By the time July 3, 2012, rolled around, the Wild was fairly certain it would land Ryan Suter. Tiny problem: It had yet to sit across a table, look the free-agent defenseman in the eyes and have a heart-to-heart.
That morning, Wild owner Craig Leipold, General Manager Chuck Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo boarded a seven-seat Learjet at the St. Paul airport with Suter’s financial adviser, Tom Sagissor, for a recruiting trip.
Before heading east to Wisconsin, the gents detoured north to International Falls, Minn., where they picked up Suter’s agent, Neil Sheehy, and generously gave him a lift to Suter’s meeting with the Wild and, awkwardly, the Detroit Red Wings.
“Ultimately, Ryan was ground zero, but we were still very confident we were getting him,” Leipold said. “And then, we landed at the wrong airport!”
Leipold laughs heartily after the memory pops into his head. He didn’t want the Red Wings to even know the Wild was coming, so the team planned to land at a municipal airport in Middleton, Wis., which is closer to Suter’s offseason home.
“Somehow, though, I kept referring to it as ‘Madison’ to the pilots,” Leipold said. “As soon as we land, I go, ‘Oh no!’ I run up to the cockpit and say, ‘Hey guys, we’re at the wrong airport.’
“What I didn’t know was my office had already deemed that [Middleton] airport too small for the jet.”
So, the Wild was heading to its biggest power lunch in franchise history, one that could very well land the franchise a minute-munching No. 1 defenseman and … Zach Parise, and the first impression Suter would get was a phone call asking him to drive to Madison because the Wild landed at the wrong airport?
“Yup,” Leipold said, roaring. “And to top it off? Our jet parked right next to the Red Wings’ jet!”
Wisconsin at heart
Suter, 28, is nothing like most hockey players. He doesn’t seek the limelight, nor does he want it.
He might be the son of Bob Suter, who won Olympic gold with the 1980 “Miracle on Ice,” and might have grown up watching his uncle, Gary Suter, star in the NHL, but, said Ryan, “All these kids dream, ‘I want to play in the NHL.’ I never did.”
“For me, it was college hockey. My uncle played at Wisconsin. My dad played at Wisconsin. For me, it was play college, work at my dad’s rink when I’m older and then work landscaping with my brother. That’s all I ever wanted.”
Suter turned down more money to play in Philadelphia, the same money to play in Detroit, similar money in Nashville and countless other contract offers to sign with Minnesota as a $98 million tag-team with Parise.
Suter’s wife, Becky, and her family hail from the Twin Cities. So does Suter’s stepmom, Mary, and her family. And of course, Parise is from here, so signing a contract as long as 13 years made every bit of sense.
After a self-described “terrible start” last season, Suter recovered dramatically, forming an impressive partnership with rookie Jonas Brodin to lead the NHL in average ice time per game (27 minutes, 16 seconds) and finish third among defensemen in scoring (32 points). Suter finished second in Norris Trophy voting.
“It’s nice that’s over with,” Suter said.
“Nice what’s over with?” Suter was asked.
“The attention,” he said. “I’d rather just go out and have nothing said and nothing written about me. Looking back now, I guess it’s pretty cool. But it doesn’t make a guy’s career, I don’t think, if they win a Norris Trophy or are a finalist. I mean, my uncle was one of the best defensemen in the league for a long time, and he never won the Norris. He was Rookie of the Year, but I don’t think a Norris makes or breaks you.
“It just was kind of an inconvenience.”
As Suter uttered those words, walking-by media relations director Aaron Sickman stopped short, gave Suter an “Are you kidding me?” look and “Please retract!” grin.
“I know I probably shouldn’t say that, but it is,” Suter said in his typical quiet, laid-back way. “I want to be the best player. I just want to be the best player … without anybody noticing. Some guys love the attention. Some guys play in the NHL just so they can say they played in the NHL. I just like playing … and want to win a Stanley Cup.”
Jake Dowell, who plays for the Iowa Wild, played with Suter at Wisconsin and is one of Suter’s closest friends, said Suter understands that attention and off-ice responsibilities, such as promoting the team, come with the contract.
“Sometimes people think he’s grumpy or rude, but he just is shy and he doesn’t like the spotlight,” Dowell said. “He likes to go out there and do his thing. That’s it. He’s awesome at what he does, and he’d like to blend in.”
During the offseason, Suter can hardly be reached. He returns home to his 120-acre farm (he rents corn and alfalfa fields to local farmers) and exquisite home outside Madison (Parise calls it a compound) and is all about his wife and two children.
The household’s one rule: “No talking about hockey,” Suter said.
