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Suter deserves place among American-born greats

by Brian Hedger /
Ask those who've played with or against Gary Suter and the terms "underrated" or "underappreciated" are likely to come up a few times.

Despite winning the Stanley Cup in 1989 with the Calgary Flames, playing 1,145 games over 17 NHL seasons and racking up 844 points (203 goals and 641 assists), Suter still gets a little lost in the shuffle in a discussion about great defensemen.

"He was just an all-around good defenseman," said Trent Yawney, who played with Suter in Calgary. "When you mention his name, the first thing that comes to mind is 'underrated,' because he didn't get a lot of notoriety like some of the other guys -- but he was every bit as good as the ones who did."

On Monday in Chicago, that will change.

Suter will be inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame along with good friend and former defense partner Chris Chelios, star power forward Keith Tkachuk, legendary announcer Mike Emrick and Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider. Earlier this week, Suter spent some time with talking about his impressive, though somewhat unheralded, hockey career and the pending induction.

"It's a huge honor," Suter said. "When you're a kid growing up, no matter what sport you play you dream of someday making it to the Hall of Fame. So, it's a pretty humbling experience."

That's saying a lot coming from Suter, who knows a thing or two about being humbled. He often played the role of Robin to somebody else's Batman during his career and did it well -- without complaint.

In Calgary, he was overshadowed by the legendary Al MacInnis for nine seasons. After heading to Chicago in 1994, Suter was second-fiddle to Chris Chelios -- who's from the Windy City and was a local icon. By the time Suter finished his career as a San Jose Shark in 2002, he was more of a veteran presence on a team with young stars leading the charge.

At each stop, however, Suter was the same way.

"His demeanor off the ice is the same exact way it was on the ice," said Chelios, who's still good friends with Suter. "He doesn't like attention and he was the same type of player. He just did his job and didn't want the attention. He'd rather be in a deer blind than the public eye. That's just who he is."

That's also why it didn't bother him when others got more headlines while he quietly racked up stats and career accomplishments.

"I was never looking to be in the spotlight," Suter said. "I wasn't a self-promoter and I always played, for the most part, on teams that had perennial Norris Trophy guys like MacInnis and Chelios. I was just happy to be a big contributor."

That's exactly what he was right away for the Flames in the 1985-86 season, when he tallied 68 points in 80 games and became the first American player to win the Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie. He also played for the United States in eight international events -- including two Olympics, where he won a silver medal with Chelios in 2002.

Suter, Chelios and Tkachuk were also members of the U.S. team that won the 1996 World Cup of Hockey -- an event that Emrick announced and Snider hosted games at in Philadelphia. That was as close as the U.S. has come to the stunning Olympic Gold medal won in 1980 by the "Miracle on Ice" team -- which included Suter's older brother, Bob Suter.

The Suter family's roots are entrenched in hockey. It started with four brothers growing up in Madison, Wis., and their frozen backyard rink where they played for countless "Stanley Cups" each winter afternoon.

Three played collegiately at Wisconsin, while Bob won that unthinkable Gold medal and Gary made it in the NHL -- winning the real Stanley Cup once. Bob Suter now has a famous son -- Ryan Suter -- who's a top young defenseman for the Nashville Predators.

It's already been 31 years since Bob Suter's team shocked the hockey world by defeating the Soviet Union, but Gary said that win was incredibly inspirational. He still remembers where he was the day that he found out about it as a sophomore at Culver Military Academy in Northern Indiana -- where former New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was also schooled.

"It was just one of those moments that people keep talking about," Gary Suter said. "It was real, the excitement people had. They were stopping cars on freeways and yelling. That was the impact that win had. It was a shot of adrenaline for all young hockey players growing up in the U.S. to see our hockey team have such a dramatic win."

Suter was one of them. Like his brothers, he soon played at Wisconsin -- where he was actually hosted on his official recruiting visit by Chelios, who left Madison as Suter arrived. Suter played two seasons for the Badgers and headed to the NHL after being taken by Calgary in the ninth round (180th overall) of the 1984 NHL Draft.

After nearly a decade in Calgary, where he put up impressive numbers, Suter joined Chelios on the Blackhawks. He helped close down the old Chicago Stadium and usher in the United Center just across Madison Street -- where the Hawks play now.

"That was a nice time for me, after spending nine years in Calgary," Suter said. "Playing in Calgary is truly like playing in a fishbowl. You just can't get away from hockey. The change was good, especially being so close to home. I was only two hours away from home in Chicago."

He and Chelios quickly developed chemistry on the ice and off.

"It was really a great pair when he and Cheli played together here," said former Blackhawk and current TV analyst Eddie Olczyk, who played with the duo in Chicago and internationally. "(Suter) was just so good. He had a great first pass and was nasty at times. You knew when he was on the ice. He had that ability to be a threat whether he had the puck or not."

He was also in great physical shape, thanks to some intense off-season workouts. Even before coming to Chicago, he and Chelios would often work out in Madison during summers -- running the steep stairs of Camp Randall Stadium.

"His demeanor off the ice is the same exact way it was on the ice. He doesn't like attention and he was the same type of player. He just did his job and didn't want the attention. He'd rather be in a deer blind than the public eye. That's just who he is."
-- Chris Chelios on Gary Suter

"You were really burning when you got to the top," Suter recalled. "Then you'd turn around and walk back down to the bottom and do it again. By the time you got to the bottom, your legs were shaking. It took about 12 seconds to run to the top and 45 to walk back down. It was just like a shift in hockey, like a 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 rest ratio."

The work paid off for the 6-foot, 205-pound Suter at the start of training camps.

"He would blow everybody away in the fitness testing every year," Yawney said. "He was a finely-tuned machine. Put it that way."

Longevity was the main motivation.

"I was driven to be in as good of shape as possible, because I knew that would keep me in the League," Suter told "I worked my tail off in the off-season. I figured, 'If I'm equal in talent to somebody else but in better shape, I'll be more successful.' "

He was right, too. Some might have taken Suter for granted at times, but his peers never did. That's good enough for him.

"I always enjoyed playing and being part of the group," Suter said. "I just had the passion to be as good as I could be and be a good teammate to help our team win."
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