EDMONTON — Brandon Sutter rubs his stubbled chin and mulls over his lot here in Edmonton this fall. A 770-game NHL vet on a professional tryout, trying to catch the coach’s eye the way he did at those summer hockey schools back in Sylvan Lake, Alberta, when he was a kid.
“I got on the ice, I was skating around with (Adam) Erne and a couple of coaches, and I said, ‘This is just like peewee tryouts, right?’”
A Sutter on training camp ice in September. For the past 40 years in Alberta, it’s been as natural a sight as a gaggle of geese landing in a freshly harvested barley field.
Not, however, for Sutter these past two years, as Long COVID took away one of the two things a Sutter man is born to do: Skate and farm.
“I’m just happy to have my life back,” he said. “It’s been a long road, but I’m happy first and foremost to be back to being a normal dad again, a normal husband again.”
Sutter arrives in Edmonton as one of the last of the second-generation hockey family to do something that has never been done, after all these years: Play for the Edmonton Oilers.
Uncle Duane worked here as a scout, but of five brothers who came off of Lou and Grace’s Viking, Alta., farm (135 kilometres southeast of Edmonton) — and all of their collective sons — no Oilers equipment man has ever affixed a nameplate reading SUTTER to the back of an Oilers jersey.
“I go back to the ‘80s,” Brandon Sutter recalled, “when my dad (Brent) and (uncle) Duane were playing for the Islanders, and they were the dynasty. Then it switched over to the Oilers after a couple of battles against each other. I can’t explain why that is (that no Sutter has ever been an Oiler), but hopefully I can put the jersey on. It would be awesome.”
Sutter, 34, will get some pre-season games in, for sure. After what he’s been through these past two years, that alone is an accomplishment.
He got COVID like everyone else, as a member of the Vancouver Canucks. But for him, it never went away. He last played on May 1, 2021.
“The hardest part was figuring out for the longest time what was actually wrong. Once I got that kind of narrowed down, I was able to work through it. It just took a long time to get there,” says Sutter, who started feeling normal only in the past six or eight months.
Finally, he got his breath back, after “a horrible shortness of breath for about two years.”
“This summer I said: ‘In July I’m going to start skating like I normally would for a normal season.’ After about three or four weeks, I was pretty confident. Called my agent and said, ‘Start making some calls.’”
What is Long COVID? “How much time do you have,” Sutter responded.
“You hear the term Long COVID and you assume it’s something with the virus, but it’s more your immune system’s reaction to it. I was just out of sorts, and it just took a long time to figure out why,” he said. “It’s been a long road, but … I kind of decided I want to try to give it another shot. So here we are.”
But where, exactly, is “here?”
Well, the fourth-line centre job is wide open in Edmonton. But Sutter hasn’t played a game in two seasons, which prompted this summertime conversation between Oilers GM Ken Holland and Sutter.
“I said, ‘Brandon, you’re 34 years of age you haven’t played hockey for two years. You’ve had Long COVID, and you don’t really know where your game is at. We don’t really know where your game is at. But if you’re anywhere close to where you were when you were 28 or 29, you’re exactly what we need,’” Holland said. “He’s a right-shot centreman who can win draws. He’s defensive-minded. He’s a big guy. He can pitch in with some offence.
“We’ve got to watch him here over the next three weeks, and then we’ll make a decision. But if he’s anywhere close to where he was when he was in his prime, he’s exactly what we’re looking for.”
On Day 1 of camp, Sutter looked very much like he fits in.
He’s back where he’s supposed to be, where all the Sutters are supposed to be at this time of year.
In a combine, or on a sheet of practice ice.