He pays no attention to hockey summer happenings. At August’s U.S. Olympic camp, he asked Bobby Ryan why he was carrying an Ottawa Senators bag, having no clue Ryan was the center of one of the summer’s biggest trades, going from Anaheim to Canada’s capital after the Senators lost captain Daniel Alfredsson to Detroit.
Every morning at 6:30, Suter’s 2½-year-old son, Brooks, wakes up to work out with Dad and Uncle Garrett.
“Well, he drinks orange juice and watches Mickey Mouse while we work out,” Suter said.
Then, Brooks will spend all day outside with Suter, who in jeans and boots works on his property with his brother. They put in sod, mow, pull out the log splitter and clean up the woods.
This past summer, Suter built an enormous retaining wall made of boulders to protect the tennis court he built. He poured concrete on his big driveway, painted a 500-foot fence.
“I like to always be doing stuff,” Suter said. “We’re building a home here in Minnesota. I go there every morning before practice. After practice, I go home, get Brooks and look at the home again. I wish I had all my tools here so I could be doing a lot of the building.”
Suter is “just simple and down to earth,” Dowell said. “When we were in college, the guy would drive around in his truck in snowstorms and look for people in ditches to pull them out. He’s a country boy.”
Everyone says Suter gets it from his dad.
“We played a midget tournament in Wisconsin, and some of us stayed with Ryan and his family,” said Rob Davidge, 29, teammates with Suter at Culver (Ind.) Military Academy 13 years ago and now a financial adviser in Columbus, Ohio. “We played at the rink they own [Capitol Ice Arena in Middleton].
“His stepmom is working the snack bar. His dad was on the Zamboni and sweeping up the locker rooms. I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. This guy was on the 1980 team.’ It just seemed so very common, so very … nice.”
Road to the pros
Suter grew up playing for the Madison Capitols, then one year at Culver. His biggest rival — a flashy, hyped-up kid who played for the Minnesota Blades and Shattuck-St. Mary’s — was Zach Parise.
“We’d slash and hack and fight and beat the heck out of each other,” Suter said.
“It was ugly. I hated playing against him,” Parise said. “I don’t like to use the word, but he was dirty.”
The two would eventually become pals playing for the United States in various international tournaments.
“He is so good,” Parise said. “He’s also tougher than people give him credit for. He’s got farmer’s strength, the way he knocks players off the puck.”
Last year, Suter secretly played three weeks despite a broken rib following checks from Los Angeles’ Justin Williams and St. Louis’ Chris Porter in back-to-back games.
It was obvious something was wrong because at some junctures, Suter could barely shoot or catch a pass.
“It was excruciating,” he said. “I could hardly breathe. They had to shoot it up every game.”
Wild assistant coach Rick Wilson, who has coached some of the game’s great defensemen, such as Sergei Zubov and Rob Blake, said Suter is one of the sports’ rare blue-liners who plays at the tempo he believes the game needs to be played at.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Suter does all the little things that often go unseen but that coaches love.
“He plays the score of the game as well as anybody in the league,” Hitchcock said. “He was the most underrated player in the whole  Olympics. He was more competitive against fierce competition than anybody in the tournament.”
Suter is a true leader, taking Brodin under his wings and standing up to his buddy David Backes, the St. Louis Blues captain, in a Sept. 25 preseason game when Suter felt Backes was picking on 19-year-old Matt Dumba.
He doesn’t seem to sweat, despite topping 30 minutes 10 times last season. And there never seems to be anxious energy when Suter is on the ice.
“A lot of defensemen think when they want stuff to settle down, they have to work harder and be more aggressive, run at a guy,” Suter said. “I try to do the opposite. If it’s chaos and we’re trapped in our end, I try to slow it down where I sit back and don’t run out of position.
“People say I’m not a big hitter. Hitting is great, but that’s 5 percent of the time. How about the 95 percent of time you get out of position making that big hit? It’s like tying up a guy in front of the net. There’s a time for that, but most the time it makes it harder for a goalie to see it.
“So I guess I try to do the opposite of everybody. I try to step back, watch the play and then outthink.”
This is why Hitchcock calls Suter an “intellect.”
And this is why Leipold doled out the dough for Suter. In Nashville, Suter’s former defense partner, Shea Weber, got all the notoriety because of the big shot and big hits.
But Leipold, the former Predators owner, said: “We all knew in Nashville that Ryan Suter was the guy. He’s the guy that made that duo work. When Ryan was down, it just wasn’t the same defense in Nashville. We’re just really happy it all worked out here.”
Suter is, too.
“One night this summer, I was on a pontoon with my wife and we said, ‘We’re probably the luckiest people in the world to have two kids and be able to do this for a living,’ ” Suter said. “It’s pretty special.”
Yeah, Suter is nothing like most hockey players.
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