NASHVILLE – Ryan Suter called it a “weird” return to Nashville last weekend.
At dinner last Friday, 24 hours before he was set to face a hostile Bridgestone Arena crowd, Suter ran into his old neighbour from the time he lived in suburban Nashville. For the first time since being drafted in Music City in 2003, he stayed at the hotel across the street from the arena.
“That’s probably what made me most nervous, walking in there and just knowing that I’m on the other side,” he said.
On July 4th of last summer, Suter teamed up with fellow star free agent Zach Parise and took his talents to the State of Hockey. Suter and Parise signed identical 13-year, $98 million contracts with the Minnesota Wild, a simultaneous move that sent shockwaves league-wide and provided a much-needed jolt to the fan base.
Contrarily, Suter's departure from Nashville left a bitter taste with the vast majority of not only Predators fans, but the front office staff as well.
"It would be an understatement to say that the Nashville Predators are disappointed at this time. Not only am I disappointed, but very surprised," Predators general manager David Poile said on the day Suter made his decision.
Eight months have gone by since Suter and Parise darted to Minnesota and the topic still gets under people's skin in Nashville.
Suter was public enemy No. 1 last weekend, as he heard a chorus of boos every time he touched the puck throughout the game (which the Wild won 2-1 in a shootout, by the way). The Predators didn't play a tribute video for Suter's return like they did with Jordin Tootoo earlier this season, like they have done in the past for most former impact players in their first game back in Nashville.
Though venom still exists towards Suter from Nashville's end, the all-star defenceman doesn't mirror those same emotions. It was a tough weekend for Suter, who was disappointed (but understanding) of the crowd's treatment of his return. The Madison, Wisc., native spent seven seasons with the Predators and grew into an elite player at his position alongside teammate Shea Weber.
"I have a lot of great memories here. This is all I knew. Lot of good years here, lot of friends," Suter said Saturday morning. "I put a lot of thought into it and it was the right decision for me and my family and I'm happy to be where I am."
The decision by the 28-year-old to move closer to home and sign with the Wild instantly turned the fan base's frustrations into newfound hope.
The last time Minnesota qualified for the playoffs was in 2008 -- when Marian Gaborik, Brian Rolston and the late Pavol Demitra led the way offensively for a team coached by Jacques Lemaire. In the four subsequent seasons, the Wild flirted with playoff contention but ultimately fell short -- each failure adding a layer of pessimism to the fans' trust in their hockey club.
Midway through this lockout-shortened season, the Wild are contending for a division crown and has the look of a team that is going to stay in the hunt all season long. After a rocky start, they have won seven of their last 11 games.
Even if they miss out on the playoffs for a fifth straight season, Wild fans know that Suter and Parise, coupled with blue-chip youngsters, have the team on track for future success.
"It didn't take either of them long to show that their game is going to be a huge value to our team," Minnesota head coach Mike Yeo said of Suter and Parise. "More importantly, it didn't take them long to integrate with the team and provide the leadership they do on a nightly basis."
"It's definitely been a change, but I think it's gone well for the most part. I think we're both still learning and not 100 per cent comfortable, but it's getting there," Parise said of the challenge he and Suter have faced becoming co-faces of the franchise in a condensed season.
"We've come a long ways (as a team) since the beginning of the year and we still have a long way to go. We're getting there but we're learning how to do it."
As expected, Parise has been a major addition to the Wild's group up front. He leads the team with 11 goals and leads the forwards with an average ice time of 21:24, proving to be the go-to offensive threat the Wild envisioned him being right off the bat.
Suter, on the other hand, is carrying a defence corps that on paper doesn't boast a lot of talent. Not only does he lead the Wild with 17 assists, but he is tops in the NHL with an average ice time of 27:26. Despite struggling out of the gate, his all-around game should have him in the Norris Trophy conversation at this point in the season.
"Quite often when you get a guy like that you don't even quite realize how good he is," Yeo said. "When you're coaching against somebody like that, you're watching your own player. You get mad at your player when he loses the puck, but you don't see what a guy like Ryan is doing to force him to lose the puck; or you get mad at your team for not forechecking well, but you don't realize what a great play he made to break that forecheck."
When asked when he realized just how good Suter is, Parise said, "When I played with him at the Olympics. I knew he was good but I didn't realize he was that good. Now when you play with him on an everyday basis you realize how much easier he makes the game for forwards. It's so much different when you're getting the puck in stride and getting good passes on your tape, which he does all the time."
Though Suter makes everything look so easy on the ice, returning to the only place he knew for his first seven NHL seasons was anything but easy. Neither was the decision to leave Nashville for Minnesota, but Suter makes it clear he has no regrets.
"It's a great organization and I'm happy to be a part of it," he said. "We have a great future ahead of us."