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One year after devastating ailment, Suter proves doubters wrong again

Wild's Masterton nominee overcame career-threatening leg injury last spring

by Dan Myers @MNWildScribe / Wild.com

It was about this time last year that Ryan Suter first started hearing the whispers.

Annually one of the best defenseman in the NHL, Minnesota's alternate captain had his career turned upside down.

If he had a career left at all.

About a week earlier, Suter was playing in Dallas and went to make a play he's made hundreds of times in his life. This time was different.

One of the toughest guys in the League, known for his "farmer strength" and his blue-collar work ethic, was in trouble ... and he knew it. 

As Suter struggled to his feet, something felt terribly off. It wasn't just a sprain or a stinger from a blocked shot. He had fractured one of the most delicate bones in the human body.

And while he didn't know it at that moment, Suter's life for the next six months was about to change dramatically.


Masterton nominee

Among the many things Suter doesn't like are individual honors. He's just as happy doing a good job and having it go unnoticed than having the spotlight shined on him.

So when he was nominated by the Twin Cities Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association for the Bill Masterton Award, there was some level of discomfort. 

Video: Ryan Suter is named No. 14 on the list

It wasn't because of any lack of respect for the award itself; he'd just prefer to not have it be about him. That's how he's always been.

"I'd rather not be in the situation," Suter said. "But to be thought of, sort of, in the kind of regard as Bill Masterton, it's pretty cool."

The winner of the Masterton Trophy is selected by a poll among the 31 chapters of the PHWA at the end of the regular season. NHL writers first presented the trophy in 1968 to commemorate the late Bill Masterton, who played for the Minnesota North Stars and exhibited to a high degree the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. Masterton died on Jan. 15, 1968, as a result of head injuries suffered during a game.

Returning from a potentially career-threatening injury to skate in all 82 games and lead the League in time on ice certainly qualifies as "dedication to hockey."


[RELATED: Celebrating Suter's 1,000th career game]
 

"He's tough, and he doesn't let bumps and bruises get into his head," said Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk. "You have to respect what he's doing, knowing that it was extremely difficult and painful for him for a big chunk of the year. Nobody would know and that speaks to his toughness and his ability to play at a high level."


An unlucky break

A broken foot or a sprained ankle could generously be characterized as a best-case scenario. 

Remarkably durable during a decade-plus long career during which he's led the NHL in minutes played on several occasions, Suter felt a pain in his right foot unlike anything he had ever experienced. 

In a completely innocuous-looking collision behind the Wild net with Stars forward Remi Elie, Suter had fractured the talus bone. 

"I knew it wasn't something small, like a fibula fracture," Suter said. "It hurt quite a bit." 

According to Healthline.com, the main purpose of the talus bone is to form a connection between the leg and the foot so that body weight may be transferred from the ankle to the leg, enabling a person to walk while maintaining balance.

Fracturing the talus isn't easy to do, and it's rarely done in sports. It's most often seen as a result of a high-speed car crash.

"I remember knowing it was serious because when the play was over, he went down on a knee and said, 'I need some help,'" Dubnyk said. "That's what's scary is because this guy just doesn't go down."

Video: MIN@DAL: Suter records 500th point on Parise's goal

It's certainly not an ideal injury for a world-class athlete to sustain, specifically one that makes his living moving on a steel blade measuring just more than a millimeter wide.

But it was his sport that actually likely saved Suter's career. Had he fractured his talus and he was anything other than a hockey player, his career likely would have been over. The boot atop that blade provides his ankle and foot with support that he wouldn't otherwise receive. 

So while it took time for Suter to heal properly, playing hockey allowed him the benefit of continuing his career.


A horrible summer

There were just a handful of games remaining in the regular season when Suter's injury occurred. Minnesota struggled to the finish line but made the playoffs, then was sent packing by Winnipeg after just five games. 

Suter watched from the press box, often still in shock over his bad luck.

But that was just the beginning.

Suter is not a homebody, and he's not someone who likes to spend time off his feet.


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His wife, Becky, was due to give birth to the couple's fourth child, in just a few weeks. There was a multi-million dollar renovation to his family's ice rink outside Madison, Wisconsin. 

For the first month after the injury, Suter was relegated to a recliner in the family's living room. 

