ST. PAUL, Minn. — Ryan Suter was in the middle of a pre-training camp skate when the image of his wife appeared behind the same type of thin, rounded glass he’s been peering through his entire life.
Usually, his father Bob was up in the stands somewhere, watching his boy blossom into an Olympian like he was and reach the NHL stardom he never attained. But that was just fine with the 1980s "Miracle On Ice" defenseman, who retired from the game quietly to his hometown of Madison, Wis., to open a sporting goods store, manage an ice rink and scout for the Wild on the side.
But on this day, Tuesday, Sept. 9, something was amiss. Becky Suter isn’t normally one to bust into Edina’s Braemar Arena and emotionally pull her husband out of a practice.
Your dad’s had a heart attack, she told Ryan Suter as he hastily changed out of his hockey gear and into street clothes. "I was like, ‘OK, get off (the ice), get back there and he’ll be in the hospital," the Wild player said.
Then he called his brother, Garrett, who’d been in a meeting with his dad that morning.
"Things weren’t good," Ryan Suter said Friday, fighting back tears.
Bob Suter, 57, died that day and was laid to rest Saturday. Garrett, who worked alongside his father at Capitol Ice Arena in Middleton, Wis., and him had been joking together when Bob suddenly began "clenching up," as Ryan Suter relayed it. "Garrett was trying to get him back."
The news hit Ryan, his wife, their two children, the rest of the family and the hockey community at large like a tidal wave. At his funeral at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, Bob Suter was remembered as a player, a father, a husband, a friend and an ambassador of the sport, a reverence for which he instilled in his boys at an early age.
Ten days after the tragedy, Suter skated with his teammates for the first time since his father passed away. Then, like the man his dad taught him to be, he stood in front of a group of reporters and talked about him.
"My dad was a hard-working guy," Ryan Suter said, pausing throughout the conversation to compose himself. "He wore his blue jeans and work boots to work every day. He didn’t expect anything from anyone. Everything he got, he worked for. He wasn’t ashamed to be in his work boots and to be at the rink from sunup to sundown on the weekends."
It was difficult for Ryan to leave Madison, he said, especially after more than 4,000 people showed up for his wake a week ago. He and his father were always close, whether it was patching up the corners of the rink or catching up at the Xcel Energy Center the day of a Wild home game.
"I’m going to miss him," Suter said.
So are those who remember watching Suter and the 1980 Olympics team upset the Soviets and go on to win gold (Suter is the first player from that team to pass away; coach Herb Brooks died in a 2003 automobile accident) and longtime Wisconsin fans who knew Bob Suter as a Badger — and 1977 national champion — before that. So are the hundreds of youth hockey players to walk through the Capitol Ice Arena doors. So are the Wild players and staffers who got to know Bob thanks to his front office work.
"Bob was part of our team, so getting to know him . . . from a personal level as far as what kind of person he is, and then when you see Suts and his family and how difficult that was for them, we’re feeling terrible for them," Wild coach Mike Yeo said after the team wrapped up a morning of scrimmages and group practices Friday.
So the State of Hockey’s pro franchise has done its part to support the Suters, starting with owner Craig Leipold flying the entire team to the funeral. Hockey lovers from around the country have sent in letters, flowers and donations for the memorial fund Ryan and his family set up in Bob Suter’s name.
Proceeds will go toward buying equipment and covering ice fees for children who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford the sport.
"I wish we could have done it when he was around," said Ryan Suter, who led the NHL in time on ice each of the past two seasons. "They were turning people away (at the wake). That just shows what kind of guy he was, what kind of impact he had on hockey and on people. A lot of people have come up to me and said he helped make him the person that they are today. It’s pretty special to hear that. I hear people that are 40-some years old saying that and then the young kids, you see the young kids how devastated they were. It’s pretty special.
"But it’s over with, and we have to move on and have a really good year for him."
The first step in that facet of the healing process came Thursday. Suter hadn’t skated since the day his father passed but didn’t miss much of a beat, Yeo said.
It was also somewhat cathartic. After all, it was the ice that created such a unique bond between Bob Suter and his sons in the first place.
"That’s kind of the cool thing about hockey," Ryan Suter said. "You get to get out on the ice and you don’t really have to think about anything. You can just go out and be in your own little world."
With the hurt still in his eyes, Suter worried people might think he’s "soft." Indeed, it’s a gut-wrenching site for one of the game’s grittiest, toughest players to open up and sadly discuss a deceased loved one.
But soft is the antithesis of Suter, whether it comes to handling his dad’s passing or the way he approaches the game.
He’s not alone, teammate and friend Zach Parise said.
"I can only imagine what he went through and is going through," Parise said, glancing across the Wild dressing room at Suter’s locker. "It’s just a really sad, unfortunate thing to happen. In here in our room, we’ll do our best to make sure that we’re there for Ryan and for anything that he needs and supporting him."