Olympics is a Suter family tradition
ST. PAUL, Minn. — A young Ryan Suter took one of the most historic hockey artifacts and simply tossed it into his locker.
There, the 1980 Olympic hockey gold medal won by his dad, Bob, would sit for days, sometimes a week. To Ryan, the son of one of the players on the iconic "Miracle on Ice" 1980 USA hockey team, the medal was a neat souvenir. He would bring the medal to school often for show-and-tell, the significance lost on his fellow students but appreciated by his teachers.
"They’d want to take it and show it to all their colleagues then they’d bring it back to me at the end of the day," Ryan said. "I wouldn’t know. I would just throw it in the locker, the case is all beat up."
Only years later would Ryan come to realize the true meaning of the medal.
"I didn’t realize how special it really was," Ryan said.
Ryan, set to embark on the second Olympic appearance of his own hockey career, set on his path partly because of the medal, because of the Olympic history that comes with his last name.
In his only Olympic appearance, Bob was part of one of the most famous moments in sports history when his team of amateurs beat the Soviet Union and eventually Finland to win the gold medal, the last men’s Olympic hockey team to win gold. Ryan’s uncle, Gary, played in two Olympics, winning silver in 2002.
Bob, the first of the family to appear in the Olympics, appreciates the tradition that has followed with Ryan. The family’s history adds another level of pride in being part of Team USA.
"Yeah, just the tradition we’ve kind of had now," Bob said. "I don’t know if it puts any extra pressure on the guys, I’m sure it does. Obviously you wear the USA jersey it turns a lot of different emotions on. You want to do well for your country and you may have a friend on another team, I think when you go out there in a USA jersey against the Canadian team, it’s a war."
Ryan wanted to be part of those battles.
Motivated by his dad and uncle, Ryan strove to be an Olympian. His early hockey dreams were more focused on the Olympics than the NHL, where he has turned into a star defenseman for the Minnesota Wild.
"That’s the only reason I wanted to be an Olympian," Ryan said. "I grew up hearing about my dad winning the gold medal and watching my uncle win a silver medal. . . . So, being in the Olympics, that’s what I thought was pretty special."
The Suter name was synonymous with USA Hockey. Ryan wanted his own small part, to join his father and uncle in history.
"I feel very fortunate to be in the same category as them," Ryan said. "Being in one Olympics is pretty neat and now being in my second, it’s kind of surreal to have another chance to compete for a gold medal."
Ryan will join Wild teammate and friend Zach Parise on Team USA in Sochi, Russia next week for the Olympics. Parise the captain of Team USA, Suter an alternate captain for the second time (accomplishing something neither his dad or his uncle had before).
"It’s pretty big shoes to fill with USA Hockey for Ryan," Parise said. "I think it’s a little extra special for him with the gold medal in the family, and you know how badly he wants to join that conversation and be a part of that too."
For his part, Ryan downplays growing up a Suter and said he didn’t think about the significance of his last name in hockey circles.
Parise knew about the Suter name growing up, too.
Coming from Minneapolis, Parise would play against Ryan, from Madison, in tournaments. Parise said everyone knew of Suter’s family history, but didn’t think about it when facing Ryan.
"It was more so, ‘I got to play against that damn Suter. He’s a pain in the (butt),’" Parise said. "I hated playing against him. Everyone knows when you have a name like that who he is."
The name has shaped who Ryan Suter is today.
Suter is an alternate captain for the Wild and has grown into his role as one of the faces of the team following his 13-year, $98 million contract he signed as a free agent in 2012, coming to Minnesota together with Parise on matching deals.
One of the finalists for the Norris Trophy, given to the league’s best defenseman, last year, Suter has become one of the league’s stars. He has six goals and 27 assists, and leads the NHL in ice time, averaging 29 minutes, 44 seconds per game, nearly two minutes more than the next closest player.
Ryan is as quiet and understated as his father, their Midwestern roots easily apparent.
"I try to take after him," Ryan said of his father. "I just try to be like my dad."
The impersonation has been a life-long pursuit.
A self-proclaimed rink rat, Ryan is calm on and off the ice. Bob Suter said he knows his son can get emotional and told a story of Ryan grabbing the facemask of an opponent and being ejected.
"He gets emotional, but he knows when to control it," Bob said. "I’m sure he’d like to go after a few guys more than he does, but he knows that’s not his style and there’s other guys that do that."
Ryan left as sophomore in high school to join the U.S. Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. It was his first chance to wear the Team USA uniform like his dad and uncle.
The appreciation for what his dad and uncle had done, and that medal with the beat up case, began to grow.
"It’s not the Olympics, but its international and you’re wearing the U.S. flag," Ryan said of his time in Ann Arbor. "So that was probably like, ‘Ok, he wore the U.S. jersey and won a gold medal.’ That was pretty special. But then going to Olympics was probably, now that I think about it, was probably the biggest, ‘Whoa, that’s pretty cool.’ Because the Olympics are a much bigger stage."
The stage was never bigger than for Bob and his team in 1980. Only amateurs were allowed to compete in the Olympics then. While the Soviet Union had played together for years, and were largely considered nearly professionals, Bob was on the team assembled by coach Herb Brooks, a mix of college players from the Midwest and East Coast.
Now with professionals playing, Bob knows his moment will likely never be duplicated.
"That’s probably why it’s still so prominent 33 to 34 years later, a bunch of young guys playing against professionals ," he said. "No matter if the U.S. wins, and I hope they do, it’s not the same as what we did."
Ryan has his own medal now as part of the silver medal-winning U.S. team from the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. His 3-year-old son is now taking Ryan’s place as the unappreciative observer of his dad’s work.
"I was carrying my medal out of the house, my silver medal, (Wednesday) and my son’s like, ‘What’s that?’" Ryan said. "’Ah, it’s my medal.’ ‘Oh, OK,’ and just keep walking. So that’s how I was."
Ryan learned, even if he didn’t realize then, how special it was to carry his dad’s medal.
"I mean, he forgot it a few times," Bob said. "It stayed at his school sometimes for three or four days at a time. That was fine, I mean I almost had it stolen right when I got back from the Olympics. But I kind of believed, and still do now, that if you can’t show it and people can’t see it . . . that’s part of it."
Just like the Suter name.
Follow Brian Hall on Twitter