Throughout his career behind the bench that has spanned four decades, one question has governed Calgary Flames head coach Darryl Sutter and the NHL job opportunities he’s pursued: Which city and organization would provide the best environment for his son, Chris, who has Down Syndrome.
As the Sutter family’s coaching journey has criss-crossed North America from Chicago to San Jose to Calgary to Los Angeles and, now, back to Calgary, Sutter has prioritized Chris and the support available to him.
“Our deal when he was born was to max him out,” Sutter said of his youngest child.
“It’s no different than a player, to maximize [his potential]…we always said that whatever happens, we’ll do it as three [Darryl, his wife Wanda, and Chris]. Our whole life would be three. We wouldn’t go anywhere unless all three of us could go.”
After a couple of years leading the Blackhawks, Sutter resigned following the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season and the family returned to their farm in Viking, Alberta, because he wanted to spend more time with Wanda and Chris. Other coaching offers came up, but Sutter declined. Then the San Jose Sharks reached out and he returned to coaching in the 1997-98 season, two years after leading the Blackhawks to the Western Conference Final against the Detroit Red Wings.
“It had to be the right situation,” Sutter said.
“California at that time was lights out for Down Syndrome, in terms of facilities and medical care and education.”
Sutter coached the Sharks for parts of six seasons until the Flames called midway through the 2002-03 campaign. He already knew of the first-rate treatment and support facilities for Down Syndrome in Calgary, so he accepted the role behind the bench and later took on general manager duties for several seasons.
Gerry Wood, a Flames co-owner at the time, also had a child with Down Syndrome and started The PREP Program, a facility in the city that supports kids with special needs.
“We knew we were going to be really well taken care of, so I came here,” Sutter said.
“It’s about ownership and city.”
After eight years in Calgary, Sutter returned to the familiar environment of California where he led the Los Angeles Kings to two Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014 before retiring from coaching in June of 2018 to return to the family farm in Viking.
Now, after serving as an advisor with the Anaheim Ducks in 2019-20, Sutter is again back coaching in Alberta. He was hired by the Flames last March and has led the team to first place in the Pacific Division in 2021-22 in his second stint with the franchise.
These days, the Flames faithful in the Saddledome are loud and energized, and the Sutters – dad Darryl and son Chris – are a big reason why.
Several times a night, while Darryl manages the bench, Chris is featured on the jumbotron dancing. The Flames faithful love it. The elder Sutter, however, is focused on the game at hand.
“I’ve never looked at it,” Sutter grinned.
“I just think my responsibility is to coach. I don’t have to look at Chris to see him dance. I’ve seen him dance enough.”
Chris is a big Flames fan and counts centre Mikael Backlund as one of his favourite players. He watches games closely, and often gives his dad Darryl suggestions.
“He’ll do lineups for me and say, ‘This is who you should play with where,’” Sutter said.
“He has his own rating system. He’s got a zero, one, two system and take the game sheets and rate every player. If we’re at home, he’ll wait up after the game and he’s ready to do his ratings with me.”
Darryl, the doting father, is proud of Chris and the person he has become and the milestones he has achieved.
“I’m proud of the way he handles, and how proud he is of what he can do,” Sutter said.
“Everything we set out and planned for Chris, you have to do it in a real honest way. He’s done all that. He’s gotten to every point that he could. When we first started out, we called it development, but now it’s just his life. Everything that we’ve laid out for him or that we’ve tried to do with him, he’s gotten to. The only thing that’s slowed him down is COVID. It’s taken away all the social stuff and interaction, and that’s starting to come back.”
On Wednesday, the Sutter family will celebrate Chris’s 29th birthday.
The Flames skate in the morning. After that, there will be bowling and pizza.
“We have Boston Pizza gift cards,” Sutter smiled.
“That way, he thinks he pays because he uses his gift cards.”