The road to the heart of hockey’s greatest team is covered in gravel and clouded in dust.
The road is bumpy, barren, stretching out from a town with no stoplights into a vast and desolate countryside blanketed in an interminable silence interrupted by the occasional chirping from a tree or rumbling of a train.
Make a left on Range Road 120, bounce past Township Road 472, continue rattling through holes that shake tires and giant insects that splatter across windshields. Stop in front of a narrow driveway that leads back to a cluster of trees, barns and bales. Make a right turn at a metal sign stuck in a rusted wagon, its wrought-iron letters distinct and startling.
Yeah, it’s him.
Grass flattens and rocks spit as a car slowly crunches up the driveway and into a parking spot in a ditch. The door is opened into thick air cut by the twang of an accordion, laughter of children and the swatting of mosquitoes.
He’s up there on the right, sitting on the back porch of a tree-shrouded modern house, right next to his mother’s house, a few yards away from his childhood barn, the totality of his 56 years spread around him like a piece of Canadian prairie heaven.
The Kings’ king is a farmer, dressed in checkered shirt and jeans shorts, clutching a cold Molson’s in his giant hand, leaning back in a rickety lawn chair, slipping off his suede loafers, smiling as bright as the Stanley Cup, which happens to be sitting on a card table back by the horses.
“Look, shhh,” Darryl Sutter says in a loud whisper, pointing toward a buzz in grove of trees. “A hummingbird.”
That is not a quote you’ve heard in his infamously mumbled news conferences. That is not a smile you’ve seen from his infamously stern game face. This is not the Darryl Sutter who has been perceived as a distant and forbidding taskmaster while leading the Kings to two Stanley Cup championships in three years.
“Nope,” says his brother Brian during Sutter’s combination Stanley Cup celebration/potluck supper earlier this month. “This is the real Darryl.”
The Cup arrived in Viking on a Friday evening and spent the night in the bedroom of Sutter’s 21-year-old son Chris. Then, on a steamy Saturday, it embarked on a daylong tour that mirrored the life of the man it was honoring.
Understated, enduring, emotional and occasionally draped in hay.
The population of Viking, a grassy speck in central Alberta, is 1,041 people, one giant hockey stick, and one giant puck. The wooden stick and attached puck stand guard in front of the doughnut and sandwich shop at the entrance of town.
“Welcome to Viking, Home of the Sutters” it reads.
Several miles north of here, on a 3,000-acre farm, is where Louis and Grace Sutter raised one of the most accomplished families in sports history. They had seven boys, six of whom played in the NHL. Brent, Brian, Darryl, Duane, Rich and Ron combined to play nearly 5,000 games and win the Stanley Cup six times as players. Darryl is the only one to win it as a coach, but he’s famous around here not for what he did, but what he didn’t do. He didn’t leave.
“Darryl stayed on the family farm, which is what our father always wanted us to do,” Brian says. “We weren’t raised to be hockey players, we were raised to be farmers.”
Darryl stayed here, herds cattle here, drives a tractor here, works the farm like he works his hockey team. Then he hangs out in town like any other local farmer, driving into the five-block main drag most days to pick up his mail at the Java Blossom florist/coffee shop run by the wife of best friend Kevin “Weasel” Squair, then maybe making a stop at the weathered bar next to the gas station for a beer and plate of wings.
“People who aren’t from here sometimes ask me if I ever see Darryl,” says Debbie White, a longtime resident. “I’m always like, well, um, I saw him yesterday.”
If Darryl is feeling sentimental — and this is the one place where those tough eyes grow soft — he might stop by the mural on 53rd Avenue, a colorful drawing of his entire family in hockey uniforms, scrawled across the last remaining original wall of the hockey arena where he grew up playing.
It was called the Carena because it was built with money from a town car bingo. A new Carena has been built down the street, which is appropriately where Sutter begins his Stanley Cup tour in an event that perfectly illustrates the 1,800 miles from here to Staples Center.
It is advertised on two cardboard signs stuck on the ground in the middle of the town’s two main intersections. The signs read, “Stanley Cup Coming To Viking” and there are so few cars here, for two full days they remained unmoved.
The event is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Sutter shows up 15 minutes early and hauls the 34 1/2-pound Cup from an SUV into the arena. He places it on a folding table in the middle of the rink’s concrete floor. He stands alone next to it and invites townsfolk to walk up and have their picture taken with him.
That’s it. For the next three hours, that’s the entire shebang. There is no music. There is no video. There are no sponsors except for rink billboards promoting the likes of Lefsrud Seed, Kittle Farms, Viking Home Hardware.
It’s just Darryl and the Cup, yet that’s more than enough for a town that loves him, and the crowds are overwhelming. The line is stretching outside the rink when he arrives and the flow of fans is steady throughout the morning.
