Raising a special-needs child has brought challenges and joy to Darryl Sutter
None of this, his parents were told, would ever happen.
On March 30, 1993, Darryl and Wanda Sutter welcomed their third child to the world. Within hours, doctors delivered some devastating news. Chris had serious health issues. He probably wouldn’t live long. If he did, the boy would be blind and deaf and would most likely have to spend his entire life in an institution.
``Basically the doctors said, `You should give him up, the state will take care of him,''' Sutter said.
No dice, certainly not with a Sutter. If there’s one thing more important to a Sutter than winning hockey games, it’s family. That mentality comes from growing up among a group of nine -- father Louis, mother Grace and seven brothers -- on Alberta farmland. Give up on a child? The doctors didn’t know the Sutters.
When six members of one family become NHL players, there’s an undeniable will and perhaps a certain stubbornness, in a positive sense. Darryl Sutter’s biggest triumph, though, has nothing to do with hockey. It’s the fact that, against massive odds, he and his wife have been able to raise a healthy, happy son.
Chris Sutter was born with the form of Down syndrome known as Trisomy 21, a genetic disorder that, to various extents, impacts a child’s mental and physical development. Darryl Sutter is a hockey lifer -- he has been involved in the league, in some form, for 30 of the past 32 years, most recently as the Kings’ coach -- but for the past 19 years, every career decision he has made has been focused around Chris. Darryl Sutter has managed to find that delicate balance between being a hockey man and a family man.
``It’s a blessing for us,’’ Sutter said of raising Chris. ``It’s been everything and more. It’s awesome. It keeps everything in perspective. All these little problems that you think you have, it puts it all in place. All you have to do is talk to Chris or spend time with Chris. He can level the playing field out, just like nothing.’’
It’s fair to say that Darryl Sutter lived something of a charmed life for his first 34 years. Part of one of the most famous families in hockey history, Sutter played parts of eight seasons in the NHL with Chicago -- including a stint as the Blackhawks’ team captain -- and after some seasoning in the American Hockey League, Sutter became the Blackhawks’ head coach in 1992, five years after he retired as a player.
Darryl and Wanda had two children, son Brett and daughter Jessie, and late in the 1992-93 season, Wanda was set to give birth again. She did on March 30, when the Blackhawks happened to be in the middle of a stretch in which they were home for a week. The timing proved to be fortuitous.
The elation of the birth quickly got tempered by the news of Chris’ condition. As the Blackhawks pushed toward the Stanley Cup playoffs in the following weeks, Sutter merely hoped his son would live.
``A lot of Down syndrome kids also have so many other issues,’’ Sutter said. ``We went through the whole medical thing with Chris. He had heart surgery when he was a baby, and multiple ear surgeries. He had heart surgery when he was less than two weeks old. They told us he wouldn’t live and that we should institutionalize him and all these things. We went through the whole gamut, of `live, not live.’
``They told us he would be blind and deaf. He wasn’t supposed to live. They gave him so much, and such powerful, bursts of oxygen for four or five days. They thought the power of the oxygen would make him blind and deaf. He’s had multiple ear surgeries, and bones put in his ears. His eyes, one is average and one is real bad. But that’s still way better than what they told us.’’
Chris pulled through, but that only marked the beginning of the family’s issues. The life of a hockey coach is nomadic and, in many ways, does not dovetail with the life of a parent of a Down syndrome child. A special-needs child such as Chris requires far more attention, particularly in the early years.
Sutter took over as Chicago’s head coach in 1992, but three years later, Sutter reached a crossroads. He had just led the Blackhawks to the Western Conference Finals, but given Chris' condition, the Sutters had reached a critical point. They needed a long-term plan for Chris’ development, in terms of where he would live and the type of education and therapy he would receive in his formative years.
With a heavy heart, Sutter walked away from the Blackhawks and announced his resignation. The Sutters went back to the family farm near Viking, Alberta, having decided to put Chris’ best interests first. Sutter’s primary job became driving Chris to therapy sessions three times a week, a 50-mile drive each way.
``When Chris was born, I think it changed our family’s life forever,’’ Sutter said. ``What normally happens is, with parents and children, the children grow up and move away. We knew that that was family-altering for us, because it changed that family situation. You think, as (husband and wife), when you get older that you want to do this or you want to do that, but with Chris, it’s like a threesome. It’s everything you do. You don’t go anywhere without Chris. That’s just the way we are, and it’s a commitment we made when he was born, that we would do everything we could to maximize him out.
``If that meant us one of us, or both of us, always being there with him, then that’s the decision we made. So from a family standpoint, that’s how we look at it. We also look at it as not just maximizing his potential, but allowing him to do what he wants to do. If he wants to live on the farm, then we’re going to live on the farm. If he wants to go to college, then we’re going to go where he wants to go. That sort of thing. It’s had a big impact on my career, where I’ve went.’’
Sutter left Chicago, and what he called his ``dream job,’’ with the thought that his days behind an NHL bench were done forever. At the time, few would have guessed that less than two years later, Sutter would be coaching the San Jose Sharks, but the timing and the connections made for a good fit.
By the fall of 1997, Chris had turned 6 and was starting schooling. The Bay Area, Sutter said, is ``world-renowned for (Down syndrome) services,'' which would give Chris a good educational base. Plus, the Sharks’ GM was a young fellow named Dean Lombardi, who happened to be the son-in-law of Bob Pulford, who had been Sutter’s general manager with the Blackhawks.
