When I heard that Bob Suter had died, a dozen thoughts ran through my head. Almost all of them were covered brilliantly by A in her post earlier this week. Meeting him at his store and meeting him at the Team Cheerios breakfast were among the best moments of my life at a time in which it wasn’t easy to find much for us to hold on to. We were scared, battered kids in our early 20s who didn’t know if we were going to accomplish an impossible task when we fell in love with Suter and company.
Suter was our age when he became part of a moment that would follow him for the rest of his life. In some cases, I’m sure it was a blessing and yet in other cases, I get the sense he wished people would just let it go.
Herb Brooks once told his Olympic kids that they couldn’t be common men because common men go nowhere. They had to be uncommon. In my mind, however, Suter was uncommonly common in the best of all ways. As such, he reminded me of Jack Kirrane, the captain of the 1960 U.S. Hockey squad that won gold by knocking off half of the Communist Bloc at a time of increasing international tensions. He was a 34-year-old firefighter from Brookline, Massachusetts who sold his truck to pay for the plane fare to get out to the tryouts and then took a four-month unpaid leave of absence to play for his country.
After he became the toast of the town and the hero of the country, he went home and put his gold medal in a dresser drawer. He then climbed back on his fire truck and served out the remainder of his 38-year career.
If Suter had done nothing else in his life but win that gold medal, it would be more than enough for most men for 1,000 life times. Jack O’Callahan famously noted that 1980 yielded two miracles: First, the team beat the Russians and second that Mike Eruzione was still making money off the deal.
That wasn’t Suter’s way.
His obituary didn’t lead with his hockey nickname (Bam Bam) or wax poetic about his role in what Sports Illustrated called the Century’s Greatest Sports Moment. It talked about youth hockey and what he did for all those kids with half-formed ambitions to be good at a sport that saw the American player as inferior. It called him “Grandpa Bobby,” which is antithetical to those of us who can’t divorce this 57-year-old from that 20-something fireplug with a mop of golden silk hair and a desire to check every Czech out there.
His outer shell belied a softness for the young and for the game that really was inextricably woven into his life. I really got a chance to see that in Buffalo as we caught up with him after the game.
“Mr. Suter?” I called out.
He looked over at me like I was a Gopher waiting to be checked.
“I’m Drummy’s friend. You put a couple tickets aside for us and we wanted to say thank you.”
He relaxed and started talking to us. It was something that I’ll never forget and, yet, I still can’t remember what the hell he said. We talked about how the game kind of devolved after the first period. It was a charity game, so the first period was real hockey and then the ref (some local goofball) started screwing around. He forced people to shoot penalty shots with undersized or oversized sticks. He called penalties for “funny” reasons and he played to the crowd.
Every time Suter took the ice after that first period, I could see him skating harder and tougher. It was like, “Fuck this. We’re winning this game, no matter how stupid this gets.”
It was in that context that he went full speed into the corner in the final minute of the third and totaled some septuagenarian Sabre with a check that shook the arena.
I brought that up during our discussion and I remember asking, “I thought it was a no-checking game…”
He just grinned the grin I will never forget: Impish, fun-loving and completely dedicated to his craft. The way he approached that check was the way he approached life.
In thinking about the man who will be laid to rest tomorrow, I wonder if he was like The Judge in “Mystery, Alaska.” He never talked about how he played the game, he didn’t cotton to fools and yet, he was the one who would tell a little kid to make sure he held his stick a certain way. After all, you paid for the whole stick. You might as well use it.
Saturday’s memorial for the man will be held at the Alliant Energy Center’s exhibition hall, which coincidentally abuts the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the home of the Madison Capitols hockey team. It may be coincidence, but I doubt it, as Suter always seemed to be most at home when he was around the rink. Although it may be too soon to consider such a thought, I hope the hockey royalty of the Madison area name some patch of ice or venue in his honor.
The Olympic ice center in Lake Placid bears the name of his “Miracle” coach, Herb Brooks.
In Winthrop, Massachusetts, kids learn the game at the Larsen Skating Rink at the Eruzione Center.
Even Jack Kirrane has a skating rink in Brookline that pays tribute to him.
Suter deserves as much, if not more.
Maybe they could call it “Grandpa Bobby’s Pond.”