From one of hockey’s most famous families, Ron Sutter’s shutdown expertise helped the San Jose Sharks succeed in the late ’90s.
Coming off their worst season since 1992-93, the San Jose Sharks entered the summer of 1996 in unfamiliar territory. New general manager Dean Lombardi, though, was committed to turning the Sharks into a championship contender. It was a long-term plan, however — and one of Lombardi’s first steps was to sign veterans to guide his young talent, veterans like Ron Sutter.
Accepting a New Challenge
After spending the first nine seasons of his career with the Philadelphia Flyers, Ron Sutter would play the next three in St. Louis before playing the next three for as many teams.
“Well, I saw some similarities in the direction of both [the Sharks and Bruins],” Sutter began. “Coming off some personal success in Boston, I knew I could add or bring the same to the Sharks.”
A late-season signing, Sutter had scored 12 points in just 18 games in Boston.
Blood Thicker Than Water
Sutter, however, was not able to replicate his Beantown scoring success in the Bay Area, settling into a key defensive role on the 27-47-8 San Jose Sharks.
Out as head coach was Al Sims; in was Ron’s older brother, Darryl. Believe it or not, this was not the first time that Ron played for one of his brothers.
“I was really excited for that opportunity,” Ron Sutter noted. “I knew that after having that one year in San Jose, bringing in someone with Darryl’s experience, and being a respected coach, I knew it wouldn’t be a problem playing for him. I had already played for Brian and having Darryl already coached my other brothers [Brent and Duane] in Chicago, I knew it would work.”
Nepotism, then, was a non-issue with the Sutters. Better yet, it was intolerable.
As was the case both in St. Louis and Chicago, Ron and Darryl made it clear that they were only brothers away from the rink. At the rink, it was strictly a player-coach relationship.
“I knew what was expected of me being a veteran player and on game days, Darryl was my coach; non-game days, he was my brother, then my coach,” the younger Sutter explained.
An Enjoyable Ride to More Success
As for the team itself, the San Jose Sharks got better in each of Ron Sutter’s four seasons in Northern California. In fact, the Sharks made the playoffs in each of Ron’s final three seasons with the club, advancing past the first round in 2000 — the first time the team had done so since 1995.
Over the course of his tenure in San Jose, Ron reflected on how enjoyable it was to be part of an ever-improving team.
“We had a really good mix of character veterans and some up-and-coming star players in Owen Nolan, Jeff Friesen, Patrick Marleau,” the Viking, AB, native said. “So, being around that group — the older guys and the young guys — made it really easy and fun to come to the rink every day just to work and to see the progression that was made with the team. Being able to be part of a culture change was huge.”
While Dean Lombardi definitely deserves credit for this change, no doubt Darryl Sutter does too.
“Just the identity that Darryl brought to the team and that veteran presence that the veterans had and trying to help the younger guys in what it took to win was great,” Ron said of his brother’s contributions to the Sharks. “It was really important. So, those were some of the best memories: To see the progression and how the team improved.”
As mentioned, the Sharks got past the first round in 2000.
They had entered the 2000 playoffs as the eighth-seeded team in the Western Conference, facing Ron’s old team, the St. Louis Blues. But, the 1999-2000 season was a particularly special one in the Gateway City as the Blues finished first in the entire NHL with 114 points, leading many to believe that they were favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
The Sutters and the Sharks, however, had different plans as they ousted the heavily-favored Blues in seven games.
“I think being the eighth-seed and knocking out St. Louis in the first round in St. Louis was great,” a modest Ron recalled. “So, that was huge.”
When he joined the San Jose Sharks in 1996, Ron Sutter was entering a fairly unpleasant situation with a team who was, for all intents and purposes, one of the NHL’s bottomfeeders. It wouldn’t remain that way for long, though, and the better the Sharks got on the ice, the better things were off the ice.
“We did a great job in keeping the group tight,” Sutter remembered. “We had great team-gathering parties and it was just fun all around. Adjusting to the climate and not having the snow that you were used to in the other cities I played in made it enjoyable, too. So, I think with having young families, you had guys you gravitated towards more like the Bodgers and the Granatos, the Cravens, the Gills.”
While some may have questioned him for signing with an underperforming team, Ron Sutter was thankful for his decision, and even more thankful for his career with the Sharks — a time the former centerman wouldn’t trade for anything.
“Those are the best memories that you create, not just at the rink, but the memories you create off the ice and away from the rink,” he concluded.
Holding the distinction of being the Sutter who was drafted the highest — fourth overall by the Flyers in 1982 — Ron went on to play 19 seasons and 1,093 games in the NHL. With 272 of those contests coming as a Shark, Ron Sutter established himself as a key figure in the team’s turnaround.
After San Jose, Sutter joined the Calgary Flames, where he played one season before retiring in 2002. Sutter has remained with the Flames ever since, working first as a scout, then as the club’s Director of Player Development, and now as a development coach.
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