Bob Suter never talked about Olympic gold medals or miracles. ‘He was always just Dad.’
If the late Bob Suter had his way, his son, Ryan Suter, wouldn’t even have known Dad was a member of perhaps the most famous team in sports history.
That part of his life was way in the past by the time his son came into the world on Jan. 21, 1985.
After a brief professional career in the early 1980s, Bob Suter returned to his hometown of Madison, Wis., and opened a sporting goods store named Gold Medal Sports.
It was an unobtrusive life all things considered, and that’s exactly how he wanted it. He was already on to the next chapter of his life at that point, grateful for everything that happened at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., but not at all consumed by it.
“He was always just Dad,” said Ryan Suter, now 35, who has had his own memorable career in hockey, won an Olympic silver medal himself in 2010, and has been the defensive anchor for the Wild since signing a 13-year, $98 million contract in July 2014. “He didn’t talk to us much about that part of his life.”
He never had to. That’s the thing about storybook endings. They live on forever through the memories of others.
Eventually, as Ryan Suter got older, he began to grasp the gravity of what his father was a part of as a member of the “Miracle on Ice” team that shocked the world by winning the gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics.
That, of course, featured a seemingly impossible win over the almighty Soviet Union team in the semifinals, followed by a come-from-behind victory over Finland two days later to finish the job.
Not that Dad ever talked about any of those moments without a little prodding.
“Most of the stuff that I found out was through other people telling me, ‘Oh, ask your dad about this. Ask your dad about that,’ ” Suter said. “Now that he’s gone, I’m hearing even more stories of how he was back in the day.”
‘A really tough day’
For the rest of his life, Ryan Suter will always remember the last time he saw his father. He was back in Madison for a wedding in September 2014. Everything seemed so normal at the time.
“I remember the wedding was on Saturday night and the whole family was together at that,” Suter said. “We forgot something at the wedding and he came over to the house to drop it off on Sunday morning.”
With the rest of his family eating breakfast inside, Suter saw his dad pull into the driveway and quickly rushed outside to say goodbye.
“He was getting into his car and he just gave me a wave,” Suter said. “I wish I would have went and given him a hug. You know what I mean? You just don’t think like that at the time.”
A couple of days later, Bob Suter was gone, tragically stricken by a heart attack at Capitol Ice Arena, the rink he built with his bare hands on the outskirts of Madison. He was 57 years old.
“We were skating at Braemar Arena getting ready for training camp when I heard the news,” Suter said, taking a few seconds to compose himself. “It was a really tough day.”
It wasn’t long before the news of his death spread to members of the 1980 Olympic hockey team. Former teammates, like Mark Johnson and Mike Ramsey, still remember the moment like it was yesterday.
“You don’t think it’s real,” said Johnson, who is now the head coach of the University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team. “You’re waiting for the next story to say it was not true.”
“It was a shocker,” added Ramsey, who went on to play more than 1,000 games in the NHL after the Olympics. “You’re numb and going, ‘No, that didn’t happen.’ And of course, it did happen. It was a reality check for all of us.”
The funeral was the following weekend, and that was really the first time Ryan Suter realized just how many people his dad impacted.
More than 4,000 people showed up at the wake. Almost everyone with his or her own personal story about Bob Suter, almost none of which had anything to do with the Miracle on Ice.
To people in Madison, he wasn’t the guy who helped the U.S. win that improbable gold medal in 1980. He was the guy who sold skates to kids at cost when they couldn’t afford them otherwise.
“He meant so much to so many people,” Suter said. “I wish he would have been able to see that. He knew that he was loved and everything like that. He just didn’t want any attention ever.”
In that moment, Ryan Suter paused, thinking perhaps it was best that his dad wasn’t there to see so many people honoring him.
“He was probably rolling in his grave, thinking, ‘What the heck are you people doing?’ ” Suter said with a laugh. “He probably would not have liked it too much.”
‘I wanted to kill him’
Ask anyone who ever played with Bob Suter and most will say he was the best teammate they ever had.
Ask anyone who ever played against Bob Suter, and most will say he was the worst opponent imaginable.
A star for the University of Wisconsin in the late 1970s, he made a living getting under his opponents’ skin with his gritty style of play.
“I remember when I would playing against him, I wanted to kill him,” said Ramsey, who played for the University of Minnesota. “He was one of those guys. He knew exactly what he was doing out there. Then when he was on my team, I loved him because I wasn’t on the other end of it.”
That’s exactly how Miracle on Ice captain Mike Eruzione remembers him, too. He once told USA Today that if he ever had to go to war, he would want “Bobby” there in the trenches next to him.
“Even though he didn’t play a ton of minutes in Lake Placid, he performed his role perfectly,” Eruzione said. “He was one of the best teammates I’ve ever played with in my career.”
His toughness, both physical and mental, was something of legend.
A few months before the 1980 Olympics, Suter broke his ankle and, according to Olympic teammate Bill Baker, was told by doctors he would be out for a couple of months.
Everyone thought there was no way Suter would make the team because of the injury. So, after a few weeks, he demanded doctors remove his cast and he joined practice the next day.
That was Suter in a nutshell, willing to sacrifice everything to help the guy next to him, yet always unwilling to boast about his personal accomplishments once that part of his life was over.
“He was as humble as anybody on that team,” Johnson said. “We had that impactful moment at a really young age and we didn’t necessarily want it to define who we were for the next 30, 40, 50 years. He made the decision that the game treated him well growing up in Madison, and he wanted to give back to the game. He just focused on doing that.”
‘A legend around town’
Ryan Suter still remembers bringing the Olympic gold medal to elementary school. He brought it in at the request of several of his teachers — like a souped-up version of show and tell — even if he didn’t understand why.
“I think I was in second grade the first time I brought it in, and I didn’t really know what it was,” Suter said. “I remember the teachers were way more excited about it than any of the kids. They were like, ‘Oh, can I take it and show the other teachers?’ And I’m like, ‘Sure, go ahead. Whatever.’ ”
The story perfectly encapsulates Bob Suter.
He was a man of the people, especially to those in Madison, so much so that he had absolutely no problem sharing what to others might have been the kind of prized possession kept under constant lock and key.
“I think the gold medal actually got stolen one time, too,” Ryan Suter recalled. “He left the car door open and someone took it. Then some people around town made some calls and whoever stole it eventually returned it. Everyone was like, ‘Hey, we can’t do that to him.’ ”
Truthfully, the person who stole the medal likely never would have gotten away with it. Not with the way Bob Suter was so revered around town. He grew up in the area, played hockey for Madison East High School, and went on to play for the University of Wisconsin. Then, when his professional career was over, he returned to his old stomping grounds to start a family.
“He’s a legend around town,” Ryan Suter said. “I think people appreciated him because he was real and he was never trying to be somebody he wasn’t.”
No doubt Bob Suter’s lasting legacy manifests itself in the form of the rink he built. Originally opened as simply Capitol Ice Arena, it has since been renamed Bob Suter’s Capitol Ice Arena.
“I think the best thing is whenever someone walks into that rink, most of the time they have a story about how Bobby helped them out,” Johnson said. “His legacy lives on, not because he won a gold medal at the Olympics, but because he always gave back to the game that was so good to him.”
That’s exactly why Ryan Suter has poured so much of himself into the rink now that his dad is gone. He wants to keep his legacy alive, and in doing so, continue to make his dad proud.
“It wasn’t ever about him,” Suter said. “He was a humble, laid-back, hard-working, blue-collar person. He was the way I want to be, the way I want my kids to be when they grow up.
“Just a perfect dad.”