Ryan Suter can finally smile and even allow himself to laugh about what will always be an odd coincidence, because he can laugh about a lot of things now.
Time heals, winning helps, and friendship goes a long way toward turning your world right side up again after feeling like everything was falling apart.
Suter and Minnesota Wild teammate Zach Parise know this all too well.
"It's kind of weird actually if you think about that, how it's everything we've gone through together," Suter said. "But what are the odds of something like this last year happening? That's how I feel when I think about it, like, really, this is just weird."
Suter and Parise created a lasting link when they signed matching 13-year, $98 million contracts on July 4, 2012; they formed a bond only they can understand this season because each lost his father in a tragic way.
Bob Suter, a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic gold medal-winning team, died of a heart attack that came without any warning signs on Sept. 9, 2014. J.P. Parise, a former NHL player and veteran of the 1972 Summit Series, lost his battle with lung cancer on Jan. 7.
"It was really important to have someone to talk to who literally just went through it," Parise said. "I know it was a different situation but it's the same result, and someone who just went through the exact same thing can help. Ryan had a similar relationship with his dad that I did with mine, so he knew exactly the feelings I was dealing with. To have someone you're a friend with going through the same thing was important."
Holding Each Other Up
Suter and Parise have been two of the rocks that have helped Minnesota surge to a Wild-best third straight Stanley Cup Playoff berth with a strong second half following a brutal first half. The fact is they had to lean on each other more than ever to help push the team forward, out of what Parise called the dark days and into the brightness of spring.
It actually started last season, after Parise and Suter got home from the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where they played together for the United States. That's when Parise found out his father had stage 4 lung cancer, which meant he didn't have long to live.
"It started with me talking to him then saying, 'You know, it's going to be all right, he's lived a good life,'" Suter said. "That's how it started, but then my dad passed away kind of suddenly and he came to me and was trying to help me through that."
Parise has vivid memories of sitting at Bob Suter's funeral in Wisconsin. As much as he was there for his friend and teammate, he was thinking about himself and his dad.
"I don't know if irony is the word, but I remember being at his dad's funeral, which was so unexpected and tragic, just before our training camp, and just thinking to myself and the situation that my dad was in," Parise said. "I kept thinking, 'This could be reality for us pretty soon and I don't know how I'm going to handle this.'"
Parise tried to help Suter the way he would have wanted Suter to help him, by just being there for his friend if he needed someone to talk to.
"If you know Ryan, you know private is an understatement," Parise said. "He's a very private person, but you make yourself available to try to talk to him a little bit about it without making it uncomfortable. You do as much as you can as a friend to let him know that if you need anything, we're here, my wife is here, we live a mile away, and just let us know if you need anything."
He remembers being impressed with how Suter handled the situation. It's almost as if he took mental notes.
"I'm a believer that people grieve in their own way because people are different," Parise said, "But I thought, personally, that he handled it very well."
Suter felt his bond with Parise grow after his father's death. Four months later, when J.P. Parise succumbed to cancer, the roles were reversed and Suter's experience helped Parise get through his grieving period.
"You don't want to put that burden on someone else," Parise said. "I know everyone volunteers and everyone was fantastic in reaching out and saying, 'I'm here to talk,' or, 'Just let me know if you need anything.' But we had that link between us. We went through the same thing, so you feel more comfortable talking to that person about it."
Suter said he and Parise are closer now than before each lost his father.
"We were already pretty close, but having that to talk about with each other is another thing that you can have and relate to," Suter said. "Has it helped? I don't know if it's helped. I think it's just brought us closer than we already were."
Happy Times Again
Suter wanted the rink to be his safe haven after his dad's death. Parise wanted the same thing during the early months of the season, when his father's situation was deteriorating.
They wanted to be able to come to practice and play in games without the burden of negative thoughts. Instead, it felt like their worlds were colliding and collapsing in one giant heap.
The Wild was last in the Central Division at 18-19-5 after losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 7-2, on Jan. 13, which was Parise's third game back after his father's death.
"For a while there it seemed that everything was going wrong," Suter said. "We couldn't buy a win. Things were just bad. Every night you're looking at the scoreboard thinking, 'What the heck do we have to do to figure this out?' Then you start thinking all the negative thoughts with your personal life. When you go to the rink you're supposed to be able to get away from all that, but we would go to the rink and it was more negativity on top of that. It wasn't a good place to be for us with what we were going through."
Suter remembers taking the negativity home with him and allowing it to invade his family life. Parise felt the same way. It was brutal.
"When things are going well you leave it at the rink and you come home and you deal with your family and you're happy to be with your family and you don't think about that stuff," Suter said. "But when it was bad, definitely you bring it home and it affects your whole family. That's not what you want as a dad."
Goalie Devan Dubnyk's arrival following a mid-January trade with the Arizona Coyotes changed everything for the Wild and brought Parise, Suter and the team out of the darkness. All of a sudden, Minnesota had quality goaltending, and the wins started to pile up.
"It's funny how winning makes everything else kind of go away," Suter said.
Minnesota is 28-8-3 since Dubnyk took over as the No. 1 goalie on Jan. 15. He started every game before getting a rest Thursday and has a 1.73 goals-against average and .938 save percentage.
The Wild clinched a playoff berth on Tuesday, when they defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 2-1 at United Center.
"Now we have that confidence back and Devan has been a huge part of us getting that confidence back," Suter said. "He brought a confidence into the room when he came. Things were down, everything was negative, and he brought that positivity back. We've built off of that, and that's why we are where we are today, because of that change."
Parise has scored 18 of his Wild-high 32 goals in the past 39 games. Suter has 15 points and has played 25 or more minutes in 35 of his past 37 games (he missed Dubnyk's first two games Jan. 15 and 17), including 10 games with 30 or more minutes.
More importantly, Parise and Suter are smiling again and laughing while still leaning on each other; only now they're doing it as much on the ice as they are off, just like normal.
Time has healed. Winning has helped. Their friendship has grown stronger.
"A couple months ago things were all negative, the team was losing, and all those bad thoughts go through your mind," Suter said. "Now that the team is winning it's easier to focus on the good things in life, and that's what you have to focus on."