Ryan Suter never dreamed of playing in the NHL.
He was aware it existed, tuning one of the two miniature black-and-white TVs in his childhood room to almost every game his uncle, Gary, suited up for during a 17-season career while the second blared with programming such as cartoons.
But the Madison native’s goal was to star at Wisconsin like his dad and uncles.
“I just wanted to play college [and] drive the Zamboni at the rink,” Suter said.
Growing up, he and his father, Bob, would travel to Badgers games on a pontoon boat, bouncing over lakes until it was time to trudge through the snow.
“Let’s take an adventure,” Bob would tell his son.
Hockey was the fabric of their bond, but Bob never pushed the game on Ryan and didn’t mention the prospect of advancing to the best league in the world.
And yet that’s exactly where Ryan Suter ended up, with the 33-year-old defenseman set to appear in his 1,000th NHL game Thursday at Xcel Energy Center when the Wild plays host to the Los Angeles Kings — a journey into the sport’s lore that while unplanned has been nothing short of rewarding.
“I’m very blessed to be able to have the type of career I’ve had,” Suter said, “and to have as much fun as I’ve had.”
Drafting a new dream
Paul Fenton first scouted Suter as a 17-year-old.
The then-director of player personnel for the Nashville Predators was preparing for the 2003 draft. When he studied Suter with the under-18 squad for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, the evenness to Suter’s game — along with a quiet competitiveness — stood out.
With that draft class loaded with talent, Fenton observed Suter closely to ensure he was making the right decision — even when USA Hockey officials suggested fellow blue liner Mark Stuart was the one he should be monitoring.
“‘Why aren’t you telling me to watch Suter instead?’ ” Fenton asked.
It wasn’t until later that others saw what Fenton already had identified.
“I thought he was the best defenseman in the draft, and we needed to build that [Predators] franchise knowing that he was probably going to play 15 years,” said Fenton, who reunited with Suter last offseason when Fenton was tabbed to take over for the fired Chuck Fletcher as the Wild’s general manager. “That was the whole intention of drafting him at that point.”
And once Suter’s name was called seventh overall by Nashville, that’s when it finally dawned on him that hockey could be his livelihood.
“I realized that this could be an option,” he said.
Rewriting the record books
After one season at Wisconsin and another in the minors, Suter graduated to the NHL in 2005 and hasn’t left since.
The bulk of his 999 games are registered with the Predators, at 542, but he is poised to be remembered most as a member of the Wild after he and winger Zach Parise signed matching 13-year, $98 million contracts on July 4, 2012, to join the franchise.
Before the switch, Suter already had established himself as a premier defenseman. He logged heavy minutes, was a setup specialist with a smooth outlet pass and didn’t relinquish much in his own end.
But when he debuted with the Wild, Suter’s profile skyrocketed and his value only seemed to grow. The Wild has yet to miss the playoffs since Suter’s arrival.
“You realize as the years go on that you can play in the league,” Suter said, “and you get more comfortable.”
In his first season in Minnesota, Suter was named a first-team NHL All-Star and finished second in James Norris Memorial Trophy voting for the league’s best defenseman.
He holds franchise records for points (262), assists (223), power-play assists (85), power-play points (100), shots (905), plus-minus (plus-69) and average ice time (28:01) for a defenseman.
Last week, Suter became the sixth active, 65th all-time and 11th United States-born defenseman to tally 500 points.
And since entering the league, he sits second among active blue liners in assists (423), third in games played and fifth in scoring and time on ice per game (25:06).
“He doesn’t get anywhere near the accolades that he deserves to get for what he does,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said.
What will get tougher to overlook as Suter’s career progresses is the economical style that he credits for sparking his longevity.
Even now, Suter reminds himself every time he rounds the net about the importance of a clean first pass. It’s what fuels his effectiveness, and that combined with his hockey IQ and mobility is what helps him avoid the wear and tear on his body from collisions.
“You never see him in a vulnerable spot,” Parise said. “He plays his game with his head up and doesn’t take a lot of contact. He’s smart about the way he plays the game — efficient — and that leads to the type of player he is and getting to 1,000 quickly.”
It wasn’t until he slammed his right ankle into the boards March 31 against the Stars after getting hit, shattering his talus and the outside of his right fibula, that Suter missed action with the Wild because of injury.
The damage to his leg was so severe that Suter, who set a personal best and the franchise record for assists for a defenseman with 45 in 2017-18 and tied his career high in points with 51, was told not to expect to be ready for the start of this season. But he enjoys proving people wrong and resumed his post as the team’s top defenseman in time for Game No. 1.
“He’s stagnant, waiting for something to happen like a shark,” Fenton said. “Then all of a sudden, it’s, ‘Boom.’ He’s going, and he’s able to react to everything.”
Quality over quantity
The statistics and praise aren’t why Suter skates in the NHL.
He wants to get his hands on a Stanley Cup, but it’s the process that he relishes — the banter in the locker room, tossing a football around before puck drop and catching up with the equipment staff.
And what he’s most proud of has nothing to do with hockey.
It’s his wife, Becky, and their four children, who will be recognized alongside Suter on Saturday in a ceremony at Xcel Energy Center before the Wild takes on the Avalanche.
As much as this 1,000-game plateau is about what Suter has accomplished on the ice, it’s also symbolic of everyone meaningful off it and their contributions to the feat.
It’s the support from his family when he’s on a road trip, the time invested by his mom, Diane, when he was a kid and the 17-hour, round-trip drive Bob — who was part of the 1980 U.S. “Miracle on Ice” Olympic hockey team and died in 2014 of a heart attack — would make to watch Suter play in Nashville.
“It takes everybody,” said Suter, an ambassador for Ronald McDonald House Charities Upper Midwest and owner of the Madison Capitols in the United States Hockey League. “That’s the biggest thing.”
In the midst of his 14th season, Suter likely will achieve more milestones — perhaps even the most games played by a defenseman in NHL history. Dressing for every regular-season game left on his contract would put him at 1,565, not too far behind Chris Chelios’ 1,651-game record.
“That’s who I look at him as,” Fenton said. “When you watch how efficient he plays the game, it’s eerily similar.”
But how many games Suter logs is insignificant to him.
What matters is what he does with them.
“I never expected to even play,” he said. “So now that I’m here, it’s just another game and the ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup. That’s the motivation I have. It’s not motivated to play 1,000 or 1,100 or 1,200 or whatever it is. It’s to win now, and that would be a pretty special thing.”