A row of six grain elevators guards the railway line in Viking, Alberta. The visual impact is staggering: six towering verticals after a hundred miles of horizontals. Gray highway. Green farmland. Flat, blue sky. Viking, Alberta—the Crossroads Town with a Future.
Nine miles outside Viking a gravel road crosses Highway 14. Take a left there, cross the railroad tracks, and the first farm you'll pass is the Sutter place. You'll spot the big red barn first and then the tidy white farmhouse with the blue roof. A full 640-acre section—pigs, cattle, chickens, barley, wheat, bright yellow rapeseed, raspberries and a few cows.
Brian Sutter nods toward the driveway. "Going out to catch the school bus, we'd have had five fights by the time we'd get to the end of that lane," he says. "I can remember some good ones. No broken bones, but lots of bloody noses."
From the look on his face, these are pleasant memories. Brian, 23, is the acknowledged leader of the seven Sutter brothers, the first of them to make it to the NHL and the toughest of a notoriously tough lot. The Sutter boys. Or "those Sutters," as they say in Viking, with civic pride rather than jealousy or awe. Those Sutters stand out from their surroundings just as clearly as those grain elevators.
October 12, 1980
Aug. 2, 1980, the day of 22-year-old Darryl Sutter's wedding, was the first time in four years all seven boys would be together on the farm. Hockey does that to families, with schedules being played right through the holidays, and the Sutters are a hockey family. Brian, Darryl and Duane, 20, have NHL contracts; Gary, 25, is a Tier Two Junior coach in nearby Vegreville; Brent, 18, and the 16-year-old twins, Richard and Ron, play Tier One Major Junior hockey over in Lethbridge. There are no daughters. Grace, the boys' indefatigable mother, somehow has brought her sons up to be gentlemen. Off the ice, anyway. "You'd think with seven boys there'd be one bad apple," says a friend. "Still, sometimes I feel sorry for Grace. She can never sit down and talk about...I don't know...making a cake. It's always hockey, hockey."
Hockey has long lent itself to family acts. Five of the top seven goal scorers in NHL history—Gordie Howe, Phil Esposito, Bobby Hull, Maurice Richard and Frank Mahovlich—had brothers who played in the league; Howe even played on the same NHL team with his two sons. Hall of Fame brother pairs include Bun and Bill Cook and Doug and Max Bentley. Four Boucher siblings played in the NHL: Frank, George, Billy and Bob. Perhaps it is because kids' hockey, played on frozen ponds and sloughs, is a sport in which younger brothers are encouraged to come along. There are no left-out positions that are an embarrassment to play, as there are in baseball. Whether one touches the puck or not, the simple act of skating is fun, exhilarating, worth the frustration of being stickhandled around. And there is the thrill of literally filling your brother's shoes—skates hand down very nicely—so that the younger sibling can say to himself, "Here he was; there I'll be," as he watches the progress of the elder.
But there are more tangible factors in this brother-act business, one of which is that the best way to get a good look from a scout is to be part of a proven bloodline. After Duane Sutter played a major role in the New York Islanders' march to the Stanley Cup last spring, scoring a key goal in the final game, brother Brent became the Islanders' surprise first-round draft choice. "There's no question that we considered genes before selecting Brent," says Islander General Manager Bill Torrey. "The NHL's Central Scouting office didn't have him listed as first-round material. But with his family's competitive instincts, we thought we could take a chance."
Competitiveness is the dominant trait in the Sutter pedigree. Determination. It goes back at least as far as 1848, when a 44-year-old Swiss immigrant named John Augustus Sutter—great-great-uncle of the current crop—changed the course of U.S. history when gold was discovered at his sawmill. The California Gold Rush ensued. Sutter was eventually swindled out of his holdings and was bankrupt by 1852. But was he discouraged? No way. He moved to Pennsylvania, and until his death at the age of 77 he fought the government for compensation for his losses. "The Sutter trademark is hard work," says a former teammate of Brian's. "When you get knocked down you get back up. And you don't back down from anybody."
A Sutter skates and works like a mule. He doesn't dazzle; he's not fluid or pretty to watch; his speed and shooting skills are, at best, average. But a Sutter is the type of player that NHL coaches are turning to more and more, the type referred to as "honest." A Sutter will take a hit instead of giving up the puck, and a Sutter will dig and check in the corners. Most important, a Sutter will do anything to win. Former Montreal Goaltender Ken Dryden has characterized this "honesty" as the outstanding trait of North American players. He may lack the skating, shooting and passing sophistication of his European counterpart, but somehow he will find a way to win. Call it New World optimism. Work hard enough and you can do anything.