Wearing a polo shirt, faded jeans and scuffed boots, Sutter is clearly at home here. He stoops down to hug old women and raises his arms to lift smiling babies. He drapes his arm around shoulders and warmly pats backs. Folks are asked to give a voluntary $5 donation to local charities, but there is no limit on his conversation time, the amount of photos he will take or autographs he will sign. The temperature in the rink rises, everyone is sweating, yet Sutter just swigs down some bottled water and keeps smiling. The concrete under his boots grows more unforgiving as time passes, yet he stands for the entire three hours, staying strong for a community that once was strong for him.
“It’s good to give it back, that’s why you do this, right?” Sutter says later. “I see people today, honest to goodness, I haven’t seen them for 40 years, but it’s like, oh yeah, you connect again, it’s very cool, very special.”
Here comes Gaye Nordstrom, who once cut Darryl’s hair.
“He’s as one-of-our-own as you can get,” she says. “Oh, and he really used to have nice curly hair.”
Hey, there’s William Roeleveld, a golfing buddy who recently played with Darryl on the town’s nine-hole course in a tournament whose prizes included farm spray.
“He’s never left us, he’s never changed, he comes back and he’s just Darryl,” Roeleveld said.
Oh, and then there’s Denton and Brandi Quattek with baby Cooper. They are a young farm couple who remember looking up at their wedding and seeing Darryl sitting in the congregation.
“He’s just a normal farm boy, he’d rather talk about haying and cows than hockey,” Denton said. “One of us.”
A bunch of guys working on a grain terminal show up. The best man at Darryl’s wedding shows up. The mayor shows up. A bus driver who used to be the mayor shows up. Two families from a nearby Hutterite colony show up in colorful garb. They don’t have TVs, but they all know Darryl.
“I saw the notice in town and I thought, by golly, we cannot miss this,” Edward Walter says.
When the flow of friends seemingly finally ends, Sutter picks up the Cup and begins carrying it back to the truck when he is stopped by one last family, a father and three daughters. The table has been folded up. There is nowhere to place the Cup for a photo, and it is growing heavy in his hands, yet he poses for one more photo.
“Here,” he says to the girls, motioning them to his side. “You stand around me, I’ll keep holding this Cup, does that work?”
There are tears in the father’s eyes as he snaps the photo. Sutter just smiles, shrugs, and keeps walking out to the SUV, where he carefully places the Cup in his its case, in the trunk, and helps strap it in for the second half of its tour.
It is time to go to the family farm, which is easier said than done.
“You know how to get there?” Sutter asks a visitor. “Are you sure?”
By now, the road to the heart of Hollywood’s hockey team having already led to the most surprising of places, the answers are clearly yes and no.
The Stanley Cup has made many grand entrances in its 122-year history, but surely few have been as loudly joyful as its latest trek into the Sutter farm.
The Cup is strapped into the passenger seat of a Gator utility vehicle sitting in the Sutter driveway. At the wheel is Sutter’s son Chris, who has Down syndrome and has become beloved by Kings fans for his nightly dances and flexes on the Staples Center scoreboard.
It was Darryl’s desire to care for then-infant Chris that caused Sutter to walk away from his job as Chicago Blackhawks coach in 1995 and leave the game for two seasons. Two decades later, it is Chris who has become the star of the Stanley Cup show.
“Here we go!” shouts Chris, starting the vehicle while patting the Cup.
“What a gift,” says Darryl, talking not about the Cup, but his son.
With a howl and growl and a giant Kings flag flapping above the hood, the Gator rumbles beyond the driveway and through the grassy backyard area back toward a red barn and temporary stage. Dozens of family and friends whistle and cheer. Chris stops the Gator, steps on the stage, and starts the party.
“‘I want to thank everyone for coming to celebrate the 2014 Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings!” he shouts, and Bob Miller couldn’t have said it any better.
From this early Saturday afternoon until deep into the night, the Sutter clan will answer Chris’ call, eating brisket and potato salad and Tim Horton doughnuts off paper plates, drinking Molson’s out of silver cans and whiskey out of red paper cups, laughing and hugging and toasting.
All the Sutter brothers are here. All the Viking neighbors are here. Somebody stuck a spray-painted wooden sign in the driveway informing everyone that this was a private party, but the line of parked cars along the adjoining gravel road eventually seems to stretch for a mile, and inside the farm are several trailers housing more Sutters and such.
“You have to understand, we have sort of a loose definition of family,” said brother Brian.
It is Darryl’s show, but, typically, it has seemingly has little to do with Darryl. He doesn’t give a speech. He doesn’t stand in a spotlight. There are never any cheers just for him. At one point he sneaks around the back of the barn and allows friends to pour freezing water on him and the Cup as part of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, but he doesn’t advertise it.
