A row of six grain elevators guards the railway line in Viking, Alberta. The visual impact is staggering: six towering verticals after a hundred miles of horizontals. Gray highway. Green farmland. Flat, blue sky. Viking, Alberta—the Crossroads Town with a Future.
Nine miles outside Viking a gravel road crosses Highway 14. Take a left there, cross the railroad tracks, and the first farm you'll pass is the Sutter place. You'll spot the big red barn first and then the tidy white farmhouse with the blue roof. A full 640-acre section—pigs, cattle, chickens, barley, wheat, bright yellow rapeseed, raspberries and a few cows.
Brian Sutter nods toward the driveway. "Going out to catch the school bus, we'd have had five fights by the time we'd get to the end of that lane," he says. "I can remember some good ones. No broken bones, but lots of bloody noses."
From the look on his face, these are pleasant memories. Brian, 23, is the acknowledged leader of the seven Sutter brothers, the first of them to make it to the NHL and the toughest of a notoriously tough lot. The Sutter boys. Or "those Sutters," as they say in Viking, with civic pride rather than jealousy or awe. Those Sutters stand out from their surroundings just as clearly as those grain elevators.
Aug. 2, 1980, the day of 22-year-old Darryl Sutter's wedding, was the first time in four years all seven boys would be together on the farm. Hockey does that to families, with schedules being played right through the holidays, and the Sutters are a hockey family. Brian, Darryl and Duane, 20, have NHL contracts; Gary, 25, is a Tier Two Junior coach in nearby Vegreville; Brent, 18, and the 16-year-old twins, Richard and Ron, play Tier One Major Junior hockey over in Lethbridge. There are no daughters. Grace, the boys' indefatigable mother, somehow has brought her sons up to be gentlemen. Off the ice, anyway. "You'd think with seven boys there'd be one bad apple," says a friend. "Still, sometimes I feel sorry for Grace. She can never sit down and talk about...I don't know...making a cake. It's always hockey, hockey."
Hockey has long lent itself to family acts. Five of the top seven goal scorers in NHL history—Gordie Howe, Phil Esposito, Bobby Hull, Maurice Richard and Frank Mahovlich—had brothers who played in the league; Howe even played on the same NHL team with his two sons. Hall of Fame brother pairs include Bun and Bill Cook and Doug and Max Bentley. Four Boucher siblings played in the NHL: Frank, George, Billy and Bob. Perhaps it is because kids' hockey, played on frozen ponds and sloughs, is a sport in which younger brothers are encouraged to come along. There are no left-out positions that are an embarrassment to play, as there are in baseball. Whether one touches the puck or not, the simple act of skating is fun, exhilarating, worth the frustration of being stickhandled around. And there is the thrill of literally filling your brother's shoes—skates hand down very nicely—so that the younger sibling can say to himself, "Here he was; there I'll be," as he watches the progress of the elder.
But there are more tangible factors in this brother-act business, one of which is that the best way to get a good look from a scout is to be part of a proven bloodline. After Duane Sutter played a major role in the New York Islanders' march to the Stanley Cup last spring, scoring a key goal in the final game, brother Brent became the Islanders' surprise first-round draft choice. "There's no question that we considered genes before selecting Brent," says Islander General Manager Bill Torrey. "The NHL's Central Scouting office didn't have him listed as first-round material. But with his family's competitive instincts, we thought we could take a chance."
Competitiveness is the dominant trait in the Sutter pedigree. Determination. It goes back at least as far as 1848, when a 44-year-old Swiss immigrant named John Augustus Sutter—great-great-uncle of the current crop—changed the course of U.S. history when gold was discovered at his sawmill. The California Gold Rush ensued. Sutter was eventually swindled out of his holdings and was bankrupt by 1852. But was he discouraged? No way. He moved to Pennsylvania, and until his death at the age of 77 he fought the government for compensation for his losses. "The Sutter trademark is hard work," says a former teammate of Brian's. "When you get knocked down you get back up. And you don't back down from anybody."
A Sutter skates and works like a mule. He doesn't dazzle; he's not fluid or pretty to watch; his speed and shooting skills are, at best, average. But a Sutter is the type of player that NHL coaches are turning to more and more, the type referred to as "honest." A Sutter will take a hit instead of giving up the puck, and a Sutter will dig and check in the corners. Most important, a Sutter will do anything to win. Former Montreal Goaltender Ken Dryden has characterized this "honesty" as the outstanding trait of North American players. He may lack the skating, shooting and passing sophistication of his European counterpart, but somehow he will find a way to win. Call it New World optimism. Work hard enough and you can do anything.
A half mile from the Sutter farmhouse, beyond the wheatfield, is the slough where the boys skated as kids. "After school in the winter, if there was a full moon, three guys would go shovel the ice while the other guys did the chores," Brian says. "In the summer we played in the loft in the barn. We only got to town once a week, so we didn't have anything else to do."