For several weeks after that, he needed a scooter to help him get around.

Video: CHI@MIN: Suter scores SHG to tie game late in 3rd

In all, Suter spent three months unable to put any weight on his right foot, which made even the most mundane of activities seem impossible.

"That was the hardest part," Suter said last summer. "It's just the little things you take for granted. She was unbelievable. Not to sound too corny, but It's in times like that that you realize how much someone really cares about you."

Slowly, Suter graduated from lounger, to scooter, to crutches to limping to walking and finally to skating. 

But it was clear in training camp that Suter was nowhere near the player he was before the injury. Simply walking from the bench to the locker room seemed like a monumental task. 

He still walked with a heavy limp, and his game wasn't all the way back, but Suter was there on Opening Night when the Wild played in Denver against the Colorado Avalanche. Less than a month later, Suter skated in his 1,000th career NHL game.

Video: COL@MIN: Wild celebrate Ryan Suter's 1,000th NHL game

The player, still motivated by those that doubted him, was back on an NHL ice sheet. 

"If you know him, you're not very surprised," said Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon. "He likes to prove people wrong and do his own things. He's a strong guy, and he did a lot of rehab over the summer and even from the time he got back from the end of summer ... to take part in a full training camp was pretty crazy to see."

But just getting back was the first step. Suter played in all 82 games this season for the seventh time in his NHL career, but this time was probably the most satisfying, at least individually.

From a team perspective, the Wild's season was anything but gratifying. Minnesota missed the postseason for the first time in Suter's seven seasons with the club.

"We have to change something because what we have is not working," Suter said Saturday following the team's 3-0 loss at Dallas to close out the campaign. "We do have guys out, some guys that have scored a lot of goals in the League. We've got a lot of young guys with a lot of potential and a good summer of training and knowing that they're going to be on the team I think will help. [But] we can't keep going the way we've been going."


Getting all the way back

With the season now over, Suter can breathe a bit of a sigh of relief. 

He spent the first quarter of the season protecting his right foot before finally feeling comfortable enough to play on it without hiding it.

He's blocked shots with it and he's made the same type of play he injured it on last season. Now, he does it without hesitation or even thinking about it.

"A few times, it's been hit on accident and you just hold your breath," Suter said. "But I'd take a step and it'd be OK. But that was one of the things I wanted to get out of the way right away. The first half of the season, I was just protecting it, basically playing on one leg."

There's no denying Suter's value to the Wild. When he's healthy and on the ice, Minnesota's blue line is at its best. Paired for most of this season with Spurgeon, Suter and his blueline mate helped the Wild navigate the loss of defenseman Matt Dumba early in the year to a season-ending injury.

The pairing provides Boudreau with an important security blanket when times get tough. Having a healthy Suter at his disposal certainly helped the coach sleep a little better at night.

"All I know is, when he's on the ice, I feel better," Boudreau said. "Something may go wrong, but there's less chance of it when he's there. Him and Spurge, as long as they can handle it, they'll play big minutes."

Playing with him as much as he has this season has provided Spurgeon a front-row seat to Suter's recovery. As the season has progressed, Suter's once noticeable limp has slowly faded. 

Plays early in the year where opponents were able to take advantage of his ailment and skate around them have become fewer and farther between.

Suter looks more and more like his old self, and that's good for the Wild as it welcomes a couple of key contributors back from injury ahead of next season.

"I think at the start of the year, he might have been thinking about it more, going into battles and in the corners," Spurgeon said. "Right now, he's been playing really well, his skating is back to the way it was and that is one of the most underrated things about his game."

Suter himself says he's back to feeling as close to 100 percent as he may ever feel on the ice. There are good days and bad, days where he still has to manage some pain in his foot.

But the good ones far outnumber the bad ones these days, and that's a step in the right direction.

With a full season under his belt and a normal summer routine in the offing, Suter says he's just ready to get the Wild moving in the right direction too: Back to the playoffs in 2019-20.

"I feel like I'm fully back, but I also know that I can be better," Suter said. "Points wise, I'm right where I've always been and ice-time, right where I've always been. But I judge myself on how my team has done and we're not in a good spot. We didn't have as good a season as we would have hoped to and that's very disappointing."


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