Ambitious is a pretty good word to describe Andy Sutton.
What other adjective would you use to describe someone who completed an environmental engineering degree before a 14-year pro hockey career, then went on to design protective hockey equipment and start an organic farm?
"Ambition has never been a problem of mine," Sutton said. "I know what I'm capable of."
That attitude has ridden tandem with a relentless work ethic that dates back to his college days. Sutton went undrafted out of Michigan Tech, but a stellar senior season, highlighted by winning the WCHA's Defensive Player of the Year award, earned him several NHL contract offers. He signed with the San Jose Sharks, making his NHL debut in the 1998-99 season, playing two seasons with the Sharks before being selected by the Minnesota Wild in the 2000 Expansion Draft.
The next seven years included an experiment at forward with the Wild and some productive years with the Atlanta Thrashers. In 2007, Sutton traded in his powder blue for some blue and orange, signing a three-year deal with the Isles in an offseason overhaul. Out were Alexei Yashin, Jason Blake, Ryan Smyth, Viktor Kozlov and Tom Poti. In came Bill Guerin, Mike Comrie, Ruslan Fedotenko, Jon Sim and Sutton.
Despite the turnover, the 07-08 Islanders were outpacing the 06-07 squad at the midpoint of the season. Things took a turn late in the season after Rick DiPietro tweaked his hip during the All-Star Skills Competition, but Sutton remembers seeing promise in that first squad.
"I think we were a team that probably had good potential," Sutton said. "Looking back in retrospect we should have done more, should have been more competitive, definitely should have been a playoff team."
He still has good memories of that season as well, which including playing in Al Arbour's 1,500th game. The Isles brought the Hall of Fame coach out of retirement for one game to reach an even 1,500 on his Islanders career and the importance of the moment was not lost on Sutton.
"Looking back now in retrospect it was just awesome," Sutton said. "Feeling like you're part of something that's so much bigger than anything that you can bring to the table for the team, is a cool way to look at it. I feel really honored to have spent the time there to connect with a lot of legends from that organizations and to be part of that night."
Injuries limited Sutton to 23 games in 2008-09, a year that the Islanders finished last in the NHL, but the defenseman bounced back with a healthy 2009-10 campaign. Sutton had 12 points (4G, 8A) in 54 games before being traded to Ottawa, though it's his physical, blue-collar game that he's likely to be remembered for. He led the Islanders with 153 blocked shots that season and was second on the team with 155 hits. Sutton blocked a total of 204 shots that season (between Long Island and Ottawa), second only to Dennis Seidenberg.
"That was probably the most physical I was ever able to be," Sutton said. "I played really well and the more I blocked shots and laid guys out the more I endeared myself to the people there who really appreciate that brand of hockey and appreciate that level of work ethic. I felt really cared for by the organization and the community when I played there, I really did. I enjoyed my time there as much as anywhere else I ever played."
Sutton played two more seasons in the NHL, one in Anaheim and one in Edmonton, before injuries forced him to retire in May 2013.
When he looks back on his time with the Islanders, the relationships with his teammates are what rush back first. Names like Freddy Meyer, Andy Hilbert and Rob Schremp are some of the life-long friends he made on the Island. Sutton also reconnected with Mark Streit during his Isles tenure, after the two had previously played together in Switzerland during the 2004-05 lockout.
"We had a lot of really awesome people there and made some life-long friends in my time there," Sutton said. "It certainly seemed like the team was poised to put something together and the chemistry just didn't seem to come all the way together, despite the quality cast of characters that we had."
Sutton's led an interesting life since retiring in 2013.
After 14 surgeries in 16 years and an estimated 15-20 foot fractures, Sutton was inspired him to create more protective equipment for players, fusing his engineering degree from Michigan Tech with lifetime of hockey experience. He recently told 31 Thoughts: The Podcast that he turned down a job offer from the NHL's Player Safety department to start acquiring intellectual property.
"The products, especially at the highest level, have their limitations," Sutton said. "Guys shoot hard and there are all kinds of holes in the product that leave you susceptible to serious injuries… I had a ton of time to sit outside and watch and figure out how to do things differently."
Sutton tried to license the technology behind his intellectual property with some of the biggest brands in the sport, like Easton, before meeting friend and business partner Chris Malki, who was the CEO of Wholesale Sports Inc.
Sutton became the President of Wholesale Sports Inc. and helped grow the company, acquiring various equipment and apparel brands along the way. One of the brands he helped acquire was Verbero Hockey, an equipment and apparel company, which he later took outside of the Wholesale umbrella and owns and operates as the CEO. The company sells custom apparel and innovative gear and Sutton is implementing some of his intellectual property and innovations, which include 3D printing fully ventilated protective systems.
"We'll be building on-demand fully customized shin guard systems for guys," Sutton said as an example. "The membrane that sits against the skin is fully ventilated and web-based and the exterior of the shin guard is all 3D printed with ventilated components."
Sutton has also embraced a health and wellness lifestyle in retirement, which included buying into an anti-inflammatory supplement brand, and building a three-acre homestead in Southern California. Sutton wanted to live a more natural lifestyle and have more control over the production of what he was consuming, so he and his wife bought a property in Fallbrook, California, just north of San Diego, and turned it into an idyllic and organic homestead. Sutton's property is home to 100 mature fruit trees and 15 vegetable gardens that he built and he and his wife tend to.
They have a host animals on the property too: three dogs, one cat, chickens (so they can have fresh eggs), five goats (which they milk), and alpacas. If it sounds like the setting of The Biggest Little Farm, that's because it's not far off and seeing the documentary a couple years ago helped inspire Sutton and his wife to take up the lifestyle.
"We made this decision to live this very holistic, homestead type of lifestyle," Sutton said. "It's crazier than anything I could have ever imagined. It's the most beautiful life I could have ever imagined."
It's a lot of work to maintain, but it's helped Sutton retain a sense of calm and connectively while he balances the workload of owning and running several businesses. It may sound like too much to handle, but while Sutton may be short on time, he's long on ambition.