The culture of humility and unselfishness that he has fostered in the Kings is not a hockey strategy, it’s his life. He’s a Canadian farmer who leaves his spread every winter for this little hockey job down south. No more, no less. He glides easily among groups of friends wearing farm caps and others wearing golf shirts. He settles into clusters of elderly women sitting on lawn chairs decorated in maple leafs. He laughs at the young men trying to use a Frisbee to knock a beer bottle off a stake. He even takes time to hug a young local girl who showed up in a New York Rangers cap and jersey. Despite some raised eyebrows, he tells her not to worry about changing clothes because, after all, she is among friends.
“I wish more people could see him here,” says his wife, Wanda. “Because this is who he is.”
The entertainment here consists initially of Wanda and her sister soulfully playing guitar and singing songs like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Jolene.” The stage is occupied by a three-piece band highlighted by the guy with the accordion. It might not be Hollywood, but it’s all Viking.
“The way Darryl is, that was instilled in us from the day we were born,” said brother Duane. “We were raised to be humble and work hard and, while you had an inner confidence, it wasn’t anything you boasted about.”
Darryl spent his early childhood in a farmhouse down the road with no electricity or running water. But his family moved to this spread when he was in elementary school, and it’s where his most vivid memories remain.
The red barn of his childhood is still here, and so is the cramped wooden hayloft where the Sutter brothers learned the game. They would play floor hockey up there during the summer, with goals occurring when the puck flew out through an open door and dropped 10 feet down into a pasture. Sometimes the Sutter boys themselves would fly through those doors. Never would they want to be the first one to quit.
“It was so hot up there, I think that’s why we all ended up being such skinny little hockey players,” recalls Darryl.
Today the darkened space is filled with straw bits and bird droppings. But leaning against a wall in one corner, covered in cobwebs, there remains a handful of ancient hockey sticks. This is not some intentionally constructed museum-type display. The Sutter boys simply left their sticks there one day before leaving for professional hockey, and nobody has moved them since.
Sutter’s other memories here are just across the yard from the barn, in his mother Grace’s home, where she has lived for 27 years. She asks visitors to remove their shoes if they want to accompany her down into a basement that looks like a high school kid’s bedroom, with faded trophies and photos and mementos filling every wall.
On this day some of the grandchildren have left toys strewn across the carpet. Grace shows that Sutter feistiness by picking up the toys while saying, “I’d like to give whoever did this a whipping!”
She is proud of this room, which is filled with everything from ancient and dusty hockey clocks to a hockey painting of two New York Islanders and one Chicago Blackhawk done by Darryl when he was in fifth grade. Hanging nearby is another piece of Darryl’s childhood art, a burlap painting of Tony Esposito.
“I still draw today,” he says. “Only it’s all Xs and O’s.”
Several years ago, when Darryl decided he wanted to build a permanent home on this farm, his mother suggested several more picturesque sights in the far corners of the property. Darryl said no, he would build his house right next to hers.
“That let me know that all our years of hard work on this piece of land were not in vain,” Grace says. “My son Darryl may be a man of few words, but what he says has meaning.”
His brothers joke about Sutter’s lack of verbosity at his famously short Kings news conferences. Their favorite line from this spring was when he responded to a question about his message to his team after its Game 6 loss to Chicago in the Western Conference finals.
“When he said, ‘Fly at 11,” that was just perfect, that was pure Darryl,” Duane says. “What’s he going to do, rip into his team in that situation? His answers are more than hilarious, they’re truthful.”
Sitting on his back porch late in on this Saturday afternoon, his Cup party headed toward an eventual late-night family gathering around a bonfire, a relaxed Sutter’s words come easier.
“This life is blue collar, grass roots, straightforward, get it done, not a whole lot of B.S. involved in it,” he says. “This is how we were raised and why we come back.”
He says the Stanley Cup isn’t about sports, but family.
“This is a tight group and, quite honestly, we haven’t had a wedding this summer,” he says. “This Stanley Cup is like our wedding.”
He is told that his mother was thankful he decided to stay, and he smiles.
“Since I was a little boy, this is where I wanted to build a house ... in the rural communities,” he says. “Most of these farms are going away, but I was the other way, I want this to never go away.”
He says that, instead of taking him away from hockey, this farm actually constantly reconnects him with the game.
“I do a lot of good hockey thinking out there by myself on the tractor,” he says. “It clears everything in your head. It’s a peaceful thing.”
He is asked about the influence of the farm on his approach to the Kings, and he shrugs.
“Well, you think about it, seven boys ... we were raised almost like a team, we sort of lived it,” he said. “The [Kings] players know now, when they come in, there is a threshold of teamwork they have to meet. You have to create and build that, you can’t just go and say it, otherwise everybody would do it.”
This farm is indeed where the Kings’ belief system was built. This family was indeed how their culture was created. Darryl Sutter urges his guest to have a beer, makes certain he can find his way back into town, then turns away to look for the hummingbird.
Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @billplaschke