A half mile from the Sutter farmhouse, beyond the wheatfield, is the slough where the boys skated as kids. "After school in the winter, if there was a full moon, three guys would go shovel the ice while the other guys did the chores," Brian says. "In the summer we played in the loft in the barn. We only got to town once a week, so we didn't have anything else to do."
Breaking into the NHL was hardest for Brian. There was no legacy, no bloodline going for him. Louie Sutter, the boys' father, had boxed a few rounds, but he'd never skated. No one from Viking had ever made it to the NHL. Gary had played Tier Two hockey but didn't get beyond that. Brian almost didn't make it that far. "I couldn't skate. I couldn't shoot. All I knew how to do was work," he says. At first he was cut from the Red Deer Rustlers, the Tier Two team for which all the Sutters, except Gary, played. "The first thing Red Deer did when I made the team the next year was send me to the sporting-goods store to buy a new pair of skates," Brian recalls. "I'd never had a new pair. I walked in with my old pair of size 11s, and walked out with a pair of 7½s."
Small wonder his skating was mulish. He worked to improve it, but at the time he had no serious thought of a pro hockey career. Sure, he dreamed of one, but you don't count on dreams. He would be a farmer like his father and grandfather. "Brian, he's a good farmer," Louie Sutter says. "He should be a farmer instead of a hockey player. He likes it. He worked so hard when he was a kid that I felt sorry for him if he lost a calf and I'd give him one of mine. He always had a 100% calf crop; mine was about 80%." He stops here to smile. "That Brian, he's a pretty good businessman, too."
Brian's break came when he moved up to the Tier One team in Lethbridge, the Broncos, where he was put on a line with a young phenom who had already been drafted by the Islanders, Bryan Trottier. Sutter scored 90 points that year and proved he could complement a skilled centerman by digging the puck out of the corners and standing up to thugs—of which western Junior hockey has more than its share. The St. Louis Blues selected him in the second round, 20th overall, of the 1976 draft.
Brian quickly established himself as a tireless worker, but in his first 103 NHL games he scored only 13 goals. However, he never backed down from a scrap, and before long the wings covering him began to give him a little more room. In 1978-79 things began to click, and Brian pulled off an unusual double by leading the Blues in goals, with 41, and penalty minutes, with 165.
When Brian returned to St. Louis for the 1979-80 season, General Manager Emile Francis appointed him captain. "It affected my scoring for a while," says Sutter, whose goal production fell to 23. "I was trying to do too much at first."
Chicago routed the Blues in the first round of last spring's playoffs, a setback that still haunts Brian. He didn't score in the three games and lacked his usual intensity. "We used kind of a psychological ploy against Brian," says Eddie Johnston, who was the Black Hawks' coach last season and now has the same job with the Penguins. "Brian's their catalyst, and I wanted to do something to throw him off his game. When you're watching how your kid brother's doing, you're not keeping your mind on the game."
What Johnston did was this: he played Darryl, recently recalled from the Hawks' farm team in Moncton, New Brunswick, on a line against Brian's line. Darryl was superb, scoring three goals against St. Louis, including the series-winner in the third game. Brian was ineffective.
"I think it worked," says Johnston, who was a teammate and friend of Brian's for two years in St. Louis and knew how closely Brian looked after his brothers. Indeed, the only time Brian spoke with Darryl all week occurred when they were scuffling for the puck along the boards. Both play left wing, and Darryl was out of position. "Get back on your wing," Brian whispered. That was all.
Because he hadn't yet got outstanding genetic credentials, which is to say that Brian hadn't yet had his 41-goal season, Darryl was only the 179th player selected in the '78 draft. He had been told he would go in the first three rounds, and he nearly quit hockey when he wasn't picked until the 11th. But he's a Sutter. So he went to Japan for a season and worked on his skating on the larger rinks there, getting four hours of ice time a day. When he returned, Chicago gave him a tryout with Moncton. "The Hawks were just so-so on him," says Johnston, then the Moncton coach. "I told them they'd better sign him because he was their best minor league prospect." Darryl got his contract, and last season he was the American Hockey League's Rookie of the Year. "This year you watch," Louie Sutter predicts confidently. "It'll be the Calder as Rookie of the Year in the NHL."
The center of the Sutter home, in practice and design, is the kitchen, which is Grace's turf. The morning of Darryl's marriage to Wanda Wemp it was a madhouse, with the twins being ordered by their brothers to rustle up breakfast while Grace attempted to organize the day. Nicknames are almost an obsession in small Canadian towns, and to save everyone the trouble of looking for the small, hockey-related scars that differentiate Richard from Ron, each is simply called Twin, even by Grace. Duane is Dog, and Brent is Pukey—a moniker foisted on him in the first grade, when he would vomit daily on his way to school. Again, even Grace calls him that.
