter coached the Madison Capitals for two seasons before eventually opening his own rink and creating an innovative center for player development and conditioning.
As THW book reviewer Rebecca Dobrinski has noted in her review of Wayne Coffey’s “The Boys of Winter”, Suter is acknowledged as a part of the team, but little else is mentioned about his time as an olympian or the career that followed. Until his son’s ascendancy to team USA in 2010, Suter was not as closely associated with the mythos surrounding the 1980 Miracle on Ice as head coach, Herb Brooks, or many of his teammates. In “Miracle”, the 2004 fictionalised film account of Team USA’s victory at Lake Placid, Suter is never mentioned and is only seen in the footage of the real 1980 team at the end of the movie. Accounts paint Suter as someone who is rightfully proud of his accomplishments. However, he tempers this with an evident desire to see his son enjoy the attention and respect that he has earned as a professional in his own right.
From Calgary Flame to the Hall of Fame
Younger brother Gary would follow along many of the professional traces laid down by big brother Bob. He would distinguish himself early in his career as a varsity player and then eventually join the Wisconsin Badgers following a two season stint in the juniors with the Dubuque Fighting Saints. Following the time he spent in the NCAA, Gary would make the jump to the NHL. Nine seasons with the rough riding Calgary Flames and five seasons spent in the splendid bedlam at the Mad House as a Blackhawk would have to be accomplished before Gary Suter’s final four -and arguably some of his best- seasons with San Jose. At the time that Suter joined the club in San Jose, the Shark Tank was viewed by many as a hockey backwater. Adding Suter to the roster created just the right alchemy as the team’s fortunes on the ice improved considerably.
The power of twenty would follow the younger Suter throughout his career. In 1989, wearing the number twenty for the Flames, Suter would hoist the cup as part of the revival of the franchise at the hands of Terry Crisp’s rowdy, indomitable crew. During his final season as a Shark, Suter would wear the number twenty as he skated for Team USA in Salt Lake City.
The highly emotional opening ceremony featuring the 1980 hockey team set the tone for the Winter Games in 2002. Still reeling from the terrorist attacks of the previous Fall, the country needed another miracle of the highest order. The prayer went forth from the lips of the Roots-clad athletes who went to the mountains seeking precious medals to the ears of attentive Hockey Gods¹ who saw fit to award the USA team with silver.²
After the shouting was over, Suter was approached by many clubs to help with coaching and development. A devoted family man with strong family ties, he decided to return home to Wisconsin to coach U18 hockey and work with his older brother developing the next generation of hockey stars. This year would mark another hockey career benchmark for Gary Suter as he would get the nod as part of the NHL Hall of Fame’s Class of 2011 inductees.
The Scion has entered the arena…
Like any hockey dynasty, there are echoes of his elders’ lives on the ice resounding through young Ryan
Suter’s career. There were the years in the NCAA as a UW-M Badger. There is the presence of former Calgary coach Terry Crisp doing commentary at the sidelines. There is the continuation of the
Suter name as a part of Nashville’s hockey history. There is, as always, the number 20 on his sweater. An upper echelon talent in his own right, Suter has managed to move beyond the long shadows cast by his father and uncle to create a professional life that would be almost as rich without the family ties. This awareness of family tradition is what grounds him and provides an unerring moral compass. It is demonstrated by his abiding respect for those who came before him and his almost intuitive practise of mentoring those who are coming up in the system.
Off the ice, Ryan Suter exhibits his elders’ quiet dignity. In Nashville, where Suter serves as the other half of the Predators’ defensive dream team with Shea Weber, this is called home training. When speaking to fans and the media he is unfailingly polite, sometimes almost formal. Often viewed as the Predators’ Quiet Man, Suter is the support behind the fireworks that Nashville’s flashier players exhibit. The goals achieved by marquee names, the triumphant skate along the Predators’ bench taken by the Disneyesque Gascons of the roster would be nothing more than figments of wishful thinking, the hockey version of the woulda, coulda, shoulda that drives Kazan’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” if Ryan Suter was playing for any other club.
In 2010, Suter was selected to be a part of Team USA. At the Winter Games in Vancouver, Suter would garner honours of his own, taking home the silver. Earning the respect of a new generation of fans, it sometimes comes as a surprise to them that he is part of a long (blue) line of hockey heroes.
Coming up through the ranks are two more Suters. Garrett Suter, Ryan’s brother, is following up his time in Division III collegiate hockey to play for the ECHL’s Cleveland Cyclones. Gary Suter is also seeing some payback for his years as a youth coach. As of this writing, his oldest son is beginning to explore his options as a collegiate hockey player. Will he follow the family tradition and wear a red Wisconsin sweater? Will that sweater also bear the number 20? Where ever he decides to go, there will be the challenges and the expectations that go along with the Suter name but there will also be the confidence that comes with the knowledge that behind this kid is a good family.
This is Jas Faulkner who is starting to change colour and curl at the edges. Next up, we get all cultural and stuff. I promise you, it will be fun!
*Yes, I went there.
**hard, soft and everything in between…
***It belonged to Luc Robitaille
¹ ™ Barry Trotz
² During the games, Suter got what has been argued by many to be a dirty check on Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky was an avatar of puck divinity, so this was a big honkin’ cosmic no-no. When it came to pass, Lord Stanley sighed, Lady Byng hid her face and wept and the Hockey gods decreed that Team USA would see the Gold but not reach it. They went away with the silver, which was also pretty spectacular.