For his acutely focused game day approach and the hardened expressions the cameras often locate behind the Kings’ bench, there is a selfless and considerate side of Darryl Sutter that might not be as readily discussed on broadcasts or found in commentary. He is thoughtful and compassionate, whether he’s writing a letter to a beat writer who had recently endured the passing of a close relative, or offering simple pats on the shoulder to players, media representatives or broadcasters to let them know that he’s thinking of them, that they’re all in the same boat, and that a common goal is shared.
His youngest son, Christopher, carries those same traits and many of the same mannerisms. Loyal and compassionate, Chris, born in 1993 with a form of Down syndrome, offers the same pats on the back and convivial gestures, and examples of his relationships with the players was shown at the All-Star Game on Sunday when he fist-bumped Bobby Ryan, and leaned over Alex Ovechkin to call Patrick Kane to the bench to offer encouragement over the final minutes of a game that Team Foligno – the team coached by Darryl Sutter – was trailing by multiple goals.
“He’ll even sometimes run a meeting,’ Robyn Regehr said. “I’ve been in, not just one, numerous meetings where all the sudden he’s like ‘Guys, guys we need to have a meeting here’ and he gives us a little pep talk. He comes around after games and whether it’s shaking your hand or a small pat on the back or on the knee. He’s around trying to cheer you up.”
The thought of “living the dream” isn’t just a shallow euphemism.
“I tell him he’s got a great life,” Darryl said. “He’s gets a couple weeks a month on the farm, he gets a couple weeks a month on the ocean and he gets in there and gets to see lots of hockey games.”
And when the time comes that ice sheets give way to the truncated summers that have bookended the Kings’ extended playoff runs, Chris is often back at home in Viking, doing what any young 20-something would do. He works.
“That’s part of the farmer’s mindset, is that kids have to do work,” Darryl Sutter said. “They have obligations to do.”
Chris still has responsibilities on the family’s homestead, but over the last two summers he has also plied his trade at Viking Meats, a butcher and grocery store located in central Viking, Alberta, not far from the family’s farm. He’ll work several days over the summer and the occasional day during the season while he’s not in Southern California.
He reports to Yogi Miskew, a man younger than Darryl who grew up playing a little bit of hockey with twins Ron and Rich Sutter and has known the family “since I remember anybody,” he recalls.
Chris’ work at Viking Meats isn’t limited to one area: he’ll work as a cashier, he’ll run the till, he’ll stock shelves, take out garbage, place stickers on vacuumed packed meats and price them. He is – as would be well-regarded in Kings circles – the consummate team player.
“He takes very much care in what he does,” Miskew said. “The way you see him there, he’s the same here. I understand, I don’t know how to explain it, and I understand what he does to the players because he does the same for me. He does. I don’t really know how to explain it, other than Darryl says it’s Chris’ magic, and really, it is. Like, if you’ve been around Chris lots you’ve felt that, too.”
Chris has worked for Miskew for two summers ever since he noticed a “Help Wanted” sign at the front of store during a trip into town with his mother, Wanda. There was no nepotism involved in his hiring. “I didn’t do it because it was Darryl’s boy or anybody else, Miskew said. “I really like kids, and so does my wife.”
“He had seen the sign in the window and he came in on his own and came in the back to talk to me, and I said like, ‘If you really want [a job], I’ll give you something to do.’ I went up and talked to his mom and I think he started the next day. … A lot of people here ask me, ‘Why did you give him a job?’ He asked.”
It has been a partnership that has worked well in the small town where virtually every face is a familiar one – and Chris remembers them all.
“If you know Chris, you know he has an incredible memory for names and faces, much better than me,” Miskew said. “He hits it out of the park in that department. If you meet him and you tell him your name and he’s at all interested in you, he’ll never forget your name or your face. Because I’ve seen him here do it with customers that spent an extra few minutes saying hi to him and where they’re from and their name. The next summer when had seen him, he remembered their name when they walked in the door. It’s incredible.”
The ability to quickly strike up a relationship and form a bond with those around him is no surprise to those who see him every day. Chris Sutter is intensely loyal to the players his father has coached, and it’s no surprise that Kane’s All-Star Game overtures to recruit Chris as a Blackhawks fan went, for the most part, unheeded.
“I remember we had a guy in Calgary, Shean Donovan, and Chris loved Shean,” Regehr said. “When Darryl became GM, eventually [Shean was signed by Boston]. I think if you ask Darryl, I don’t think Chris spoke to him for a week after that because he was so mad about Shean [leaving the Flames]. He builds some really great relationships with players. I remember San Jose. Originally he was in San Jose and became good friends with the guys there, Mike Ricci and some guys like that. When San Jose came to Calgary the first time, Chris went over to the visiting room and was hanging out with the guys and just having a great time.”
Coaches, staff members and players may need to find time – evenings, weekends, off-days – over a long season to “decompress,” though that’s not always entirely easy to do as the game has a tendency to follow many of its performers home. The constant coverage of the sport, catalyzed by new media and social media, doesn’t help the desire to chisel out some away time.
When the going gets to be tough sleddin’, as his father might say, Chris doesn’t back down.
“When you struggle, he’s always trying to find ways,” Darryl Sutter said. “I go into his room and check on him before he goes to sleep, and he’ll be sitting there working. He’ll be writing lines down and things like that.”
It’s part of a work ethic instilled in him by his family and accentuated by his work at the butcher.
“Everybody makes mistakes, but a lot of people try and hide it. But Chris, I have to say, my till has been right on the days he’s here,” Miskew said. “…I’ve had lots of employees and lots of them hush up about it and then you’re wondering what the heck went on. Chris is really precise in what he does and he cares what he does.”
“I really don’t know how to put it all in words. I really do miss him when he’s gone. When he’s here, he really lifts a guy up.”