Everyone in the kitchen, except Grace, was a little flushed from a short game of street hockey that had been played in front of the barn. Brian had added a touch of authenticity to the proceedings by slashing Ron good-naturedly across the thumb. "Sorry, Twin," he said. Duane, who is more than a match for the 5'11", 180-pound Brian in size but still very much the younger brother in both their eyes, then gave up the "puck"—really a tennis ball—when Brian raised his stick and feigned a spear. The ball sat unattended as Brian waited for the next brave fool. There were no takers.
After the boys adjourned to the house, Brent sniffed at the cream for freshness. He's the equal of his older brothers in height but, at 18, he's still gangly. His upper body has yet to fill out. Sutters are late bloomers; even Duane is still wiry. It is generally felt that Brent has the tools to be the best of the brothers. Last season he was captain and MVP of the Red Deer Rustlers, the Tier Two national champions. He is a righthanded center and will play at least a year, maybe two, of Tier One hockey in Lethbridge before he makes a permanent step to the Islanders.
As his mother filled another creamer from the fresh jug in the refrigerator, Brent began telling about a bench-clearing brawl before the opening face-off at one of Red Deer's playoff games. "We had a big, tough, physical team," he was saying. "Never lost a fight all year. We killed them. I loved it."
"Of course you loved it," Grace told him. "That's what you live for."
Duane is the gentlest Sutter, his playing style to the contrary. Sitting down to a plateful of eggs, he decided he had heard enough of the toughness of the Red Deer Rustlers, whom the twins had also played for. "I got 225 minutes of penalties my last year in Red Deer, and I bet 200 of them were stepping in for Pukey," he said.
Brent was appalled. "That's bull, Dog."
"It's true, Pukey, and you know it."
What can one say in the face of such a lie? "You know how Dog got his name?" Brent finally blurted. "Brian beat him up one time, and he went into his room bawling and howling like a dog, yip, yip, yip, all night."
"I'll drop you like a bad hammock," Duane answered.
Duane knows all about being dropped like a bad hammock. The first time he played against Brian in the NHL, Brian prodded him with his stick, called him gutless and finally cut him across the bridge of the nose when they were chasing a loose puck. To the amusement of the Islanders on the bench, Brian stopped to apologize. He is an aggressive player, not a mean one. But the lesson was clear: on the ice, you play for keeps. "Brian controls the younger ones," says a friend. "They're all scared to death of him."
If so, he's the only person who frightens Duane. The contributions he made to the Islanders last season couldn't be measured by his 15 goals and nine assists; Duane helped bring about a far more fundamental change by lending the team his peculiar knack of finding a way to win. "To me the Islanders never had a lot of heart before," says Brian. "Duane made guys like Clark Gillies and Bob Nystrom say to themselves, 'Hey, there's a young guy doing it. Why can't we?' "
Duane went to the Islanders' '79 training camp with little chance of making the team. He was only 19, and the Islanders were fairly secure at his position, right wing. Still, Duane was determined to make an impression, and Brian had given him one piece of advice: never back down. "He promised that if I ever started getting beat up badly, someone would jump in and help me," Duane says.
Sure enough, in one early exhibition game, Dave Schultz, then with Buffalo, overwhelmed Duane in a fight. But in his next game, Duane made the kind of impression the Islanders liked, thumping Pat Hickey, then with the Rangers, in, Madison Square Garden, the very place where the Islanders had been ousted from the playoffs four months before. "It's scary," said Islander Assistant Coach Billy MacMillan, now the head coach at Colorado, "but we're going to have to look for leadership from a 19-year-old kid."
"Sutter adds spark," Torrey says. "He's not going to win any Sonja Henie awards for skating, but from point A to point B, he gets there. And I like his intelligence with the puck. He won't throw it away."
To understand how the Sutters play, one must also understand how John Chapman, Duane's former coach at Red Deer, coaches. He is a short, stocky, Teddy-bear-faced man whom Louie Sutter introduces as the man who is "making goons out of my kids just as fast as he can—he only had Brian for one All-Star game and Brian got into four fights, and the kids get worse as they get younger." Chapman coached Brent and the twins at Red Deer; this season he will coach all three at Lethbridge.
Teddy-bear looks aside, Chapman is a brawler. He'll find a way to beat you. People who have never played hockey wonder whether the fights are real, why they happen, and why they can't be legislated out of the game. The simple truth is that they can; it's not fighting that the players enjoy, but winning. Intimidation is a way to win—like tight forechecking, like good goaltending. It's a tool, and as long as it is accepted as part of the game, good coaches and good teams will have it in their arsenal. Chapman has it in his, and he tells a recruiting story on himself that pretty much sums up his philosophy, one he has passed along to all the Sutters.
