Sutter poised to make history tonight

Photo: David Moll

📝 by Patrick Williams

Game number 999 of Brett Sutter’s AHL career was just another night at the rink.

The 35-year-old Calgary Wranglers forward picked up a goal, the game-winner, Tuesday at Scotiabank Saddledome in a 4-1 victory over the Ontario Reign. Worked the penalty kill. Played the same type of game that has epitomized hockey’s Sutter family for more than 40 years, grinding down opponents be it at center or wing.

But tonight will be something much different for Sutter.

AHL game number 1,000.

It will happen against Ontario, the club he helped to lead for parts of seven seasons. In his home province. For the NHL organization that drafted him in 2005, the organization where his father is the NHL head coach. In the same building where he made his National Hockey League debut on Dec. 23, 2008 — nearly 14 years ago to the day.

Sutter will join only seven other players in the AHL’s 87-year history to reach 1,000 regular-season games. The others — Willie Marshall (1,205), Fred Glover (1,201), Bryan Helmer (1,117), Harry Pidhirny (1,071), Mike Nykoluk (1,069), Jody Gage (1,038) and Rob Murray (1,018) — are all in the AHL Hall of Fame.

Helmer, now the vice president of hockey operations for the Hershey Bears, was the most recent player to reach the milestone. Coincidentally, he also played game number 1,000 at the Saddledome, in a game between his Oklahoma City Barons and the Flames’ then-affiliate, the Abbotsford Heat, in 2011.

Theirs is a select club. Only four other active AHL players — Lehigh Valley’s Cal O’Reilly, Ontario’s Cameron Gaunce, Bridgeport’s Chris Terry and Syracuse’s P.C. Labrie — have played 700 or more games. Sutter has been remarkably durable throughout his career; only once has he played fewer than 90 percent of his teams’ games in a season over a career that has also featured stops in the Carolina Hurricanes and Minnesota Wild organizations.

Sutter made his professional debut on Oct. 6, 2007, with the Quad City Flames, a 5-1 win against Rockford in which he chipped in a first-period assist.

“I just remember the excitement,” Sutter recalled. “I remember thinking after playing against young boys in minor hockey and junior, now you’re planning against men.”

Sutter had two early pro influences with Quad City, head coach Ryan McGill and assistant Scott Allen. Both are now assistants in the NHL, McGill with New Jersey and Allen with Washington.

“They both really helped shape me into the player I am and told me things I was going to have to do to be successful and to be able to play a long time” Sutter said. “Scotty, he worked with me every day after practice doing one drill or another, just preaching the things I had to do to become a good pro.”

Sutter took to McGill’s direct manner as well.

“Honesty is the best way to go about things,” Sutter continued. “You might not always like what you’re going to hear, but at the end of the day, if you take it and embrace it, it usually makes you a better player and a better person for it. I still keep in good contact with Ryan. I thought he was a great coach and is still doing really well in the NHL, so I think it kind of shows the kind of coach he is.”

For his NHL debut, Sutter joined a Flames team that included greats like Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, opposing an Anaheim Ducks lineup that featured Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer.

Of the 20 players in the Calgary lineup that night, only Sutter and current Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Mark Giordano remain active.

“Overwhelmed,” Sutter termed that first NHL experience. “Tons of excitement.”

That debut followed a hectic scramble, too. His Quad City club had dispersed for the Christmas break, and Sutter did not have his gear with him on his quick trip home to Alberta.

“The second I walked in the door, I got a call that I was going up to play the next day with Calgary,” Sutter remembered, as if he could ever forget.

The dash was on as Sutter tore through his garage hoping to find old equipment that still fit from his Western Hockey League days to avoid having to don all-new gear for his NHL debut. Whatever he found must have worked. Sutter recorded his first NHL goal when he swatted a loose puck past Ducks goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere to help take the Flames to a 4-3 win.

Back then, Sutter was a prospect pushing for his own NHL career. Now he is there to guide a core of young Flames prospects with NHL plans.

Photo: David Moll

Matthew Phillips, the Wranglers’ leading scorer who is currently on recall to the Flames, saw plenty of Sutter over the previous four seasons when the veteran was with Ontario. Now he can call Sutter a teammate.

“Awesome,” Phillips said of Sutter. “I didn’t really know him too much until this year. But he’s such a genuine guy. He’s hard-working. He’s a great teammate, and he just loves to be playing hockey.

“For the career he’s had and how long he’s been doing it, to still have the attitude and effort he does every day is pretty cool. He’s such a natural fit for a captain, and everyone loves having him.”

What makes a top-tier AHL leader? Sutter is in his ninth season as an AHL captain, wearing the “C” in Charlotte, Ontario and now Calgary. And leadership runs in the family: Brett’s father, Darryl, had captained the Chicago Blackhawks. Uncles Brent (New York Islanders), Brian (St. Louis Blues) and Ron (Philadelphia Flyers) were all NHL captains also. In the AHL, Sutter has played alongside respected leaders like Warren Peters, Peter Vandermeer, Maxime Fortunus and Vincent LoVerde. He’s been coached by Geordie Kinnear and Mike Stothers, both AHL captains during their playing days.

“I think vets have to be supportive,” Sutter said of the role. “They can’t be the kind of guy that’s going to be jealous of a kid getting an opportunity over them or getting a call-up or anything like that. You have to be willing to be a team-first guy, happy for every guy that’s on the team, and sometimes that requires some patience.

“For me personally, it’s almost a greater satisfaction seeing some of these kids succeed and move on to the next level than it was even when I was a young guy.”

When the Flames brought their top affiliate to Calgary following last season, it was a clear fit for Sutter to sign an AHL contract with the Wranglers, to bring his career nearly full-circle with the NHL organization that gave him a chance more than 17 years ago. His father guides the bench for the Flames. His younger brother Chris, a fixture around the Flames, can take in Wranglers contests too. His mother, Wanda, and sister, Jessica, complete the tight-knit family. The peace and quiet of the legendary family ranch in Viking, Alta., is only a four-hour drive from Calgary.

“All four [of them] have in one way or another been huge influences on me,” Sutter said.

Along the way, Sutter has found his own family as well. His wife Erin has been on this journey for him, as have daughters Olivia (8) and Charlotte (6), and son Bo (3). That 20-year-old rookie with Quad City is now a husband and father to three children. All of those Sutters, along with plenty of aunts, uncles, friends, and much more, will be inside Scotiabank Saddledome tonight.

“I could go on and on about a list of people that have helped me and been there for me and supported me,” Sutter said.

“[Erin has] obviously been the rock that’s kind of kept everything together. Just knowing I have [the kids’] support and being Dad’s biggest fan is something that’s pretty special in getting to play this long now. They’re going to be old enough to remember it. They’ll be old enough to remember the special night.”

While it has been special returning home, leaving Ontario, where he played a franchise-record 379 of his 999 career games and had built extremely tight relationships, wasn’t easy.

“I still have a ton of close friends [with Ontario],” Sutter explained, “and it was tough to leave there just because of the respect I have for them. But I think the chance is pretty rare for a player to play at home, to live in his own house, or the kids to be able to go to school at home and be close to all their family. It was a kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Fortunately for Sutter, the AHL schedule will allow him to have both the Reign and Wranglers sharing the ice with him tonight. And when he does step on the ice, he will take a moment or two to take in this winding path through pro hockey.

“I think it’s a good time to reflect on a lot of years and people that have helped you along the way, and the family that’s been through it with you,” Sutter said.

“To look back and enjoy some of those moments that I’ve had so far.”