July 14, 2013

Brian Sutter

Hockey has a long history of great families achieving great things in the National Hockey League and in hockey in general. The Patricks, the Hulls, the Howes, the Espositos, the Mahovlichs.... - the list goes on and on - but no one can top the Sutter family of Viking Alberta. The hard working farming family of Grace and Louie Sutter sent 6 sons to the National Hockey League!

The Sutter brothers are of course known for their work ethic. Simply put, no one who ever skated a shift in the National Hockey League ever outworked a Sutter.

"That's the type of player I was. I wasn't very talented so I had to work hard. I wasn't a good skater, I wasn't good with the puck, so I had to work hard to make up for it" Brian said, although it could have been equally said about any of his family members

Brian is the oldest of the six brothers who made it to the NHL, but he isn't the oldest brother in the family. Gary Sutter (no, not Gary Suter) is two years older than Brian and is the only one of the seven Sutter brothers who didn't play in the NHL. A rushing defenseman who idolized Bobby Orr, Garry perhaps was the least "Sutter-like" of the Sutters, but all of the brothers will tell you that he was the most skilled of the 7. He was invited to major junior training camp at the same time as Brian, but he shocked the Red Deer Rustlers when he turned down the offer in order to stay home with his girlfriend and work on the farm.

That meant Brian had to go to Red Deer and later Lethbridge alone, which was not easy for the youngster. But Brian stuck with the team and became the heart and soul of the team. Budding superstar Bryan Trottier was the MVP, but Brian was every bit as important.

Being first of the brothers to go to junior, Brian did more fighting than any of the brothers, but by doing so he would set the tone for all of his brothers, all of whom followed Brian to Red Deer and Lethbridge when they were old enough to play junior. The others were able to come in and the Sutter folklore had already been around the league once. As long as they never backed down, and no Sutter has ever done that, they were assured of a slightly easier time in junior than Brian.

Brian was rewarded for every drop of blood and every bead of sweat when he was drafted in 20th overall by the St. Louis Blues in 1976. Not bad for a kid who openly admits he never expected to do anything other follow in his father's footsteps and work on the farm. It was a great move for the Blues too. Other than Bernie Federko, perhaps no player symbolizes the St. Louis Blues. He played 12 seasons in the NHL, all with the St. Louis Blues, 9 of them as a captain. When he retired he became the head coach.

It wasn't easy for Brian at first by any means. Brian rarely played in his first two years in the league. When he did play he mostly fought. He had some classic battles with Terry O'Reilly, Gordie Lane and especially Keith Magnuson. By fighting he again helped set the stage for his brothers who would follow him to the NHL. But he also impressed the Blues with his heart and his desire, plus his good defensive play. Soon the Blues were using him more and more.

By 1978-79, his third year in the league, he scored 41 goals and 80 points. And he did that without changing his physical game one bit. From that point forward he would be a consistent 35 goal, 70 point threat, as well as someone who would spend 200 minutes or so in the penalty box each season.

The 1982-83 and 1983-84 seasons were tough on Brian. He bled St. Louis blue, yet the season was a tumultuous one for Blues fans as the team owners - Ralston-Purina - allowed the Blues to go bankrupt and it was said the Blues were all but officially moving to Saskatoon, although the NHL never allowed any move. The Blues were in limbo until Harry Ornest stepped in as the new owner. His pockets weren't overly deep however. The Blues only kept 25 players under contract and took no frills travel and accommodations in order to meet their bills. Players such as Joey Mullen were traded away because of the financial situation. Brian, who by this time was team captain, somehow kept the team together during all this and playing their heart out. Brian led by example and had his two best seasons during this time - scoring a career high 46 goals in 1982-83 and a career high 83 points in 1983-84.

Things got better for the Blues franchise shortly, but by 1985-86 things hadn't gone as nicely for Brian. Years of rugged play finally caught up with the usually durable winger who stood just 5'11" and weight around 170 pounds. He had broken his scapula that season, a rare hockey injury. He hurried back to the game, and reinjured it, costing him about half the NHL season. He felt better the following season, but had little strength due to the recovery process. Doctors wouldn't let him play anymore than the 14 games he did dress for. Sitting out those games was probably the toughest thing Brian had ever gone through in hockey - not because of the pain he was in, just because he was forced to sit and watch his teammates and he wasn't able to help out at all.

Brian made a full recovery in 1987-88, but was placed on a checking line with Rick Meagher and Herb Raglan. Brian thrived in the reduced role. He didn't care that he wasn't on the top line. He was just glad to be back on the ice. And he gave it his usual 100%.

Brian had played out his option year in '87-88 in order to return to the game, which left his status somewhat in limbo come the offseason. Brian never expected his career to change the way it did that summer though. Head coach Jacques Demers also ran out his contract and signed a lucrative deal with Detroit. That left the Blues without a coach. The Blues reportedly were after Mike Keenan as coach, but things never worked out there. So they turned to their captain, and asked Brian to coach the team. After some careful consideration, Brian agreed to retire and become the Blues head coach.

Brian would coach the Blues until 1992, and achieved a higher level of success with Brian behind the bench than they did when he was on the ice. This was partly due to the superstar accomplishments of Brett Hull, who thrived under Sutter as coach. Brian even won the Jack Adams award in 1991 as the NHL's top coach.

All coaches get fired, usually sooner rather than later. Brian knew this would happen sooner or later, thus ending his long relationship with the Blues. That came in the summer of 1992, but Brian wasn't unemployed long. He went on to coach the Boston Bruins for 3 years. He also coached the Calgary Flames from 1997-2000 and was named head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2001.

Brian had a great deal of influence on his younger brothers, so much so that you'd have to think things might have been different had Brian not been the first to junior and then the pros.

"He works so unbelievably hard in the summertime", Duane said, and continued. "I worked with him at a hockey school over the summer and I couldn't believe how hard he was working. It was because of him that I had such a good rookie camp and made the team (NY Islanders). He just works his ass off all the time. The harder he's worked, the more he's improved."

Brian retired with 303 goals, 333 assists and 636 points in 779 games plus 1786 well earned penalty minutes. The Blues retired his jersey number 11 back in 1988 and are forever grateful for Brian Sutter's contributions to their franchise. He is considered to be one of the top coaches in the game today, as is his brother Darryl. Perhaps all 6 Sutters will again be in the NHL at the same time, this time all as coaches? Not likely you say? We'd agree, except this is the Sutters that we are talking about.

1 comment:

Mike B. said...

Actually, Jacques Demers contract ran out after the 86 season and left for Detroit. Jacques Martin was hired. Martin was let go after the 88 season then that’s when Brian left the game as a player and became the Blues head coach. Brian Sutter was always what the Blues were about. He inherited that style from the Plager’s carried it through his playing years as captain and still influences the Blues today.