Chapman visited a prospect at the boy's home to try to persuade the kid to play for Red Deer instead of one of the other teams in the area. The young man had been approached by several other coaches. "Tell me something," the boy asked, "are you a goon coach?"
"What do you mean by that?" Chapman asked, surprised.
"Let me put it this way," said the boy, who was big and strong. "If a coach ever told me to go out on the ice and fight some guy, I'd throw my gloves down and never play for him again."
Chapman nodded, and then he stood up. "Son, you go play wherever you want," he said. "You're the kind of guy I'd rather have playing against me than playing for me." Then he left.
Chapman would rather have the Sutters playing for him. Last season Red Deer was 49-9-2 in the regular season, during which the Rustlers set team scoring and penalty records and participated in six bench-clearing brawls. It's a rough league. They breezed through the playoffs to the Centennial Cup by winning 29 of 32 postseason games. Before the season they were asked by the owner of the team how they wanted to be paid—by the week, by the game, or by the month. "Chappy said the hell with that," says Richie. "He said we'd get $14 for a win, nothing for a loss or tie. It turned out we made more money that way."
And the coach—you see?—got him self another little edge.
Both Ron, who's a center, and Richie, who's a wing, have rangy builds—adolescent, really—so it's difficult to imagine either of them gooning it up. They're boyish and unfailingly polite, and they neither drink nor smoke. But they're Sutters and, already, will do anything to win. Especially Richie. "He's going to be a helluva pro," says Chapman. "He's got jam. He's the toughest of them all for his age." One time last season Richie challenged the entire Calgary bench during warmups, calling the opposing players spoiled rich kids and other, less tactful things. Bill White, the gentlemanly former NHL defense-man, was the Calgary coach, and Chapman recalls that White kept looking over at him to stop the harangue. Finally, White took matters into his own hands, saying to Richie, "Hold on now, son, just settle down."
"And as for you, Coach," Richie said to White in a respectful tone. "You can go...."
The aforementioned brawl during the warmups before the Centennial Cup playoff game was also the result of verbal instigation on Richie's part. "Chappy told me to stick my head in the other team's room before the game and say something," he says. "We were playing Prince Edward Island, so I called them a bunch of fishermen. I said they'd be back tending their nets in the morning."
Playing under Chapman is no great lesson in sportsmanship, but Junior hockey in Canada is very much a business. The point is, you learn how to win. "You talk about leadership," Chapman says with unbridled admiration. "One time between periods I asked Richie if he had anything to say. He's 16, right? He stood up and talked for 15 minutes. Finally he gets around to our goaltender, who's 6'3", and says, 'Bledsoe, you've played like horsebleep all week.' The goalie just says, 'You're right, Richie,' all sheepish. Oh, Richie's a leader."
Louie Sutter is 49, a sinewy man with a hard, farmer's body. He drinks hard and plays hard, and he's a good farmer for many of the same reasons his sons are good hockey players. There's a singleness of purpose about his work. He knows, literally, that he can reap only what he sows, so last year, with Duane's Islanders one game away from clinching the Stanley Cup, Louie refused to be talked into staying on and took a plane from New York back to Edmonton. It was time to plant the oats. "That was more important to him than the Stanley Cup," Torrey says. "You can see where the sons get that...well, whatever you want to call it."
Leo Kelly, owner of the Viking hardware store, remembers the grandfather, too. Old Charles Sutter, who was also a good farmer, if poor. "Anybody who raised 13 children in the dirty '30s had to be pretty good," Kelly says. Kelly recollects that when Charles was in his 60s he knocked out a man half his age for offending him in a bar. And Kelly remembers when Joe Sutter, one of Louie's brothers, challenged the boxing champ from another town. Folks in Viking put their money on Joe, and in the weeks before the fight they would stop over at the farm to make sure Joe was getting in shape. "Sure, I'm getting in shape," Joe would say, and to prove it he'd jump into the pigpen and start whaling on the pigs.
"Well, the night of the fight the other guy decks Joe in the first round," says Kelly. "He's lying there, out, and old Charles goes over and shouts, 'Get up, Joe! Get up!' Joe crawls around trying to get up; he looks like a spider. But he gets up and finishes that fight. He lost, but he finished." Kelly pauses. "You've got to understand the determination," he says—and one sees that it's very important to him that one does, because the Sutters are very much Viking's own. "They're all the same. They get that from being a Sutter.
"I've got one boy who could've played in the NHL like nothing. When he was young, well, he was so far ahead of any of them...." It's the dream of almost every Canadian father to have a son in the NHL, and here's a family that may soon have six. "He could've played in that league like nothing," Kelly concludes, "but he hasn't got any Sutter in him."