``I left Chicago to go back (to Alberta) because we thought we wanted him to be on the farm and just for us to be with him,’’ Sutter said. ``(Chris) was at the stage of development where we could get him into everything we wanted (in San Jose). Just being able to do that, that was a huge part of me making the decision.’’
Sutter got fired 24 games into the 2002-03 season, but just weeks later was employed again, as the Calgary Flames hired him as head coach. Again, the move fit with Chris, as it allowed the family to return to Alberta, with a built-in support system and familiar surroundings, just a four-hour drive away from Viking.
Chris became a fixture around the Saddledome and lived the dream of any young hockey fan. He hung Jarome Iginla’s poster on his bedroom wall and also got to hang out with Iginla in the locker room. When the Flames faced a tough game in the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals, Sutter brought Chris in the locker room to run a team meeting. Players loved Chris’ intense, motivational chat, and they won the game.
Sutter’s eight-year run in Calgary, first as coach and then as general manager, ended in December 2010, but once again, he didn’t stay unemployed very long. Last December, Lombardi -- now the Kings’ GM -- fired Terry Murray and called Sutter to see if he would be interested in a return to the bench.
Sutter’s official hiring with the Kings took a few extra days to get announced, in part because he had promised Chris that he would tend to a project at home. Even for a new job, in the middle of the season, working again under his good friend Lombardi, Sutter put Chris first.
With Chris set to finish high school in June, he is spending most of his time this season in Calgary -- the Sutters had a birthday party for Chris on Tuesday night -- but has also made a couple trips to Los Angeles.
Sutter said Chris will move full-time to Southern California in the fall, but the nine years in Calgary have served the son well. There are no complications in his health, and in fact he’s so strong that he’s a regular participant in Special Olympics events. Farm life suits the Sutters, and Chris is no exception.
``It’s been the right time for him,’’ Sutter said. ``He’s got his own horse and stuff. And that’s really good for him, so he can ride. You can let him loose with an old truck or the tractor out in the field, things like that. You can give him chores, give him purpose. That’s what they want, is to have purpose.
``He’s doing stuff now. He’s learning how to play the guitar. That’s his thing. He wants to play guitar at his brother’s wedding this summer. I said, `Good luck, Chris.’ [laughs] He plays in church, though. He plays the guitar. He’s got no fear of anything. His self-confidence is high. If he saw you working, he’d want to help you. If he met you and was comfortable with you, he’d want to help you do this story. That’s the way he is.’’
Sutter is well-known in the hockey world for his gruff demeanor, even though in personal situations he can be kind, loose and humble. Nothing brings out Sutter’s personality, though, like discussing Chris. His narrow, piercing eyes take on life, and he grins and belly-laughs when he recalls moments he has shared with Chris.
``He phoned me,’’ Sutter said, then altered his voice. ```This is the assistant trainer of the Los Angeles Kings, calling for Darryl Sutter.’ It just makes your whole night. He’s trying to cover up (his voice), but you know who it is, right? `This is the assistant trainer.’ I’m just dying laughing. It’s awesome.’’
When Sutter first returned to Calgary, in mid-January, he joked about Chris’ mixed emotions, how Chris couldn’t decide whether he wanted to hang out with his dad or with his uncle Brent -- who coaches the Flames -- and some of his old friends in the Calgary locker room.
A couple weeks later, though, Chris seemed to have his loyalties settled. Visiting Los Angeles, Chris walked around STAPLES Center wearing a black Kings jersey with his name on the back. Sutter said his son has even become so bold as to wear the jersey in enemy territory, in Calgary.
``This year he graduates from high school, which is a big thing for us,’’ Sutter said. ``He has his formal pictures, and then he has his pictures where you can do whatever you want. You know what he’s doing it with? A Los Angeles Kings jersey. It will be awesome. The school he goes to, it’s all Flames. He will be so proud of that.
``It’s just those things that make it all special. He’s got it all mapped out. He knows when the playoffs start. With his whole schedule, his plan is to get back here for the first round. He wants to go see his brother at Easter, so he’s going there for a week, to Charlotte. So he’s got that all planned.’’
Sutter knows better than to assume anything. Growing up in rural Canada, it’s safe to say he never thought his hockey life would take him to San Jose and Los Angeles, and that along for the ride would be a son who would be both challenging and rewarding. Sutter has learned to accept and enjoy whatever comes his way, thanks to Chris.
``It’s awesome and it’s good,’’ Sutter said. ``The biggest thing that we’ve learned -- because we’ve always been a close family -- the biggest thing you learn is about people who actually volunteer and work with special-needs people. They are gifted, special people. It’s always the last thing and first thing I tell people, is that to volunteer for stuff like that, it’s a gift. It’s hard enough, just as a parent, to deal with some of the stuff, but to see those people who volunteer or who go to school to do stuff like that, they’re special.
"It’s not lucrative or anything. It’s rewarding. I even run into people here, in Manhattan Beach. I was shopping and met and a girl and her mom. She was two years younger than Chris. I visited with her and told her about Chris. It’s just awesome to connect with people like that.
``As long as I’m here (in Los Angeles), he will be here. We’re looking into things that we can get him involved in here. He’s a Special Olympics guy and takes part in a lot of stuff, so we want to make sure he can do that. … You can find special-needs classes, for life skills. We will find something here. That’s what we do.’’
A few weeks back, FS West and Bob Miller sat down with Sutter – that three-part interview is below:
Also, here is the latest edition of Tenay Talk, which features Sutter and his family.